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Building a winner child's playMarlins' Dombrowski has gone far in a hurry
By Gordon Edes, Globe Staff, 10/17/97
MIAMI - Seems only fitting, doesn't it, that Florida Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski, the man who built the World Series finalist named after a fish, interviewed for his first job in baseball while wearing a bathing suit.
Dombrowski was still a kid in school trying to hustle a job at the baseball winter meetings in Hawaii when Roland Hemond, then the Chicago White Sox GM, summoned him to his suite for an interview, even though Dombrowski had just come in from the beach.
Hemond had met Dombrowski before in Chicago, where he was one of several GMs Dombrowski interviewed for a college paper on the changing role of baseball executives. Dombrowski had decided early on how he was going to make his living. He told his eighth-grade classmates in suburban Chicago that one day he would run a team.
''Is that so?'' Hemond had said. ''Well, get some background in business and law, and study Spanish.'' Dombrowski did all three, and Hemond was so impressed that he offered him a job with the White Sox as an administrative assistant - for $7,000 a year.
''I was really impressed that he'd followed up on what I had suggested,'' Hemond said yesterday from Arizona, where he is vice president of the expansion Diamondbacks. ''I told Bill Veeck, who owned the team then, that David had great potential and that he amazed me with his knowledge of the game.''
But Dombrowski's parents, who didn't want him to drop out of school, sat down with him and calculated his expenses, which exceeded his salary. ''I can't let you start working; you'll be losing money,'' Dombrowski's father told him.
Dombrowski went to Mike Veeck, son of the White Sox owner.
''I remember pulling out this sheet of paper and telling Mike, `I can't start and lose money, but for $8,000, I'd be real happy,''' Dombrowski said. ''Mike gives me this line: `We don't normally start people at such a high salary, but in your case, we'll do it.'''
That was in 1978, when Dombrowski was 22. He was assigned early on to a veteran scout named Walt Widmeyer, so secretive he'd write the names of his best prospects in matchbook covers, which earned him the nickname ''The Gray Ghost.''
''First day I met David, I told Rollie, `I think he's going to be outstanding,''' Widmeyer said. ''I called him the Pied Piper, because he could do a draft better than anyone I'd ever seen.
''A draft list has a couple of hundred guys. Dave Dombrowski had almost a photographic picture of everybody's thoughts. He really knew how to make guys focus their opinions.
''It was like having a college professor who can make you think, rather than a professor who just has you read out of a textbook.''
Ten years later, after learning under Hemond and Bill Veeck, driving Tony La Russa around in a golf cart and then becoming his boss, and befriending a Chicago third base coach named Jim Leyland, Dombrowski became the youngest general manager in baseball with the Montreal Expos.
''I never thought of Dave Dombrowski as young,'' said La Russa, who was 12 years his senior but was a minor league manager with the White Sox when Dombrowski was assistant farm director. ''I just remember him as always being so sharp.''
By the end of his third season in Montreal, Dombrowski had made 23 trades involving 62 players. Dealin' Dave, they called him. He also made his mother happy by getting his degree in accounting.
Then in 1991, Dombrowski was hired by the expansion Marlins, and he took most of his top people with him from Montreal. Scouting director Gary Hughes. Frank Wren, his assistant GM. Whitey Lockman, his special assistant, who was on second base for the Giants when Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard 'round the world in '51. Angel Vasquez, his director of Latin American operations. John Boles, his farm director.
One he left behind, Dan Duquette, succeeded him as GM of the Expos.
''I remember Jim Fanning [an Expos executive] telling me, `You're about to embark on one of the most enjoyable experiences of your life,''' Dombrowski said. ''`But it will also be the most work.'''
The goals in the beginning, Dombrowski said, were modest.
''I remember Wayne Huizenga, our owner, saying, `Let's not lose 100 games,''' he said. ''`Let's get better every year.'''
The Marlins met their first goal - they lost only 98. Their record improved each season, too, but baseball's honeymoon in South Florida came crashing to a halt with the strike in 1994. The Marlins lost at least a third of their season ticket base, and after drawing close to 40,000 a night their first season, they were drawing barely half that after the strike.
Maybe if there hadn't been a strike, Huizenga might not have made the decision he did. ''We have to show once and for all whether this region will support baseball,'' he said, ''and the only way we can do that is to put a winner on the field.
''If the fans still don't come, then maybe the best thing to do is sell the team, or move it elsewhere.''
''Our goals had changed,'' Dombrowski said. ''By year five, Wayne was saying, `Let's be competitive.' Well, what's competitive? Not finishing in last place? Finishing in third place?
''Wayne likes to win. Only Wayne can answer whether he would have said, `Let's go,' even if there hadn't been a strike.''
So Huizenga gave Dombrowski what amounted to an open checkbook last winter, and in a dizzying span of less than a month, Dombrowski signed six free agents: third baseman Bobby Bonilla, pitcher Alex Fernandez, outfielder Moises Alou, lefthanded reliever Dennis Cook, and role players John Cangelosi and Jim Eisenreich.
The bill: $89 million. Then this spring, Dombrowski gave a six-year, $61 million contract extension to his franchise slugger, Gary Sheffield.
But Dombrowski, who before the flurry of player signings also had landed Leyland with a five-year contract for a reported $8 million, resists the label of ''the best team money can buy.'' The team ranked just eighth in payroll, he said, until it added $5 million man Darren Daulton in a trade with the Phillies at the end of July. Plenty of teams were within $5 million of the Marlins' payroll until that deal, he said. True: The Red Sox were one of them.
''One thing that has changed with an expansion team,'' Dombrowski said, ''is that the owners pay so much now for a franchise that they don't have patience for this thing of waiting 8, 10, 12 years to build. And realistically, you can't expedite your farm system. If you're going to be competitive with the top clubs, you have to spend money.''
But just throwing money at players doesn't win you anything, either, Dombrowski said. That's been proven many times. You have to sign the right players. And in that regard, Dombrowski is on a roll. Even before last winter's spree, he signed center fielder Devon White and pitcher Kevin Brown, and the farm system wasn't dormant, either, producing cornerstone catcher Charles Johnson and shortstop Edgar Renteria.
And the kid who wore his swimsuit to an interview still has a knack for conducting business at the oddest times. Dombrowski was on his honeymoon in Australia when the Marlins were trying to sign Cuban rookie Livan Hernandez. The phone rang in the honeymoon suite at 3 a.m., Dombrowski lieutenants telling him how high the bidding had gone.
Dombrowski, who rarely curses, couldn't restrain himself in that moment. But in a conference call with Huizenga and club president Don Smiley, he put together the deal that made Hernandez a Marlin.
The reward came Tuesday night, amid the champagne fountains sprouting in the victors' clubhouse, when Dombrowski grabbed his wife, Karie, and pointed at Hernandez, MVP of the National League Championship Series.
''Look,'' he said, ''there's our honeymoon baby.''
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