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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A thoroughly modern old-school baseball executive

Dave Dombrowski has been working in M.L.B. front offices since 1978. As a president of baseball operations, he has led four different franchises to the World Series.

By David Waldstein

The Fighting Phillies are a plucky group of wild-card upstarts who have shocked the baseball world by playing into November.

Then again, with Dave Dombrowski in charge, is it really so surprising that Philadelphia is in the World Series?

For the last quarter-century, when Dombrowski was at the helm of a baseball team’s front office, it meant a World Series berth during his tenure. The Florida Marlins found that out in 1997, the Detroit Tigers in 2006 and 2012. It came to fruition for the Boston Red Sox in 2018, and this year for the Phillies, who hired Dombrowski to be their president of baseball operations in December 2020.

He is the only head of baseball operations to take four franchises to the World Series. Now he has a chance to become the first to win a World Series with three of them. It would be a remarkable achievement, and it is not lost on those who see the Phillies as an extension of Dombrowski’s well-honed baseball vision.

“It’s his baby: this moment, this year,” said Bryce Harper, the centerpiece of the Phillies’ roster. “Dombrowski is an unbelievable president.”

Harper was a member of the Phillies before Dombrowski arrived, having signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the club in 2019. But since then, Dombrowski and his general manager, Sam Fuld, have added, and kept, key pieces to build yet another team with a chance at a trophy.

Whether investing in the productive players he inherited from the team’s previous general manager, Matt Klentak, or acquiring new faces via free agency and trades, Dombrowski has done what he has always done: add, tweak, spend, commit — and win.

“Just look at his track record,” said John Middleton, the principal owner of the Phillies. “He’s won everywhere.”

But it is not just that Dombrowski, 66, has constructed four pennant winners and two champions (along with seven division champions). Many people have hits and misses over time. What is most remarkable is that since taking over the expansion Marlins in 1991, Dombrowski has managed to find this level of success with every team he has joined.

Both old- and new-school, Dombrowski is smart, exacting, aggressive, decisive and experienced. He was working in the Chicago White Sox’ front office when Dusty Baker, the Houston Astros’ 73-year-old manager, was still in the middle of his playing career. His résumé stretches back to when batting average was considered the most important statistic.

He was once the youngest head of baseball operations, and now he is one of the oldest; working, adapting and succeeding across more eras of baseball history than double-knit uniforms, cellphones and compact discs.

For many traditionalist fans, who disdain the modern analytical movement, Dombrowski is upheld as a kind of savior, proving that “baseball people” still know how to build teams based on talent, not math. The archetype of the modern general manager is a young, highly educated computer whiz who relies on complex equations and algorithms at the expense of visual insight and hard-earned baseball expertise.

But don’t be fooled by stereotypes. Dombrowski uses advanced statistics for both player procurement and in-game tactics, and has a 20-person analytics staff to prove it. But he blends it with the experience he has gained in more than 40 years in professional baseball.

“You learn so many things along the way and you apply them,” he said. “But the key is that you’ve got to get good players and have a good organization, however you want to define that.”

Many of the moves that he made to help construct the current National League champions are familiar to longtime Dombrowski watchers. Spend money, trade prospects for established players to go for it all, right now.

He used that formula in Boston in 2018 by adding Chris Sale, David Price and J.D. Martinez to a group that included Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and Christian Vázquez.

Now a member of the Astros, Vázquez personifies why many players and agents appreciate Dombrowski’s approach. Hint: It has something to do with the three-year, $13.55 million extension he signed with Boston in 2018.

“I’ll always be grateful for that,” Vázquez said. “He does what it takes to win. That’s how we won that year. We got Chris Sale and all those guys. He gave all the prospects away, and we won a World Series.”

The strategy does not always work, of course, and when you make decisions over four decades, there are blemishes. While serving as Montreal’s general manager, Dombrowski traded a prospect named Randy Johnson in a package for Mark Langston. It was an aggressive, win-now move that failed. But it did not dissuade him, and Dombrowski is almost certainly destined for the Hall of Fame (where he would join Johnson).

Now, Dombrowski may have found his ideal team owner in Middleton, a longtime Phillies fan who yearns for success after years of failure. Middleton believes in Dombrowski’s demanding approach to building a top-flight baseball department.

“He cares about people,” the owner said, “but he’s not going to let somebody who he doesn’t think meets his World Series caliber standards stay in the organization. He’s going to kind of say: ‘Guys, here’s the standard. We need to hit this standard, and if you can’t meet the standard, you have to leave.’”

In Philadelphia, Dombrowski inherited many of the team’s current top players, like Harper and J.T. Realmuto, the talented catcher. But when Realmuto became a free agent after the 2020 season, Dombrowski anchored him to Philadelphia with a five-year, $115.5 million contract. When he saw the team needed more punch, he signed Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, two significant contributors, especially in the postseason.

To stabilize the outfield defense between Schwarber and Castellanos, Dombrowski acquired center fielder Brandon Marsh from the Los Angeles Angels in August, along with the nervy relief pitcher David Robertson and the versatile right-hander Noah Syndergaard, who will start Game 3 of the World Series on Monday.

Perhaps the most decisive move was firing Joe Girardi as manager after a disappointing 22-29 start this season, and replacing him with his bench coach, Rob Thomson, who had never managed in the big leagues. Many players see it as the turning point.

“During the season, you make adjustments, you make a manager change, things like that,” Harper said, “and it just kind of goes from there.”

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