It’s a new ballgame, ‘great challenge’ for ex-Tigers boss Dave Dombrowski with Nashville bid

Detroit News

Five years ago, he got a terse phone call from owner Mike Ilitch and departed the Tigers following their best 10-season run in team history. Eleven months ago, he said goodbye to the Red Sox not even a year after helping Boston win another World Series.

Now, it’s on to Nashville, Tennessee. Which doesn’t — yet — have a big-league baseball team.

Dave Dombrowski wants to change the Music City’s sports complexion, strikingly, with another franchise that already has its name — Nashville Stars — even if hasn’t yet been sanctioned by Major League Baseball.

Dombrowski has been added to a corps of promoters hoping to make Nashville one of the two towns likely to be added when Major League Baseball expands to 32 teams, which is Commissioner Rob Manfred’s plan.

A city of 1.25 million, girded by Vanderbilt University and by its heritage as a mosaic of American music, Nashville has been one of the nation’s 21st-century boomtowns. Big-league baseball, said Dombrowski, is a natural next step for a “dynamic” southern metropolis.

“They approached me last November,” Dombrowski said during a phone conversation last week, speaking of a celebrity committee that includes former United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. “They had been working, this Music City Baseball group, a year and-a-half before they contacted me. They felt they needed someone with knowledge of the industry.”

Dombrowski would qualify there. He began working in baseball out of Western Michigan University in 1978 with the White Sox. He moved on to Montreal, where he became general manager. He was GM of the expansion Marlins, which won a World Series in 1993. After his Miami stint, it was on to Detroit for 14 years, six playoff tickets, and two World Series seats, which, to his eternal regret and Ilitch’s, never earned the championship Detroit so craved.

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And then it was Boston. There, he rode in a second World Series parade to match his first at Miami. And there, in a web of upper-tier politics unique to Boston, one that pushed out two earlier GMs — Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington — Dombrowski became a third casualty last September. All while Copley Square was still cleaning up from the previous October’s championship party.

“I was not expecting it,” Dombrowski said of his exit, which happened as the Red Sox missed last season’s playoffs and dealt with realities that didn’t please owner John Henry: a huge payroll, key players approaching free agency (primarily Mookie Betts, who later was traded to the Dodgers), and a farm system that had been raided as the Red Sox pushed to win ahead of their 2018 title.

Big-league competition

Dombrowski laughs and says with a “that’s-baseball” dismissal that he isn’t interested in talking about the past. Except, perhaps, to throw a bouquet Detroit’s way.

“Unfortunately, we never won the World Series, never won those final four games, but we still have so many friends in Detroit,” Dombrowski said, turning to the 2020 Tigers team run by his old assistant, Al Avila, and to a rebuild that began shortly after Dombrowski left.

“It looks like they’re finally realizing some fruits from all the pain,” he said, and here he was speaking heavily of two rookie starting pitchers. “(Casey) Mize has stepped up, and you have to be impressed with Tarik Skubal. They’re making progress.

“But it’s hard,” Dombrowsk said about rebuilds he knew in Detroit, Miami, and elsewhere, and how Detroit’s hinged on the arrival in 2006 of a staff ace. “It’s unusual to have a Justin Verlander show up, who not only was a great pitcher, but a pitcher who won immediately at the big-league level.

“Not too many do that right away.”

Dombrowski last month turned 64. In hooking on with the Music City Baseball corps, he joins Gonzales, a native Texan who after his days as attorney general under President George W. Bush, joined a Nashville law firm, which led to signing on with the baseball venture.

Working with Gonzales and Dombrowski is Dave Stewart, the ex-big-league pitcher and former Diamondbacks general manager, as well as Dombrowski friend and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, and Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin.

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Nashville is hoping baseball will add luster to a sports stage that already features the NFL Titans and NHL Predators. Music City’s competition, though, is heavyweight: Portland, Oregon; Las Vegas; Raleigh, North Carolina; Vancouver; and Montreal, where Dombrowski first worked as a GM before the Expos relocated to Washington, D.C., as the Nationals.

