By Mark Wilson
August 5, 2015

Not sure it went down this way but I can see it happening.

Sometime after the ink was dry on the trade of Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets, ending a busy trade deadline week for the Tigers, GM Dave Dombrowski called home and said to his lovely bride, Karie Ross;

“Honey, time to list the house.”

Dombrowski, whether he knew it or not, was finished as Ilitch’s baseball guru.

On Tuesday, out of the blue, Ilitch made it official by replacing his longtime front office maven with assistant GM Al Avila.

This is Avila’s gig to do as he sees fit; something he’s been looking forward too since hopping on the MLB train many moons ago. It’s not often when a Major League Baseball SON is proud of a DAD in the game but that’s exactly when Tigers’ catcher/1B Alex Avila is today.

If Alex gets moved in the off-season, he has his father to blame.

As for Dombrowski? Well, let’s just say the jig was up.

Hired in early 2002 to stablize a rocky Tigers road, D.D. was supposed to be the president and CEO with Randy Smith continuing in his role as general manager. Smith had failed to right the ship following the baseball strike of 1994-95. Smith had presided over the placement of three different managers in that time; the time after Sparky Anderson.

Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish and Phil Garner all had not worked out as hoped.

When Detroit got off to an 0-and-6 start in Dombrowski’s first season, he fired both Smith and Garner.

Acting quick, he stuck Luis Pujols in the manager’s office with help from a former Montreal Expos employee, Felipe Alou.

On the radio, I used to refer to Alou as “The Seed Eater.”

All I ever saw Felipe do was eat sunflower seeds in the dugout. What “help” he allegedly gave Pujols, who had never manager in the majors before, certainly didn’t translate on the field.

155 games later, 100 of those losses, Pujols and Alou were both history.

This time period also coincided with one of D.D.’s early gaffes.

He made some disparaging comments about outfielder Bobby Higginson at a luncheon that was caught on an audio tape unbeknownst to the president. He was talking about Higgy’s contract which he deemed to be ridiculously un-tradeable.


Good thing we had no social media yet because Dombrowski would have been skewered.

He made many long suffering Tigers’ fans happy by naming Alan Trammell as manager for 2003 and beyond. The thinking was that Tram would be around for a long, long time.

Three seasons and 300 losses later, Alan was out. Those 300 losses included 119 in a dubious record-setting season of ’03.

Even though the Tigers got better each year under Trammell, Dombrowski was highly impatient. Once again, he reached back in his bag of former team tricks and hired Jim Leyland in 2006. Leyland had won Dave his only World Series championship when both were with the Florida (Miami) Marlins.

Sure enough, after shrewd moves that included big expensive free agent signings of Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers, the team jumped the shark in ’06 and made it all the way to the fall classic.

Detroit was back on the baseball map and the Tigers were the darlings of the sporting world.

Dombrowski got a ton of credit for it.

Lansing journalist Jack Ebling wrote a book on the season called, “Tales from the Detroit Tigers Dugout.” You can still get the thing on Amazon.

Jack called me for a comment on the job D.D. had done in putting that group together. I called Dombrowski, “a genius.”

Hey, come on. Since 1987 I’d seen some pretty horrible baseball squads in Motown. It had been about 20 years of futility. I was ready to crown someone, ANYONE, a genius. Good thing he didn’t ask about Ilitch. I might have given HIM emperor status.

So, yeah… the genius put together a run that lasted about a decade. Two World Series appearances, four consecutive AL Central Division titles, the “Game 163” year of 2009 and five total playoff inclusions all dot Dombrowski’s resume.

Pretty damn impressive considering since ’87 the Tigers had done bupkus. Nothing. Nada. Nyet. Zilch.

I mean, arguably, the highlight of those two decades was Cecil Fielder’s run to 51 home runs in 1990. I can’t even think of a SECOND highlight of that era.

Bill Gullickson’s 20 win season?

The final game at Tiger Stadium?

Not bad but… yikes.

By 2006, we were ready for a baseball party around Comerica Park.

