It’s been less than 24 hours since Dave Dombrowski was fired from his job as President of Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway during the game. It’s both shocking and not at all; someone’s head was going to roll after this season, it was only a matter of who’s. But the fact that it happened not only during a game, but before the official end of the season, was unforeseen, and frankly, not a great look for the organization.
Dave Dombrowski led this team to a championship less than 11 months ago, and he’s already gone. That’s not entirely surprising for the Red Sox, whose standards are higher than ever after winning their fourth championship in the last fifteen years, and whose season has been nothing short of a frustrating puzzle of somewhat-inexplicable failure. There is no tolerance for anything but the best when it comes to Boston sports, especially since the start of the millennium: the New England Patriots have won six Super Bowls, the Boston Bruins have won a Stanley Cup, the Boston Celtics have won the NBA championship, and the Red Sox are the only team in MLB with four World Series. Becoming ‘Title Town’ has only made the city hungrier for more, and nothing but better than the best is acceptable.
Dombrowski was no novice when he came to Boston. He worked his way up through the ranks of the Chicago White Sox and Montreal Expos, before becoming their GM in 1988, at the time, the youngest in MLB. The expansion-team Florida Marlins, who were owned by eventual-Red Sox team owner John Henry, recruited him to be their first GM in 1991, and under his watch, they won their first World Series in 1997. He remained with the Marlins until 2001, when he left to become president of the Detroit Tigers, one of MLB’s oldest franchises. John Henry, meanwhile, sold the Marlins in 2002 and headed up the group that bought the Red Sox. In August 2015, he hired Dombrowski again, this time, to turn around a last-place team.
Dombrowski proceeded to do what he’s done before: spend big to get big. He gave David Price the most lucrative pitching contract in history, $217 million for seven years. He dealt top prospects for Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel, depleting the elite farm system his predecessor Ben Cherington had spent his tenure growing. The results: the highest payroll in baseball, a barren farm system, three division titles, and a World Series championship. Success, but not without serious side effects. Dave Dombrowski built a championship team, but he made a heck of a mess in the process. The 2018 Red Sox did damage, but it’s Dave Dombrowski who now leaves a damaged franchise in his wake.
The reasons for his firing, despite the awkward, somewhat bad timing, make sense. High payroll and no real remaining prospects are things ownership will overlook to an extent when they’re the reason the team is the best in baseball, but when a team is playing the way the Red Sox have this year, those issues are going to be the reason someone’s out of a job.
As for the timing of his departure, unless there was another major issue that isn’t publicly known, it seems like ownership just feels this season is already over, and they want to turn the page as quickly as possible. The fact that there will be no press conference or official announcement, simply the press release, supports this. It’s the best way for them to control the situation and attempt to make as smooth a transition as possible. After all, Dombrowski and manager Alex Cora spent much of this season hanging onto the fact that they won in 2018, focusing on the past instead of the tumultuous present and future. This team needs to move forward now and not dwell. To quote Babe Ruth, “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.”
There’s also credibility to the claim that Dombrowski is the scapegoat. Multiple sources confirmed what many have been speculated since the Sox spent the offseason celebrating, not signing: that ownership put a freeze on Dombrowski’s spending, so he wasn’t able to upgrade the team even when they knew it was necessary. Not wanting to go over the highest luxury tax threshold again makes obvious sense; better to wait until the end of the season, when a lot of money would come off the books. But to let Craig Kimbrel, a shaky, but key piece of the historic team walk away and not even attempt to replace him was all but guaranteeing the bullpen would be problematic this season and a key reason why the team wouldn’t be able to contend. So while they’d continue to have the highest payroll in baseball, the Red Sox would also not be able to compete with the best teams. And they haven’t been; they’ve struggled against some of the worst teams in baseball. Barring a miracle run, the Red Sox season will end in September, not October, and it will be over $253 million wasted. It’s too painful to think about how different this season would have been with a few offseason upgrades. But if Dombrowski’s hands were tied, there was really only so much he could have done to save this season.
Of course, it’s worth noting Dombrowski how spent the offseason: re-signing players who were key to the 2018 team’s success, to be sure, but overall, questionable choices. Chris Sale only pitched once between late July and early September 2018, and it was a joking faux-rehab start against the Orioles. His shoulder inflammation kept him benched for a large chunk of the championship season, but he also had a memorable stint as the Game 5 closer, getting Manny Machado to strike out swinging so hard he landed on a knee, a Hollywood ending to a championship year. Dombrowski gave him a five-year, $145 million extension. Nathan Eovaldi, Dombrowski’s miracle midseason acquisition and postseason warrior, received 4 years at $68′ million, and World Series MVP Steve Pearce received 1 year at just over $6 million. All three players have been, or are now on the Injured List for significant amounts of time, and the Red Sox have been forced to fill their roles with skeleton crews of long relievers and random call-ups from Triple-A, none of whom have been successful. Extending the homegrown and beloved Xander Bogaerts, who is having a career season and should be in the running for AL MVP, will go down as Dombrowski’s only successful offseason move. If the bullpen had been even slightly upgraded, the loss of a strong starting rotation would not have been as detrimental to the team’s success or lack thereof. But Dave Dombrowski built a championship team around a starting rotation, and thus, the dominos fell.
The Red Sox are 17.5 games out of first, and now faced with a severely depleted farm system and millions of dollars owed to players who might not even be useful to them in the coming season. Dave Dombrowski, known as a big spender of both dollars and prospects, is not the man for the job of replenishing the farm or rebuilding the team, so despite his requests for a contract extension for himself, the man who so cavalierly gave out extensions last year, was denied his own. It’s harsh, but it makes sense. The Red Sox need someone who thinks long-term and can make calculated moves, not grand gestures.
As it stands, Dave Dombrowski has two World Series, an NLCS, and three ALCS championships under his belt. The Red Sox team largely constructed by him won three consecutive division titles, a franchise-record 108 regular season games, and bulldozed their way to a World Series last October. Many teams will likely be interested in hiring him. He’s landed on his feet before.
It’s also important to remember how lucky we are as Boston sports fans: many teams and their fans would kill for just one championship. We have had four in fifteen years, literally unparalleled success. At the end of the day, Dave Dombrowski did what he was brought here to do, and though he made a mess, it’s not even close to a regrettable one, and he’s actually not the right person to clean it up. So as frustrating as this season has been, he did give us something magical last year that we’ll all cherish forever. Being a Red Sox fan is the ultimate roller coaster ride, with the highest highs and lowest lows. But think long and hard about whether or not you’d trade last season for the stability of being drama-free and stress-free, but without another banner. I wouldn’t.
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