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Published: Sunday, 10/1/2006

Dombrowski's deals spun wheels for Motown success

DETROIT - Dave Dombrowski is the modern-day version of Monty Hall.

Dombrowski can wheel and deal with the best of them.

He has hoodwinked one general manager after another for the better part of three decades, and he hasn't even had to do it behind door No. 1.

Dombrowski's Let's Make a Deal reputation followed him to Detroit five years ago, when he was hired as president and CEO of the Tigers at a salary of $2 million a year.

Owner Mike Ilitch hand-picked Dombrowski, believing he could help restore some much-needed stability to his floundering franchise.

It's been a slow, painful process, but the Tigers have finally changed their stripes.

Three years after losing an American League record 119 games and being baseball's biggest laughingstock, Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland have produced the biggest hit in Motown since the "Bless You Boys" delivered a World Series title for Bill Lajoie and Sparky Anderson in 1984.

The 2006 Tigers have been singing sweet music.

They owned baseball's best record for most of the season, won 90-plus games and will be participating in the playoffs for the first time in 19 years come Tuesday.

"The turnaround we've experienced already this year is one of the greatest in sports history," said radio broadcaster Jim Price, who was a backup catcher on Detroit's 1968 World Series championship team. "If we go to the World Series, it may be the greatest turnaround ever.

"And Dave Dombrowski has had a lot to do with it."

Twenty two of the 25 players expected to be on Detroit's postseason roster have been acquired during Dombrowski's watch.

The three who haven't are utility man Omar Infante, starting third baseman Brandon Inge and reliever Fernando Rodney.

The 50-year-old Dombrowski, who previously built winning organizations in Montreal and Florida, admits that when he first arrived in Detroit in the fall of 2001, there were more questions than answers.

The Tigers not only were short on major league talent, their minor league system had very few prospects.

"There were not many quality players to star players when I first got here," Dombrowski said. "I knew we had a lot of hard work ahead of us. We needed to get better players and more depth in our organization through trades, the draft and free-agent signings."

Dombrowski has made more good decisions than bad ones.

Six games and six losses into his first season in 2002, he fired manager Phil Garner and general manager Randy Smith. Dombrowski added GM to his title and tabbed Luis Pujols to replace Garner.

In July, Dombrowski made his first big trade, getting starting pitcher Jeremy Bonderman for Jeff Weaver in a three-team trade with Oakland and the New York Yankees.

In January, 2004, Dombrowski picked up future All-Star shortstop Carlos Guillen from Seattle, and he signed perennial All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million free agent deal a month later.

Dombrowski inked reliever Troy Percival to a two-year, $12 million contract in November, 2004, and slugger Magglio Ordonez to a five-year, $75 million pact in early 2005.

Percival has been a bust, Ordonez a must.

Dombrowski made another key move last summer, acquiring starting second baseman Placido Polanco from Philadelphia.

Still, the Tigers suffered through their 12th consecutive losing season in 2005. On Oct. 3, Dombrowski sacked Alan Trammell after three dreadful seasons and hired Leyland the next day, signing him to a three-year contract.

The Perrysburg native led Dombrowski's Marlins to a World Series title in 1997, after previously leading Pittsburgh on a three-year playoff run in the early 1990s, so Dombrowski's decision was a no-brainer.

He signed two other key free agents, landing 41-year-old starter Kenny Rogers (two years, $16 million) and closer Todd Jones (two years, $11 million).

And with Chris Shelton slumping at midseason, Dombrowski plucked first baseman Sean Casey from the Pirates just hours before the July 31 trading deadline.

Let's not forget, Dombrowski and his lieutenants selected starting center fielder Curtis Granderson (third round) and hard-throwing reliever Joel Zumaya (11th round) in the 2002 draft, and 17-game winner Justin Verlander (first round) in 2004.

"We've been very aggressive the whole five years I've been in this organization," said Dombrowski, a Western Michigan graduate who is married to former ESPN anchor Karie Ross. "The first couple of years, we knew we were going to have to take a couple of steps backward before we got going forward.

"The 2003 season was a tough one for all of us. We knew we weren't great, but nobody could have anticipated us losing 119 games. It was demoralizing in a sense, but we still felt like we were headed in the right direction as an organization. We just had to fight our way through it."

Although the Tigers have fizzled in the second half after reaching the All-Star break at 59-29, Leyland likely will be the AL manager of the year, and

Verlander rookie of the year.

"Jim's just done a fantastic job," said Dombrowski, whose first four Tigers teams averaged a whopping 101.5 losses a season. "He's provided the leadership our club needed. He's a great communicator. He's great with the players. He can put his arm around them or be tough with them.

"He has a great passion for the game. He's a very loyal individual. He's a great manager."

Leyland, who spent the first 18 years of his professional baseball career with the Detroit organization as a catcher, coach or manager, has done his best to deflect any praise for the Tigers' recent resurgence.

He insists Dombrowski, signed through next year, deserves most of the credit for making Detroit a winner at long last.

"Dave is the guy that put it all together," Leyland said. "Like every organization, if you're going to be successful, you've got to have good people working with you. He's got good people working with him and he knows how to use them. He trusts them. He's just done a heck of a job.

"There was never a doubt in my mind that he was going to get it turned around once he took this job."

Dombrowski wouldn't trade this magical season in Motown for anything, except maybe the World Series ring behind door No. 3.



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