The Detroit Tigers look like an absolute mess right now after the way they handled the days before the trade deadline and the firing of president and general manager Dave Dombrowski. The Tigers -- more specifically, the Ilitch family who owns them -- have done a wonderful job of leaving fans wondering: Who's in charge here, and do they have a clue what they're doing?
Mike Ilitch is in charge here, and although he has a history of knowing what he's doing, recent events suggest otherwise. Ilitch and the Tigers -- through mixed messages, poor treatment of a loyal and successful executive, and poor communication after the fact -- have opened themselves to criticism and left many around baseball confused. If things continue in this direction, it does not bode well for the future of the franchise.
We may never know all the facts, but we present you with what we believe to be true.
Let's just start with a brief timeline of the past two weeks, some of which comes via what a source close to the Tigers told Bless You Boys.
July 21: Even as the Tigers are reported to be sellers by USA Today, Bless You Boys learns from a source that the team's plan at the time -- at owner Mike Ilitch's direction -- is to try to go "all-in," and add to its roster to make a playoff run.
July 26: Dombrowski tells multiple ESPN reporters that the Tigers plan to be buyers before Sunday Night Baseball at Comerica Park.
July 27: The Tigers hold a closed-door meeting. No word of what was discussed is told or leaked.
July 29: The Tigers beat the Rays, but after the game Dombrowski tells the media the Tigers will "reboot" and trade star players if they think a deal makes sense. It is clear that at some point in the prior 72 hours, the decision to buy was reversed. Bless You Boys was later told that Mike Ilitch personally ordered Dombrowski to approach the deadline as sellers.
July 30: David Price and Joakim Soria are traded.
July 31: Yoenis Cespedes is traded.
Aug. 1: Mike Ilitch phones then-assistant GM Al Avila and offers him the job of general manager. Avila accepts. Dombrowski does not know. The positions of president and CEO, which Dombrowski also held, are not filled.
Aug. 4: Avila signs a reported five-year contract, as sources told MLive.
Aug. 4, a bit before 3 p.m.: Three days after offering the job to Avila, Ilitch phones Dave Dombrowski to tell him he's released from his contract with the Tigers. Dombrowski's son, Landon, is playing catch with friends at the ballpark when his father sends someone to fetch him, according to the Free Press. Although this comes somewhat as a surprise, Dombrowski later told the Free Press he had a feeling something might be up after the way people acted around him at a charity event the night before.
Aug. 4, around 3 p.m.: Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and the team are officially informed of Dombrowski's release. The clubhouse remains closed, even after its typical 3:30 p.m. opening time passes.
Aug. 4, 4 p.m.: The Tigers announce the change in leadership via a press release. In it, Mike Ilitch states: "Together we've enjoyed some success, but we're still in aggressive pursuit of our ultimate goal: to bring a World Series title to Detroit and Michigan. I've decided to release Dave from his contract in order to afford him the time to pursue other career opportunities. I feel this is the right time for the Tigers to move forward under new leadership."
5 p.m.: Avila tells the media he was not given a reason for the change in leadership and that he answers directly to Mike Ilitch. He also said he, Ilitch, and the Tigers are still focused on winning this season: "This is a year he's still focused on. But he did tell me he's committed, year in and year out until it's done. ... We're confident we can make a strong push this year." No Ilitch family members are present.
Aug. 5: Dombrowski tells Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports: "I was not given any explanation, other than a change of direction, and I respect that."
Aug. 6: The jobs of team president and CEO remain unfilled.
There are a few pieces here to unpack.
The first is that we have reason to believe the decisions to buy and later to sell were both directed to Dombrowski by Mike Ilitch, personally. This was not a general manager acting on his own and getting fired for it, nor was it an owner agreeing to what his employee recommended. Ilitch made the choice and left his employees to carry it out, which Dombrowski did with Avila beside him. Ilitch has done this in the past. Recent examples of that include signing Prince Fielder to a contract worth more than $200 million in 2012, or assuring 36-year-old Victor Martinez the Tigers would take care of him after the 2014 season. They did, to the tune of a $68 million contract. They're paying the Rangers $30 million for the Fielder mistake. Ilitch is not a passive owner and sometimes it costs him.
Why the sudden reversal in the course of action from buyers to sellers, we do not know.
When Ilitch made the decision to replace Dombrowski, we do not know. One thought is that Ilitch knew even before the regular season began he would go in a different direction at season's end. Dombrowski's contract was due to expire, and interest from multiple clubs would undoubtedly be placed upon the successful executive. Clubs have been interested in Avila, as well, but the team has denied permission to talk to Avila in the past. Attempting to continue Dombrowski's gains through his trusted assistant is a classic Ilitch move.
Dombrowski also stated that no contract negotiations took place in 2015, which led him to the feeling he would not be back after this year. Meanwhile, Bless You Boys has been repeatedly told since the start of the season by a source that Dombrowski's job was not safe, and that he could be fired before the year was up, given the direction the team was going. Falling attendance was cited as one concern. TV ratings, while strong, have fallen, too, Crain's Detroit Business reports.
Still, the timing remains curious. Why Avila was contacted a day after the trade deadline to receive a promotion, but Dombrowski was not told for several days later, we also do not know. Was there an event that led to this decision? Ilitch has no history of firing executives mid-season. One could point toward Dombrowski's firing of then-GM Randy Smith several days into the 2002 season as an exception, but that is an outlier. Otherwise, Ilitch-run teams have been known for being loyal even when it may not be in their best interest.
In that context, the treatment of Dombrowski looks even worse. He turned a Tigers organization -- for which even playing .500 ball was a pipe dream 14 years ago -- into one that appeared in two World Series and won its division four consecutive times: 2011-14. Ilitch took days to inform Dombrowski of the decision and then did so in a brief discussion over the phone. Then cryptically noted the Tigers had "some" success in a press release. That has a very bad look to it and a very unprofessional feel. On top of it, both Avila and Dombrowski say Ilitch offered them no explanation for this curious turn.
It's important to note here that the Tigers have been known as an organization that does things right. They're known as an organization that could get players because Ilitch treated people the right way. Detroit was not a baseball destination, yet Ilitch was able to win over the likes of Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez to help spur the turnaround. It didn't take long before free agents wanted to play for the Tigers again.
That we are several days into this sudden change and questions remain unanswered is the difficult part right now. The Ilitch family isn't talking, and they may be the only ones with answers. No family member appeared at Avila's press conference, and they have not commented. Maybe there are no good answers they can give. Or maybe they're awaiting a later date. After all, CEO and president remain unfilled.
The popular idea is that Mike Ilitch's son, Chris, who oversees Ilitch Holdings, will take a greater role within the Tigers at some point, but the question is when. While 86-year-old Mike has had health issues in the past, Chris stepped forward to oversee the Tigers. Another popular thought is that while Mike has a goal of spending what it takes to bring a World Series victory parade to the streets of Detroit, Chris isn't quite so committed to that. As the team transitions from father to son, expenses may be watched over more closely, or the team may even be placed up for sale. Dan Gilbert is a possible buyer. This uncertainty, on top of recent events, leaves an uneasy feeling surrounding the future of the team.
We may never know the truth to what has been said behind closed doors these past two weeks. Attempts to explain the situation remain unfulfilled when you're trying to wrap your arms around smoke. All we can say is that we've just seen a very unsettling blip on the radar. We just don't know what it means yet -- or if it means anything at all.