Dombrowski returns to Montreal with Red Sox

By: Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

With the Red Sox coming to Montreal this weekend to play the Blue Jays in the final games of spring training, who better to talk to than Dave Dombrowski, the former Expos general manager, now Boston’s president of baseball operations.

Dombrowski first set eyes on Montreal when he visited there in 1982, the year the city and the Expos played host to the annual all-star game, a match that saw five Expos named to the National League team.

“I was with the White Sox then and the team brought a number of people to Montreal to view how things were done because we were hosting the 1983 All-Star Game in Chicago,’’ Dombrowski recalled in a phone chat. “I was just a young guy in baseball then and I was taken aback by what a beautiful experience it was in Montreal.’’

Then four years later, Dombrowski would find himself back in Montreal when he hit the unemployment line. Ken (Hawk) Harrelson had been hired by the Sox to be the new director of baseball operations mid-way through the 1986 season. He immediately fired general manager Roland Hemond and assistant GM Dombrowski, who had been hired by Chicago back in 1978 at age 22 as an administrative assistant.

“At some point that year, Murray Cook, the Expos general manager, reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in talking about their job as director of player personnel,’’ Dombrowski said. “Bob Gebhard had left the Expos to go to the Twins. I was hired right after Thanksgiving at the winner meetings.’’

So began a run of about five years in Montreal for Dombrowski, who would become GM in 1988, carving himself a reputation as Dealer Dave. He would swing something like 23 trades by the end of 1990.

“The 1989 team was the best team we had while I was there,’’ Dombrowski said. “I thought we had the capabilities to win, especially after we made the trade for Mark Langston. There were so many good players. It was such a good club.

“We led the division for a long time and then in August and September, for whatever reason, we just didn’t swing the bats down the stretch. It was tough. We lost of a lot of veteran players after that season and we brought in a lot of younger players.’’

The Langston transaction was Dombrowski’s biggest swap because he traded three pretty, darn-good prospects in Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and Gene Harris. Also of great magnitude was the trade of superstar Tim Raines to the White Sox following the 1990 season.

By 1991, Dombrowski departed for greener pastures when he was hired by the expansion Florida Marlins to be their first GM.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that came through expansion,’’ Dombrowski said of the move from Montreal. “I had no family at the time. Even though I loved Montreal, it was tough to pass up the Marlins.’’

By 1997, the Marlins won the World Series with Dombrowski at the helm. No doubt, that has been the highlight of his career that has spanned 38 years.

“No question, anytime you win a World Series championship, it’s great,’’ Dombrowski said. “You always set out to win a World Series.’’

After that World Series win, owner Wayne Huizenga ordered Dombrowski to trade some of the stars and when John Henry replaced Huizenga, he had a chat with his president and GM following the 2001 season.

“John Henry and I had a good relationship but he said that if you stay with me, if I sell, I don’t know what it will happen. He wasn’t sure if he was going to go. He didn’t know if he was going to sell,’’ Dombrowski said.

So considering the uncertainty about the Marlins’ situation, Dombrowski decided to leave the organization following the 2001 season and what helped was that he knew the Rangers, Blue Jays and Tigers had GM openings so he interviewed with all three franchises.

“All three were great opportunities. I had a nice interview with the Toronto people, Paul Godfrey and Herb Solway,’’ Dombrowski said. “Finally, Detroit stepped in and made me a great offer that was tough to turn down. They made me a trememdous offer, a five-year contract. They gave me a lot of responsibilities. I was named president of the organization. I had been president of the Marlins the last three years.’’

Dombrowski, 59, enjoyed a run of close to 14 years with the Tigers before owner Mike Ilitch decided to allow his long-time decision maker to leave last August. Just weeks after Dombrowski traded pitcher David Price to the Blue Jays, Ilitch either fired Dombrowski or simply released him from his contract that was due to expire at the end of the season.

Ilitch knew that Dombrowski’s star shone brightly for jobs with other teams so he decided to free him. Within two weeks, Dombrowski had joined the Red Sox, who are owned by Henry, the former owner of the Marlins.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to build the organization. It reunites me with John Henry,’’ Dombrowski said. “Talk about a prestigious organization. It’s a franchise that has a lot of tradition. It has a foundation of so many good, young players.’’

Of course, what did Dombrowski do in the off-season? He went out and signed this fellow David Price, whom he had traded from Detroit, to a seven-year deal with the Red Sox.

So as he prepares for the Red Sox games in Montreal this weekend with about 106,000 tickets sold for the games April 1 and 2, Dombrowski was asked about his favourite Expos’ executive and his favourite Expos’ player.

“Oh gosh, it’s hard to list one,’’ Dombrowski said. “There were so many solid individuals. There was Murray Cook, who brought me on board. There was Gary Hughes, Frank Wren, John Boles, Jim Fanning, Whitey Lockman, Dan Duquette, Charles Bronfman. I’m probably really missing people.

“And there were so many good players. Tim Wallach, Tim Raines, Andres Galarraga. Then there was the next group, the Grissoms, the Floyds, the DeShieldses, the Walkers. We had a lot of great times in Montreal. We had a lot of talent there in the organization. I have a lot of fond memories.’’

So how excited is D.D. about this weekend?

“I’m looking forward to going back,’’ Dombrowski said. “It should be an exciting atmosphere but it’s such a quick trip. The only regret is that it’s a short trip. We come in Thursday and then we’re gone after the Saturday game.

“Montreal is a great city, a beautiful city, one of the more beautiful cities in the world. It has a lot of pluses. For baseball to come back there, they could play at Olympic Stadium in the short term but eventually, they would need a new park to make it happen. In the right situation with the right leadership, it would work.’’  

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Danny Gallagher

Danny was born in Ted Lindsay's hometown of Renfrew, Ont. but his roots are in nearby Douglas. He played 27 consecutive seasons of top-level amateur baseball in the senior ranks in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec and thrived on organizing events himself, the major one being the highly successful 1983 Canadian senior men's tournament in Sudbury. He began covering the Montreal Expos in 1988 when he joined the Montreal Daily News. Later, he was the Expos beat writer for the Ottawa Sun and Associated Press. He has written four baseball books, including Remembering the Montreal Expos, which he co-authored with Bill Young of Hudson, Que. Gallagher and Young are currently working on a book about the ill-fated 1994 Expos squad. Gallagher can be reached here: dannogallagher@rogers.com