HOUSTON – Dave Dombrowski, still emotionally scarred from his Boston experience, emphatically said, “No.’’
And “No,’’ again.
Three times Dombrowski told then-Philadelphia Phillies president Andy MacPhail that he had no interest in their vacant GM job. He told MacPhail that before they fired GM Matt Klentak.
Dombrowski had just moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and agreed in June of 2020 to be consultant and advisor for the Nashville Stars ownership group, paving their expansion franchise efforts.
Sorry, he told MacPhail, his best friend in baseball for nearly 45 years, attending each other’s weddings, he was not interested.
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“I know he kept saying no,’ Phillies owner John Middleton said, “but I wasn’t going take no as an answer unless I heard it directly from his own mouth.’’
Now, 22 months later after turning down the job again and again, here is Dombrowski, leading the Phillies to the World Series for the first time since 2009, with Game 1 on Friday night against the Houston Astros.
“We aren’t here without him,’’ Middleton told USA TODAY Sports in a 90-minute interview from his home. “We are watching a guy that is historically great. One hundred years from now, when they ask, who are the best GMs in the history of the game, Dave Dombrowski may just be the best.
Dombrowski, president of baseball operations, is the first executive to lead four different franchises to the World Series, and vying to be the first to win a World Series with three different teams. He led the Florida Marlins to the World Series championship in 1997, the Detroit Tigers to the World Series in 2006 and 2012, the Red Sox to the World Series title in 2018, and now the Phillies.
“I’ll bet any amount of money that will never be broken,’’ Middleton said, “not 100 years from now. Not 200 years from now.’’
Dombrowski has a provision in his contract that permits him to leave if Nashville gets an expansion team and he’s offered to run their baseball department, but sorry, Middleton said, there will not be a next team.
“There’s not a chance that we’ll let him get away,’’ Middleton said.
Dombrowski, 66, has two more years remaining on his four-year, $20 million contract, but there already are plans to lock him up to an extension, perhaps keeping him in Philadelphia for the rest of his career.
Really, there’s no chance Dombrowski has any intention of parting company anyways, falling in love with the city, the culture of the organization, and, Middleton.
This is home.
This is where he’s appreciated.
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Dombrowski still has trouble understanding why he was fired by the Red Sox. They won a World Series just 45 weeks earlier. They won three consecutive division titles. Their farm system was being restocked. The future was bright. And voila, right before a night game Sept. 8, 2019, he was fired.
“I don’t think I was treated right,’’ Dombrowski tells USA TODAY Sports. “It hurt. It didn’t end the way I hoped or was handled.’’
The Phillies, ironically, were next up on the Red Sox schedule. Dombrowski was scheduled to have dinner with MacPhail. He never showed. Instead, Red Sox owner John Henry came to Philadelphia.
“I still don’t have any idea why John Henry fired him,’’ Middleton said. “I really don’t understand it. But I’m grateful he did. We wouldn’t have Dave Dombrowski and we wouldn’t be in the World Series.’’
Henry didn’t address the firing until three weeks later, simply saying, “Right after the World Series, I think it became clear to me that perhaps we weren’t going to be on the same wavelength going forward. But I was hopeful throughout the year, that maybe that perception would change. It didn’t.’’
The firing left Dombrowski disillusioned and guarded. He was blindsided in Boston. He wasn’t about to let it happen again.
A year later, MacPhail telephoned Dombrowski a couple of days before the firing of Klentak to gauge his interest. There was none.
The Phillies officially fired Klentak, technically demoting him, on Oct. 3, 2020, after five consecutive losing seasons. MacPhail again called Dombrowski. The answer remained the same.
“I had given my word to Nashville,’’ Dombrowski said. “They were paying me a nice sum of money. I didn’t see that it was right to leave.’’
The Phillies began the interview process. They interviewed more than 30 candidates. They trimmed down to seven . Then, it was two: Minnesota Twins GM Thad Levine and former Orioles and Red Sox GM Dan Duquette.
They offered the job to Levine, who had even come to Philadelphia to house-hunt. Levine, who went to college at Haverford in Pennsylvania, decided to stay put. He and his wife, with their three kids, love the Minneapolis area, the Twins organization, and ultimately didn’t want to uproot the family.
Middleton then told MacPhail to reach out one more time to Dombrowski, and if he said no again, wanted to at least hear it from his own mouth. MacPhail called him, got the same answer, and asked him if it was okay if Middleton called.
“I said to Andy, if he doesn’t want to work, he doesn’t want to work,’’ Middleton said. “But I’d like to hear that directly.’’
Middleton telephoned the next day and basically told Dombrowski he was wasting his time in Nashville. The city wasn’t close to getting a team, certainly not by 2024, which Dombrowski believed.
“If you don’t want to work, that’s one thing,’ Middleton told Dombrowski. ‘If you do want to work, it won’t be in Nashville. You should talk to (Commissioner) Rob (Manfred).’’
So, Dombrowski telephoned Manfred and MLB officials, who confirmed Middleton’s opinion. Nashville may indeed be the No. 1 expansion site. But expansion isn’t close.
Said Middleton: “I told him, ‘I’ll let you out of your contract any time you want. If there’s anything going on in Nashville that could change their landscape, you can opt out of your contract anytime you want.’’
John Loar, managing director of Music City Baseball, who hired Dombrowski, told him he had no obligation to stay. He can remain as an advisor, and if he wanted to come back, the door was open.
