Dombrowski adds Red Sox title to 1997 Marlins championship
LOS ANGELES — A man ahead of his time more than 40 years ago, Dave Dombrowski studied to become a general manager.
Going into his junior year at Western Michigan’s Lee Honors College in 1977, he started work on his thesis: “The General Manager, ‘The Man in the Middle’” and wrote letters to every GM in the big leagues.
About half responded to his questionnaire, which ended with a request for a follow-up interview, and Roland Hemond of the Chicago White Sox invited him to come to Comiskey Park.
Dombrowski asked about jobs in baseball, and Hemond suggested he go to the winter meetings in Honolulu. So Dombrowski headed to Hawaii, learned the White Sox were seeking an administrative assistant, cut short his senior year and started work Jan. 3 at age 21 after negotiating an $8,000 salary — $1,000 more than originally offered.
And with that began a career that led to a World Series title with the 1997 Florida Marlins, AL pennants with Detroit in 2006 and ’12 and a second championship with the Boston Red Sox on Sunday night.
“When you’re younger, you think that it will happen more often,” he said.
Dombrowski was hired as Boston’s president of baseball operations in August 2015, two weeks after he was fired by the Tigers in the middle of his 14th season.
Hours after Detroit made its stunning announcement, Dombrowski received a call from Red Sox owner John Henry, who bought the Marlins in January 1999 after Dombrowski had completed six seasons as Florida’s GM.
“He said, ‘Let’s talk.’ He said, ‘I’ve got some thoughts. Please don’t do anything,’” Dombrowski recalled Sunday.
Dombrowski’s 77-page paper, finished in 1978, examined running ballclubs back to the 1860s, the hiring of men to run teams for absentee owners and the creation of the GM job when Cleveland owner Alva Bradley hired Billy Evans in November 1927.
He examined the success of Branch Rickey and George Weiss, and discussed the changes brought about by the players’ union. Dombrowski correctly predicted big business and internationalization would transform the role into a senior executive supervising a staff.
“In this new system of organization, the general manager would occupy the top position of the baseball department, and perform an integrative function so that his whole department would run efficiently,” he wrote then.
Now 62, he looks back with fondness at his start with the White Sox. He was part of a five-man front office that included assistant business manager Mike Veeck, the son of maverick owner Bill Veeck; player personnel adviser Paul Richards; and director of baseball operations Charlie Evranian.
“I used to drive Bill and Roland home a lot of times,” Dombrowski said. “I answered tryout letters. I did filing. I got to go to spring training. I set up transportation. At that time you did everything and anything they wanted, and I loved it. I was there every hour of the day basically, every waking hour, because there were few of us.”
His job with the Red Sox isn’t comparable.
“Now, we have a gathering of the baseball group, there’s 35 in the front office,” he said in Dodger Stadium’s first base dugout before Game 5.
Chicago promoted Dombrowski several times, but he was fired when Ken Harrelson was GM in 1986. Murray Cook hired him as Montreal’s director of player development and Dombrowski became the Expos’ GM in July 1988 at age 31.
Dombrowski stayed a little more than three years, then left in September 1991 to become GM of the expansion Marlins ahead of their first season in 1993.
He hired Jim Leyland as manager in 1996, and a year later the Marlins won the World Series in just their fifth season. Founding owner H. Wayne Huizenga sold the team to Henry in January 1999, and Dombrowski remained as GM until November 2001.
As Henry prepared to sell the Marlins and head the group that bought the Red Sox, Dombrowski left to become president and chief executive officer of the Tigers. Leyland joined Dombrowski as manager for 2006 and spent eight seasons with Detroit that included just one losing record.
Tigers scout Scott Reid taught Dombrowski a valuable lesson, that times had changed and he no longer should keep a locker in the clubhouse and change after jogging.
“I think you might want to spend a little less time in the clubhouse,” Dombrowski remembered was the message. “He said they look at you differently now and I didn’t really comprehend that. They need their own space.”
Dombrowski was brought in by the Red Sox to take a position above general manager Ben Cherington, who decided to leave. The Red Sox rebounded from a last-place finish to win two straight AL East titles, but after consecutive Division Series losses, Dombrowski hired rookie manager Alex Cora last fall to replace John Farrell.
Cora led the Red Sox to a franchise-record 108 wins during the regular season. They meet for five to 15 minutes before games to kick around ideas.
“He’s been able to slow it down for me,” Cora said. “He tells me what he saw during the games or he asks me what I’m thinking.”
Dombrowski takes care not to impose.
“You just want to make sure that nothing’s missed, and normally it’s not,” he said. “We try to guide where necessary but also let him make his own decisions. I think it’s important.”
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