Dombrowski GAVE us one and then more parties in subsequent years. He WAS a genius.

I’ve already written many times on this site about WHY the Tigers have started to take this dive. I strongly believe it has to do with the building of what will be the Mike Ilitch legacy; District Detroit.

At age 86, the Tigers and Red Wings owner is bringing a new palatial arena to the FoxTown area of the city complete with retail, office and living spaces. It will be shining light in the entertainment complex of the immediate area.

When in doubt… build a new stadium.

That’s what Ilitch is doing and he’s saving on baseball contracts. So many big names have been flushed out in the past couple of years it is obvious “District Detroit” has something to do with it.

Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Torii Hunter and others have bolted along with the recent trades of David Price, Joakim Soria and Cespedes.

That is A LOT of high priced talent banished. Lesser players have been put in those positions.

Tigers losing was inevitable.

Boot, reboot, whatever. There was no way Ilitch was going to start handing out nine figure deals anymore with the new arena coming and HUGE money still owed to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera for many years to come.

The buck stopped here.

And NOW.

When the Expos did it, Dombrowski bailed. When Wayne Huizenga and the Marlins did it, Dombrowski bailed.

See any patterns?

Call Tuesday’s event a “firing” if you want but I don’t think so.

It was a mercy killing.

In many ways, Ilitch has become like late Lions’ owner William Clay Ford.

Terrific Lions’ writer Mike O’Hara said it best when he mentioned that Ford had “no insiders.” O’Hara’s contention was that if anyone tells you what Ford was thinking they are lying because Ford didn’t tell anyone of consequence what he was thinking until he actually acted.

Look at the Lions today.

Ford’s widow, the very sweet Martha Firestone, is practically an UNKNOWN by the entire media. She is now the owner of the club.


And, no one really knows her despite being nearly 90 years old and married to WCF since 1947. She usually remained in the background at Lions games but has taken a more active role now.

A side note on Martha Firestone Ford. Just in case you don’t know, her grandfather pretty much invented THE WHEEL. Firestone Tires married the Ford Motor Company. Think about THAT at your next family reunion.

Ilitch has become very similar to Ford in that way.

He USED to have insiders. There were any of four or five different people I could go to in Olympia Sports and Entertainment to get tasty Ilitch tidbits. Many things were off the record but some were good juicy news.

Now? Not so much.

Confidant Jimmy Devellano has been around Ilitch since 1982 but just try getting anything out of Jimmy D. He is such a loyal scout that he has his mouth on lock down mostly.

And anyone that knows Devellano knows how much he likes to talk.

We’re not even sure about Mike’s real health situation.

Sometimes we hear he is convalescing in Florida and other times we hear he is back in Michigan and there might have been a sighting at a Tigers game or some such thing. Rumors about major health problems have run rampant for a few years now.

Ilitch turned 86 back on July 20th and it looks like he has back burned the idea he will ever hold up a World Series trophy to go along with his four Stanley Cup celebrations with the Wings.

Saying adios to Dombrowski may have iced it.

It’s not that Avila won’t be a capable GM.

Quite the opposite.

Many in baseball praise Avila for his scouting, baseball acumen and his loyalty to D.D. and Ilitch. He’s been around Dombrowski since the early 90’s in South Florida. Avila’s dad, Ralph, was a VP for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With a payroll that will be a shadow of what it was in the mid-2000’s, Avila simply won’t have the same bank account to work with. I am sure he knew that going into this new venture.

I would ask someone, but I’m running out of names to ask. NO INSIDERS remember?

We are left to use best judgment to figure out where the Tigers go from here.

And I don’t mean, “home, dinner and maybe a show.”

Verlander, Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez are locked in for a while. Toss in the kids the team just got in the three amigos trades along with Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellanos, Avila’s son, J.D. Martinez, James McCann and Anthony Gose and you’ve got the nucleus for a while.

The rest of the pitching staff is kind of a hot mess.

This could get a lot worse before it ever gets better.

And what of manager Brad Ausmus?