“We weren’t going to keep him here when he had such a great opportunity,’’ Loar said. “We couldn’t be happier for him. He’s showing what he means to an organization.’’
Middleton and Dombrowski kept talking. It was in the middle of COVID, and Dombrowski and Middleton never met face-to-face, with their interactions limited to the telephone.
“It doesn’t take a lot of time to interview Dave Dombrowski,’’ Middleton said. “It wasn’t whether Dave is good enough person to get the job. I had to convince the man to come back and help me. He wants to know, ‘Does this guy want to win? Is this guy pinching pennies to pay a 20-year-old rookie $500,000 instead of a good, competent veteran that cost $5 million?’
“I told him, ‘You have a lot of latitude here. I’m prepared to lose money. I’m prepared to lose a lot of money. I just want to win.’’’
Most important, Middleton stressed, you can trust him. Just ask around.
“The biggest thing was that he needed to be reassured,’’ Middleton said, “having been burned in Boston. When you win the 2018 World Series title, and you’re fired the following August, you can’t go through that process and have it not affect you psychologically and emotionally. Dave needed to know that he wasn’t going to walk into a situation where I was going to flip on him.
“Andy was invaluable and deserves a lot of credit. He was really helpful re-assuring Dave about me. We wouldn’t have Dave without Andy.’’
MacPhail, who became best of friends with Dombrowski from their days together in Chicago in the late 70’s when MacPhail worked for the Cubs and Dombrowski for the White Sox, told Dombrowski he had never been to a place that was more family-oriented than the Phillies. There was no one more beloved than former Phillies president Dave Montgomery, who set the franchise’s vision, while Middleton’s passion for the franchise and city of Philadelphia was unparalleled.
“When you lose 100 games, and you’re with the Middletons and Bucks (chairman David Bucks) singing Christmas carols,’’ MacPhail said, “it tells you all you need to know. I was not doing that with (Orioles owner) Peter Angelos.’’
It wasn’t until a month after Dombrowski accepted the job that he even met Middleton face-to-face in the Phillies’ office with COVID raging.
They greeted one another in the hallway on the second floor of the executive offices, put on masks, gave each other a fist-bump, retreated to their offices, and then talked on the phone for several hours.
Dombrowski quickly impressed Middleton by asking if he could promote Sam Fuld to GM and Jorge Velandia to assistant GM, saying they were invaluable to the organization. The analytics department, which was a one-man band making $100,000 in 2014, now is budgeted for the millions. The Phillies, who had gone 10 years without a playoff berth, let alone a winning season, produced its first back-to-back winning seasons in a decade.
And the Phillies are back on the center stage of the baseball world with Dombrowski becoming only the third GM/head of baseball operations to win National League pennants with two franchises, joining Branch Rickey and Bob Howsam.
Dombrowski has made a slew of brilliant moves and signings since his arrival, but the one that may be most responsible for the Phillies’ World Series berth was the decision to fire manager Joe Girardi and replace him with bench coach Rob Thomson.
Middleton and Dombrowski quietly had been talking about the possibility of needing to replace Girardi for almost a year, but wanted to give Girardi a little more time, seeing if the team can perform to its potential.
“You can be a good manager, but sometimes the personality or style is not the right fit for a clubhouse, and I think that was the case with Joe,’’ Middleton said.
The Phillies waited as long as they could, but when they were 22-29, 12 games out of first place, Dombrowski went for a morning run to clear his head. When he got back to his apartment, he called Middleton. It was time to make a change. Girardi was fired, Thomson was promoted to be the interim manager.
“It was no surprise,’’ Middleton said. “Quite frankly, I was waiting for Dave to make this decision. We had talked about it, but Dave still wasn’t there until that morning.’’
It worked out greater than even Middleton and Dombrowski imagined, with the Phillies going 65-46, despite a late swoon when the Phillies nearly coughed up a playoff berth by losing 10 of 13 games before clinching the wild card spot in Houston.
They talked about removing Thomson’s interim label in the second half, but when the Phillies struggled, Dombrowski told Middleton he wanted to see how the team would respond.
“Dave told me, ‘This is a very important test for Rob,’ ‘’Middleton said. “’I need to see how he handles this, the pressure, the players feeling pressure. The really good managers can deal with this. If you can win a World Series, you’ve got to have a manager deal with this because pressure mounts. If a manager can’t handle going through a slump, that, you’ve got to think whether you really want that person to help this team.’
“Rob was such a calming force for the players.’’
Middleton asked Dombrowski if he was ready to make Thomson the permanent manager when they clinched the playoff berth in Houston with two games to spare. Not yet. Dombrowski still wanted to wait. When they swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card round, celebrating in the middle of the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium, Dombrowski leaned over to Middleton and said, “I need to talk to you about Rob.’’
Dombrowski called Middleton at 9 the next morning. Middleton telephoned MLB to inform them they were making an internal promotion and would not need to interview outside candidates. And Thomson was rewarded with a two-year contract on Oct. 10.
Two weeks later, the Phillies are clinching a World Series berth, Dombrowski and Middleton are holding the National League Championship trophy in the air, and MacPhail is in Middleton’s suite, listening to the ovation from the frenzied sellout crowd.
“Having gone through this here, seeing the expression and emotions on everyone’s faces,’’ Dombrowski said, “it’s like seeing your children opening Christmas presents. That’s how I feel. This means so much to John and everyone here.
“I couldn’t be more happy being here.’’
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