Something happened. We don’t know what. We might not for a while. But there is no way Tuesday afternoon’s sudden dismissal of Dave Dombrowski as Tigers president and general manager is a consensual parting of the ways. Not midseason. The Tigers don’t fire people midseason. And not executives. And not on a Saturday. In general, in life, you work on Saturday only if you have to.
In this case, on Saturday afternoon, 24 hours after the trading deadline passed, the Tigers dumped out on Dombrowski and hired Al Avila in his place. Not as a temporary fill.
As the new general manager.
With a multiyear contract.
“I don’t know the how, the why, Mr. Ilitch made the decision,” Avila told the media Tuesday, saying that Saturday afternoon he got the call and the promotion, but was told to keep it quiet. “It’s really a question more for him.”
Don’t hold your breath on an answer. Whatever took place, it created one of the more stunning announcements in recent Tigers history — if only for the timing. Dombrowski had just traded two Tigers stars, David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, plus his closer, Joakim Soria, all for young prospects. The Tigers essentially tossed in the towel on winning it all this season. Did that tick off his boss so much that it got Dombrowski fired?
Not according to Avila, who had been Dombrowski’s right-hand man.
“At the end of the day, Mr. Ilitch has to say yes or no,” Avila said, adding that he agreed with the moves.
So this was not retribution. If you ask me, it was about the recent past, the immediate future and free agency.
Dombrowski’s free agency.
Loyalty counts a ton
Dombrowski, who has been steering the Tigers since November 2001, was at the end of his contract. Perhaps he threw down the gauntlet and said, in effect, “I want a long-term deal and X amount of dollars, or I want my release.”
Or perhaps the Tigers said, “We want you to sign now, or the job is off the table.”
Or maybe something else. Maybe Dombrowski, 59, looked at getting to the playoffs the last four years, getting to the championship series three of those years and reaching the World Series one of those years as a pretty darn good job.
And maybe the Tigers looked at it as, “Yeah, but we always lost in the end.”
Or maybe it’s something else all together.
Maybe it’s an affection for Avila, and the desire to reward him for all his years of loyalty to the franchise. After all, we know how much the Ilitch organization prizes loyalty. And Avila has been so loyal, for years he has worked with a clause that allows the Tigers to deny him the opportunity to take a GM job elsewhere. Basically, he placed his future in their hands.
Now those hands have placed him at the top.
Strange? Well. Remember. In the Ilitch family view, rewarding loyalty from within is a virtue. Look no further than the Red Wings. When Mike Babcock left this summer for greener pastures, a lot of teams would have insisted on getting an equally high-profile coach to take over. Not the Ilitch-owned Wings. They promoted untested Jeff Blashill, who’d put in his time, served his tenure in Grand Rapids, and had earned a chance.
The same could be true for Avila. He told the media several times Tuesday’s news conference that he was “uniquely qualified” for the position.
I’d say. He’s been with the team for 14 years, working in Dombrowski’s shadow. He’s also 57 years old. I don’t have a list in front of me, but I’m pretty sure it’s unusual to hire a 57-year-old rookie general manager these days. More often teams are turning to the Theo Epstein prototype — a whiz kid with numbers, computers, WHIP, sabremetrics, etc.
Avila, whose father was with the Dodgers organization for decades and whose son catches for the Tigers, is an old-fashioned baseball guy. A former scout. A purveyor of Latin American talent. He has been out there in the soup and my guess is that Mike Ilitch, now 86 and desperate to win a World Series just once, feels comfortable with that kind of guy,
“I will be reporting directly to Mr. Ilitch,” Avila confirmed.
And Dombrowski won’t. Not anymore.
No time to tinker
There was an interesting tone to the Tigers’ news release on this. Ilitch is quoted as saying, “I’d like to thank Dave Dombrowski. … Together we’ve enjoyed some success, but we’re still in aggressive pursuit of our ultimate goal: To bring a World Series title to Detroit and Michigan.”
I doubt Dombrowski agrees with the assessment of “some success.” Three AL Championship Series and one World Series in the last four years isn’t “some” success. That’s pretty hard to do.
Maybe he didn’t feel appreciated. Maybe he wanted a mega-deal (at 59, it may be his last big payday). Ilitch said he released Dombrowski in part to let him pursue other opportunities. I’ll tell you this: He’ll have no shortage of suitors. Plenty of major league teams would love four straight years of playoffs, even if they don’t come home with a ring.
It’s funny. Dombrowski dumped several expensive assets at the trading deadline with an eye toward a younger, cheaper, developing future. And now Ilitch has done the same with him. Granted, Avila is only two years younger, but as a head man, he’s going to the big chair for the first time.
We’ll see how it works out. Avila has said he plans on keeping manager Brad Ausmus for “the rest of the season for sure” but seeing as that’s all of two months, that is hardly a ringing endorsement. Oddly, this is the time of year where the GM may have the least to do. The trading deadline has passed, free agency is months away. Avila says he wants the Tigers to try to win this season, to reach the playoffs, but, for one thing, there’s little he can do about that now from a roster perspective.
And secondly, who’s he kidding? Detroit gave away its best and most reliable starting pitcher and its best all-around combination of power and speed in the outfield, not to mention its closer.
That’s hardly a turbo boost for the stretch run.
Something happened. Someone got tired. Someone got mad. Someone got frustrated. Someone said enough. Often in sports, you only get the version they want you to hear and for now, that’s what we got. A release. A promotion. And a day nobody expected in the first week of August.
Something happened. Loyalty pays off. Not winning it all does not. That much you can say for sure. Anything else, right now, is a guess.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.