Dombrowski puts baseball’s growth in perspective

DETROIT (AP) Shortly before the start of a spring training game last month, Dave Dombrowski paused briefly to sign a few autographs for fans.

Yes, on a team that includes Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, even the general manager is a bit of a celebrity.

”That probably comes from longevity,” Dombrowski said with a laugh. ”So I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

Dombrowski doesn’t go out of his way to seek attention, but his track record over the last quarter century speaks for itself, and the tall, silver-haired GM is on any short list of baseball’s most recognizable executives. Now in his 13th season with the Detroit Tiger after successful stints in Montreal and Florida, Dombrowski can look back with a unique perspective on how the game has changed over the course of his career.

”We’ve become such a larger industry. . With that comes more dollars being spent for players, more employees in front offices, more scouts, more player development people,” Dombrowski said during a spring training interview with The Associated Press. ”The part where it hasn’t changed is that putting together a club, in many ways, is very similar. We have a lot more devices and tools to use, because we have the statistical analysis.

”We have computers. People kind of forget that they didn’t exist very much back then.”

Dombrowski began his career in professional baseball in 1978 as an administrative assistant for the Chicago White Sox, and he quickly was promoted to assistant director of player development. He still recalls having to check box scores in the newspaper – with West Coast games sometimes left out.

It’s almost staggering to contemplate how much more information teams have at their disposal in 2014.

”My first draft was 1978,” Dombrowski said. ”There were guys on the board, taken in the first round, that we didn’t even know. That would never happen now.”

Dombrowski was hired by the Montreal Expos, and he became their vice president of player personnel during the 1988 season, eventually adding general manager to his title. By the end of 1990, he’d completed 23 trades involving 62 players.

That was a sign of things to come, because if there’s one area in which Dombrowski has excelled, it’s the trade market. Yes, the Tigers have spent a lot of money – and they acquired Verlander, their ace, through the amateur draft – but it’s been Dombrowski’s trades that have put Detroit in contention for a World Series title.

Cabrera, the AL MVP in 2012 and 2013, was acquired from Florida after the 2007 season for several prospects who didn’t become stars. In 2009, Dombrowski traded fan favorite Curtis Granderson, but the Tigers received right-hander Max Scherzer and outfielder Austin Jackson, two key parts of the team that has now won three straight AL Central titles.

In 2011, Detroit traded for Doug Fister in the middle of the season, and the right-hander would become one of the game’s most quietly effective pitchers. Then Dombrowski dealt Fister to Washington this offseason. The move puzzled many observers, but even some of Dombrowski’s critics had to admit he’d earned some benefit of the doubt over the years.

In 1991, Dombrowski joined the expansion Marlins, and they won the 1997 World Series. He became president of the Tigers in 2001.

He’s been a general manager for three very different franchises, each with its own ownership style and facing its own challenges within its market. And the prototype of a big league general manager has changed quite a bit over the years.

”You see cycles where there was a time where it was really important to be a guy that played the game – a player that played the game,” Dombrowski said. ”There was a cycle for them becoming general managers, and then there was a cycle where that was more out, and then it was people who had player development and scouting background, so that was important. Now you’re almost at the point where we’re at that statistical analysis aspect of it.”

Even as the job requirements change, Dombrowski remains respected. In the middle of the 2011 season, the Tigers extended his contract through 2015. Detroit went on to win three straight division titles.

Now, there’s even talk that Dombrowski would be a good candidate to replace retiring Commissioner Bud Selig – speculation the Detroit GM tries to brush off.

”I enjoy working for the Tigers,” Dombrowski said. ”That’s what I’m focused on – it’s winning a world championship this year, and I’m signed for next season too, and I’m very happy in that. And I don’t really worry about anything beyond that.”

No matter what his future holds, Dombrowski is grateful for what he’s accomplished in so many different places and circumstances.

”I’ve had an interesting career,” he said. ”There have been a lot of different experiences that I’ve had. I’ve been very fortunate.”