When the Philadelphia Phillies floundered after the 2020 COVID-shortened season, they hired veteran Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations.
Dombrowski didn’t disappoint as a replacement for the analytically driven Matt Klentak. He’s in his fifth World Series spread across four different organizations, thus far winning two of them.
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Game 3 of the best-of-seven series against the Houston Astros is Monday night at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The teams are tied at a game apiece.
Dombrowski’s had success signing big-name players for big money and letting managers like Jim Leyland in Miami and Detroit, Alex Cora in Boston and Rob Thomson in Philadelphia do their jobs without interference.
Dombrowski said he has a simple philosophy: Hire good people and butt out.
“Whether it’s Alex or Rob Thomson, what you do is communicate with them daily. They always know I’m available anytime they need me,” he said in an interview on the field at Houston’s Minute Maid Park before Saturday night’s Game 2, won 5-2 by the Astros. “But it’s their job to make out the lineups and make in-game decisions. That’s why you hire them.”
At 66, Dombrowski is an old school baseball executive with analytical knowledge. In Boston, where the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018, Cora said he’d receive numbers crunched by the front office, but the game on the field was his to manage.
Same with Thomson, the 59-year-old batting coach, who replaced Joe Girardi this season when the team opened a disappointing 22-29.
“Absolutely. Yeah. They give us all the information and all the analytics and then leave us alone,” Thomson said.
Thus, Dombrowski knew when it was time to let Girardi go.
“When you’re around your team you realize that something’s not clicking,” Dombrowski said. “They needed a new voice. You could just see it.”
The Phillies had spent big money on Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler, but Klentak’s club finished out of the expanded 16-team playoffs with a 28-32 record after the pandemic-abbreviated 60-game 2020 season, Girardi’s first year. And as is his wont, Dombrowski continued that trend this past offseason by adding free agents Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos.
Total price tag, $742 million.
Phils managing general partner John Middleton made the right move when he hired Dombrowski. The Phillies are in position to win the Series for the first time since 2008 when another veteran baseball man, Pat Gillick, came in and polished off the job others in the organization had started.
“I’ve always believed in star players,” Dombrowski said. “I’ve been fortunate everywhere I’ve been to have great players.”
Dombrowski has been in the business for 45 years, learning as a kid at the feet of the late, great Roland Hemond with the Chicago White Sox, who taught him all facets of running a baseball club. Along the way he’s built teams that won the World Series with the Marlins in 1997, and the Red Sox. Two of his Detroit Tigers teams lost in the 2006 and 2012 World Series.
And here he is again, trying to guide the Phillies to the title in only his second season.
This sudden success, coming as the 87-win Phillies qualified for the National League’s sixth and final playoff spot, could be sustainable.
“I think we have a chance over the long haul to be pretty good,” Dombrowski said. “The NL East is tough, so you know you’re going to be in a situation where you have to be on top of your game.
“But that’s OK. One thing about our club is—we’re not old. And our best young players are just coming.”
Dombrowski loves to spend ownership’s money.
In Detroit he drafted Justin Verlander, added Miguel Cabrera in a trade with the Marlins, and later signed Prince Fielder as a free agent. In Boston he signed J.D. Martinez to a five-year, $110 million deal that just ended and traded with the White Sox for pitcher Chris Sale, signing him to a five-year, $145 million deal.
Star players, all of them.
The Phillies this year had a fourth-in-MLB $255.2 million payroll and already have $172.2 million committed for 2023, second behind the Mets at $219.5 million.
Dombrowski, who is sure to follow Gillick into the National Baseball Hall of Fame when his career is over, still has two years to go on his current contract and isn’t thinking about retiring any time soon.
He’s healthy and still loves what he’s doing.
“John Middleton has talked to me about staying here as long as I like,” Dombrowski said. “I’m very happy with what I’m doing, and I hope it ends up well.”
The downside for Dombrowski is that his high-spending ways often cause conflict with management.
In Florida and Montreal, ownership changed and Dombrowski was swept away as both franchises conducted fire sales and reduced payroll. In Detroit, the late owner Mike Ilitch grew tired awaiting Dombrowski to deliver a World Series title.
In Boston, he took over the last place Red Sox late in the 2015 season and delivered first-place finishes in the American League East the next three seasons, culminating with a five-game World Series victory in 2018 over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ten months later he was fired as the Red Sox slumped to a third-place finish with a second in baseball $236.2 million payroll.
The Red Sox wanted to cut costs and traded Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers after Dombrowski’s departure. He wasn’t happy about the way he was treated there, but now it’s again become fashionable to hire baseball people with a long resume of experience.
As the Red Sox have struggled under Chaim Bloom, Dombrowski is doing what he does best: put together a team that wins.
Along the way he’s engendered loyalty and respect.
“He means a lot to me,” Verlander said about Dombrowski, who picked the right hander second overall in the 2005 first-year player draft. “He was integral in me getting my start in professional baseball. I was a high risk-high reward draft pick coming out of Old Dominion. And I really appreciate him allowing me to be myself, and bringing me up so quickly.”
Verlander has earned $317.5 million in his career, $170 million of that with the Tigers, and won 244 regular season games so far.
Almost on cue, Dombrowski ducked into the media room when Verlander, now pitching for the Astros, held his pre-Game 1 press conference. Verlander blew a 5-0 lead Friday night and the Phils won 6-5 in 10 innings on Realmuto’s homer. He remains winless in the World Series.
“Where did your career start again?” Dombrowski jokingly asked before coming over to the podium to give Verlander a hug.
“He’s still wearing the same cologne, by the way,” Verlander said. “I smell it. It’s a very distinct one. I remember that smell.”
That cologne has served Dombrowski well through the course of all those World Series.