The plan at Nashville is to build a retractable-roof stadium for Stars games. A preferred site is along the East Bank region of the Cumberland River, just south of the Titans’ home, Nissan Stadium. The ballpark is conceived as a vast complex with surrounding hotel rooms and condos, a covered entertainment area woven into the ballpark’s radius, a College Baseball Hall of Fame, and even a marina.

The group is raising $4.5 million in a five-year bid to bring baseball to Nashville. The possibility includes that an existing MLB team could relocate, with focus there on the Rays and A’s, each of which is having issues getting a new ballpark at Tampa Bay and Oakland.

“It’s an amazing city, Nashville, such a dynamic city that has grown so much,” said Dombrowski, who has spent his share of time in and around an old Tennessee town, including the Opryland complex, where in December 2007 he headed a Winter Meetings trade with the Marlins that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit.

“We (he and wife Karie) were as impressed as you can be. I’d been there through the years, at Opryland, and had spent some time in downtown Nashville. Now, it’s not even recognizable. Such tremendous growth, with companies moving in there. We love the city.”

Dombrowski’s work entails meetings, lots of meetings, mostly Zoom sessions necessitated by 2020’s pandemic. There is fundraising, there are strategies being honed, all with the hope that Manfred and MLB owners will give Nashville the OK — when baseball decides to move to 32 teams.

More clarity should come, Dombrowski said, once a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is forged to replace the players-owners deal that expires in late 2021.

Dombrowski’s edge 

For now, the team at least has its name. “Stars” was an easy call, said Dombrowski, given Nashville’s lineage as a Negro League baseball town whose team had the same moniker.

But the duel among cities, Dombrowski realizes, could be akin to a pennant race among five towns a couple of games apart in the standings.

Portland has a NBA team and argues, with merit, that the Pacific Northwest needs more than a franchise in Seattle. Las Vegas is the hot — in lots of ways — new pro-sports town, having added NHL and NFL teams. Vancouver has NHL and NBA franchises and wants baseball as a third piece.

Raleigh, like Nashville, is jumping in population and business dollars and will make a high-powered case. Montreal, meanwhile, had only one issue when the Expos and Dombrowski worked there: a bad baseball facility, a problem that would be resolved with a new ballpark as part of any agreement to return to a grand North American town.

But then that’s why Dombrowski was hired. His profile and ability to work with baseball’s glitterati naturally appealed to a town looking for an edge in any expansion-team showdown.

Dombrowski and Karie now are shifting to Nashville after selling their Boston home, all while keeping a second address at Ft. Myers, Florida. Their son, Landon, is a junior at Wake Forest University, while daughter Darby graduated this year from the University of Oklahoma. She was headed to Dallas as a public-relations staffer until COVID-19’s economic fallout canceled that assignment.

A married couple learned one thing after last September’s exit from Boston, which probably signaled the end of Dombrowski’s formal times in a big-league front office. A husband and wife had time for something other than baseball.

“Karie and I had a chance to slow down and do some things a family in baseball couldn’t normally do,” he said. “We went on a trip for 17 days, right after Christmas, to South Africa. We went on a safari, went to Kenya, to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cape Town — and then to Dubai for a couple of days.

“We went back home to Florida, kind of got settled with our minds, and then this Nashville opportunity came up. It’s different after having been head of baseball operations for so long. But along the same lines, it’s a great challenge.”

With, no doubt, fewer stresses than might have been routine during those late-summer days of yesteryear. Playoff duels were hitting high gear about this time. The postseason champagne was nice when it was sprayed. But nerves would take a beating during those years and, at 64, Dombrowski has rinsed enough bubbly from his hair.

Time now for a new gig.

Former Detroit News sports reporter Lynn Henning is a freelance writer.

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