Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tigers' GM/Manager Duo Will Return Beyond 2011

They are the Frick and Frack of baseball in Detroit. Some would call them Laurel and Hardy. On a good day, they’re Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

It gets so that, when you see either Dave Dombrowski or Jim Leyland, you’re half-surprised not to see them joined at the hip.

They’re two peas in a pod. Twin sons of different mothers.

Dombrowski, the Tigers President, CEO, General Manager—and what the heck—let’s call him the Grand Poobah while we’re at it—and Leyland, the manager, have been joining forces for going on 30 years now, in various venues.

When Leyland was a rookie coach with the Chicago White Sox in 1984, Dombrowski was with the team, too, at the right hand of GM Roland Hemond.

After Dombrowski had cut his own teeth as a GM, he found himself in Miami, running the Florida Marlins franchise, which was brand new. Before long, there was Leyland again, as Dombrowski’s manager. In 1997, the pair won a World Series together.

In November 2001, the Tigers tabbed Dombrowski as their new President. Four years later, Leyland and Dombrowski held a joint press conference, announcing Leyland as the Tigers’ new manager.

Today, they’re into their sixth season together in Detroit, believe it or not. And this is where the Frick and Frack thing comes into play.

Dombrowski and Leyland—we’ll call them D&L from now on because it’s easier for my lazy, fat fingers to type—are lockstep, one behind the other, walking a tightrope. Two men working without a net.

Neither has the security of a contract that runs beyond the 2011 season.

No pairing of GM and manager in Detroit baseball has been so closely linked as D&L. Not even Jim Campbell and Sparky Anderson, who worked together in the early-1980s before Campbell eased into semi-retirement, were fused together like D&L. And Sparky adored Jim Campbell.

Yet D&L are accepted as a package deal. If one goes, so should the other. Same thing if one stays.

It says here that all this talk about contracts and “lame ducks” and “Will they stay, will they go?” will end sometime before the All-Star break, when each is signed to a contract extension—but not as a tandem, contrary to what some would believe.

It would take a tortoise-like start by the Tigers out of the gate—the season starts next week—for owner Mike Ilitch to even contemplate a change in leadership. Ilitch doesn’t have a history of sporting a hair trigger when it comes to rendering the ziggy.

The owner’s pizza dough hasn’t always been spent wisely. Starting in 2007, the teams have had a fetish for going into the tank sometime in late-July. The Tigers, under nine years of Dombrowski having the key to the executive washroom, have made the playoffs once. Lesser teams than theirs have beaten them out in the Central Division, more than once.

But Ilitch won’t fire either man, because the fact of the matter is, before D&L came along, baseball in Detroit was bereft of hope, devoid of excitement.

When Ilitch brought Dombrowski in, it was like hiring Bob Vila to remodel Ma and Pa Kettle’s shack.

It wasn’t Dombrowski’s first tear down and rebuild.

He built the Montreal Expos’ farm system into one of the best in baseball. Then, in Florida, Dombrowski took an expansion team and had them winning a World Series in their fifth year of existence.

Read that last sentence again.

Throughout baseball history, expansion teams have been outfitted with a butter knife, a squirt gun and a plastic sword and sent out to battle. Expansion teams spent their first five years buried in baseball’s basement, unable to sniff the scent of the post-season until at least six years, or more, into their existence.

It took the New York Mets, born in 1962, eight years to make the playoffs. The Houston Astros, who also debuted in ’62, needed 19.

In 1969, baseball added the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots in the American League and the Expos and the San Diego Padres in the NL. The Royals needed eight seasons to make the playoffs; the Pilots lasted one season in Seattle and moved to Milwaukee, where they didn’t show up in the post-season until 1981.

The Expos didn’t make the playoffs until 1981; the Padres, 1984.

In 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners joined the AL. Both languished. The Blue Jays made the playoffs in 1985, but the Mariners needed another ten years before finally qualifying in 1995.

Expansion teams in every sport are stocked with the game’s dregs—players that nobody else wants. The results on the field, ice, court and diamond are thus unsurprisingly bad.

Yet Dave Dombrowski, from scratch, built the Florida Marlins into a World Series winner in Year Five.

It hasn’t been so easy in Detroit.

The Tigers were almost an expansion team when Dombrowski took them over. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 1987. The 1990s were mostly filled with bad baseball. The Tigers’ ballpark was old and decrepit before moving into Comerica Park in 2000. The players who performed in it weren’t old, but they were decrepit, too.

It didn’t take Dombrowski long to start cleaning house. He fired the GM (Randy Smith) and the manager (Phil Garner) on the same day, about a week into the 2002 season, assuming the role of GM himself.

The Tigers were awful in 2002, historically awful in 2003, and not much more than mediocre in 2004-05. That’s when Dombrowski fired manager Alan Trammell, who was used as a stopgap—someone the fans could reminisce with so as to distract them from the product on the field.

Dombrowski hired Leyland in October 2005.

Hello, again.

Leyland then made a boneheaded mistake—he brought his Tigers to the World Series in his first year as manager. Expectations haven’t been the same since.

The Tigers have been stumbling in games played after the All-Star break ever since Leyland took over—including in 2006. I have been one to say that enough is enough—the second half collapses must come to an end, or else the manager must go.

Yet this is inarguable: baseball in Detroit, prior to the arrival of Dave Dombrowski, for over a decade was as enjoyable and as well-anticipated every year as a root canal.

The Tigers on the field, prior to the Jim Leyland Era, were a joke.

Dombrowski inherited an expansion team, essentially. In his fifth year at the helm, with Leyland as his manager, the Tigers made the World Series.

On Thursday—in March!—the Tigers open the 2011 season in New York, the sixth season of D&L. Neither man is signed past the last pitch in October.

No matter. Both will return, barring a season more horrifying than our worst nightmares.

And let’s not go there, shall we not?


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