My initial read on the big Tuesday in Detroit went something like this. Dave Dombrowski wasn’t planning to return to Detroit next season, and once the team folded for the season, Ilitch decided to get the transition going early, while affording Dave a chance to interview for other jobs sooner rather than later. We all had our theories, and let’s face it, none of us actually knows what happened. It was weird and the Tigers keep things close.
This afternoon, however, Dave started returning some calls to media members looking for comment and said some version of the following: 1) Ilitch only told him he wanted to go in a different direction, 2) There were no contract extension talks, 3) He found out on Tuesday before the team was told.
Dave spoke with several different reporters and basically told the same story each time. It fits with the narrative we heard from Al Avila and the brief press release from Mike Ilitch. Ilitch decided to change course and it unfolded quickly. Everyone was cordial and Dave is now a free agent.
Maybe you disagree, but I pride myself on the fact that I will give any idea a fair shake. I think I know what happened here, but let’s try and put together a story that fits the facts of the case that fits the narrative we’ve been told.
Let’s assume that Dave actually wasn’t told he was out until Tuesday. It seems like he saw this coming based on the fact that Ilitch hadn’t approached him about a new contract, or at least based on the way he was behaving prior to the decision. That’s easy enough to accept. It’s totally plausible to imagine Ilitch wanted to replace Dave. It doesn’t seem likely, but I have no difficulty accepting it as a reasonable thing.
Okay, so if Ilitch didn’t want Dave back, it makes logical sense that his firing would occur after the team called it quits for 2015. So basically this could occur any time in the week leading up to the dismissal. So far, so good. Let’s say Ilitch made the internal decision to fire him once the organization decided to sell. Let’s say that happened last Monday. Could be Tuesday, but I’m almost certain that Dave went to the clubhouse last Monday to tell the coaches they were selling. Let’s assume the ouster was written on the wall then.
So far, so good. Ilitch wants to replace Dave and he’s decided to do it now that the team won’t win a title in 2015.
Replacing him with Avila is also a plausible move. Avila is clearly a guy that’s been groomed for it, he’s worked for Ilitch forever, and we now know he was working under a deal that prevented him from taking other interviews. Clearly he was highly valued by Ilitch.
So it’s very easy to imagine a situation in which Ilitch decides to cut Dave loose around now and picks Avila to replace him. I can understand this so far.
Alright, so the thing we have to really figure out is the timing. If Ilitch decided to fire Dave, why did he leave him in place to manage the trade deadline? The main argument people have made is continuity. It would be chaos if you shook up the organization right before the deadline. Avila is capable, but it would be pretty crazy if his first few days on the job were spent trying to make huge trades with a sense of uncertainty. So it makes sense if we assume that Ilitch decided shortly before the deadline and determined that installing a new GM right before the deadline would be pretty nuts.
Okay. I can buy that. Ilitch had lost faith in Dombrowski, but he didn’t think he was incompetent. He was more than capable of trading a couple of players, which Ilitch signed off on. So he let the front office handle the deadline, and the next day he offered the job to Avila. He could have waited a few weeks to let it breath, but the big decisions were made and then it was time to start focusing on 2016, and that was going to be Avila’s job. Ilitch could have waited a few more days or a couple weeks, but so what? That’s not a big problem.
Ilitch decides he doesn’t want Dave back, so he doesn’t engage him in contract talks. He doesn’t plan to extend him, but he leaves it open until the team decides the season is over. Once that happens, his mind is made up, but it’s too close to July 31 to make the change, so he waits until that’s over to switch regimes.
Personally, it seems like Dave has earned another contract if he wanted it, and if Ilitch wanted to go another direction, installing his top lieutenant is an odd way to go, but all of that is reasonable and it fits with the story we have been told. It happened kind of suddenly, but really Ilitch had made up his mind a while ago and the actual events unfolded in a tight window. It makes sense. It’s weird, but it makes sense.
I think this is a perfectly logical theory and it’s one that fits the story we have been told. It seems less likely to me as an actual series of events than my theory about what happened, but there’s nothing about it (yet) that doesn’t fit.
But there’s one big detail that’s bugging me and there are only two ways to explain it in a way that makes it fit with this story. Both Dave and Al said that Mike Ilitch didn’t give Dave or Al an explanation beyond the fact that he wanted to go in a different direction.
This is the part of the story that doesn’t fit. The easier explanation to grapple with is that Ilitch did explain himself but neither party wanted to talk about it, so they agreed to just keep it between them. I can believe that. And it’s plausible because it doesn’t help either to air the grievances, and because if I was Al Avila I would not accept a job offer without an explanation for why my boss was just fired. Avila isn’t stupid and I’m sure he was interested in figuring out the direction the owner wanted him to take the franchise.
Okay, so that fits too, BUT you to accept that everyone is lying. That’s fine. I’m totally on board with them lying about that, but if they’re lying about that, they could easily be lying about everything. The important thing here is that this version of the story makes Mike Ilitch look like a jerk and it makes Avila look foolish. So a lie here fits with the story, but it also means the club is willing to lie to tell this story, which means if you believe this, you have to be open to the bigger lie, and that brings you into my world from yesterday.
(Note: I’m not suggesting the “lie” here is wrong or immoral. This is a private business and owes us no transparency. As long as the teams are honest with their employees, I don’t fault them for spinning)
The other explanation is that everyone is telling the truth. I guess that’s Occam’s Razor. But if everyone is telling the truth, you know what that means? Mike Ilitch is kind of a jerk and Al Avila is pretty foolish. And neither of those things fits with what we know about them. I guess it’s possible, but I have such a hard time believe that Ilitch fired Dave without an explanation after 14 years of great stewardship. Dave Dombrowski may not have earned another contract, but he certainly deserved an explanation. I know Dave said he wasn’t owed one, but he was. He did right by Ilitch and to can someone after such a long, successful tenure without an explanation is not a good way to do business.
Most people won’t remember, but you have to think it hurts Ilitch’s credibility with his other employees. Ken Holland comes to mind. Whoever is in charge of the pizza, as well. It looks bad for Mike to do Dave like this.
And boy, it seems awful foolish for Avila to get offered a job without talking to Ilitch about what Mike was unhappy with from Dave. Because, well, you know, Avila was a big part of those decisions. To get a good feel for what his job was, Avila needed to know why Dave was fired. It is totally illogical that you wouldn’t ask for an explanation and it would be unreasonable of Ilitch not to give one.
So let’s summarize a bit. Option 1: The story is wrong, and my theory from last night about Dave basically quitting holds. Option 2: The story is right, and they are lying about the explanation part. Option 3: The story is totally right.
It’s basically one of those three. The problem I have, and the reason I can’t bring myself to accept the narrative is that Option 2 seems most likely, but also kind of deflates itself. If you accept one lie, it means that the parties are willing to tell a lie about this situation and it unravels. And if Option 2 isn’t it, and then I’m right about what happened and Dave is walking a thin line between politically correct and whatever the opposite is. That also seems weird, but I guess more satisfying.
Which makes me worried it’s Option 3. If it’s #3, the story fits, but the owner and the new GM come out looking bad. And that doesn’t make you feel very good at all.
So here’s the skinny. Either something is a lie, or something went very wrong. I want to believe it’s the first, but at some point you have to wonder if it’s the second. And the second scare you a little bit, even in the wake of a terrific trade deadline that set the franchise up for future success. Everything went really well last Thursday and Friday, and the very next thing that happened may have shown flaws in the franchise’s two leaders.