It was Dombrowski who really believed in Ausmus. He sold the Tigers’ faithful on the guy who had two tours of duty as a Tigers’ catcher. He is still young enough to be just a few years removed from an 18-year playing career. He only NOW gets on the Hall of Fame ballot for 2016.

I don’t vote for that but I am pretty sure it will be one year and out on the ballot for Brad.

My thinking is that Avila will end the relationship right after the season ends against the White Sox in Chicago on October 4 barring some miracle that has the Tiges in the post season.

A run for the second wildcard spot seems more fleeting each day.

They aren’t even that far back but would still have to jump about five teams to get there. If they did THAT? Ausmus might be Manager of the Year as I wrote previously.

Can you fire the Manager of the Year?


Avila gets along fine with Ausmus but might want to have his own guy in place. Who knows how long Avila himself will have this GM opportunity. He needs to make the most of it.

Firing Ausmus now doesn’t seem very productive.

Nor fair.

The dude DID just lead a team to the division title a year ago. It’s not like Brad tore down what Leyland had built.

Main problem in all this is that there just wasn’t enough World Series success.

Leyland won ONE game in his two series’ appearances; 1-and-4 vs. the St. Louis Cardinals and an 0-and-4 sweep to the hands of the San Francisco Giants. The baseball landscape could look drastically different if the Tigers had won one or both of those titles.

Ilitch would have held that precious (and ugly) trophy and celebrated with fans up and down Woodward Avenue to Hart Plaza. Ilitch wanted it sooooo badly. He envisioned that scenario over and over since purchasing the franchise from the other pizza man, Tom Monaghan.

Monaghan and John Fetzer before him got to get doused with champagne. Ilitch hasn’t been as lucky.

It bugs the crap out of him, believe me.

There is no shame in getting close.

If Ilitch hadn’t opened up the vault and tried? Then it would have been a shame. The shame would have been in not TRYING.

He tried. He failed. It happens.

Go ask the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings about coming close.

Those two NFL stalwarts EACH got to the Super Bowl FOUR times. Four times… they lost. To this day, the Bills and Vikes search for their first Super Bowl winner.

Detroit only has TWO World Series winners since 1945.

We revere the 1968 and 1984 clubs for getting the job done. The men on those units are GODS in the Motor City and always will be.

Hell, the opponent in the 1945 series was the lovable losing Chicago Cubs. They haven’t even BEEN to a World Series since that ’45 campaign; billy goat curse or not.

It’s why Steve Bartman remains such a hated villain in Chicago twelve years removed from that infamous play where he prevented Moises Alou from making a catch that might have contributed to putting the Cubs in the series. Florida scored eight runs after that and another Cubs’ fantasy was thwarted.

We don’t have a Bartman here.

What we DO have are people who didn’t get it done.

Dombrowski is one of those people.

Say what you want, the genius leaves Detroit without getting Ilitch his coveted ugly trophy. 1984 reunions remain important to remember the last time we partied down to Kennedy Square.

He came close and he gave us some thrills for more than a decade.

Close wasn’t good enough.

Detroit wants champions; like any city wants. We thrive on them and worship them.

Dave will head off to another job in Toronto, Seattle, Anaheim… somewhere. He’s not going to retire at age 59 mainly because Karie Ross won’t allow it. She knows how much baseball means to her husband.

Also because, baseball is his lifeline.

I always liked the dude. He was pleasant to talk with, would argue baseball in a calm manner and allow you to make your case why a move of his was no good or excellent. When I presented a theory that Castellanos wasn’t the third baseman of the future, he found a way to shoot me down… nicely.

His hair, compared to ex-Wings coach Mike Babcock, got a lot more grey in his time here. The salt and pepper look works for him.

At some point this off-season, he will stand at a podium with Karie and the kids behind him and extol his virtues as a president, GM or other. He’ll tell the tale of the Expos, Marlins and Tigers. He will convince his new fan base that he is there to “get it done.”

If ONLY he could have gotten it done here.