How a college thesis turned Phillies’ Dave Dombrowski from an aspiring general manager to the ‘man in the middle’

Eufemia Didonato

Late in the fall of 1977, a business administration major at Western Michigan University made an unusual request. Rather than taking final exams the first week of December, like everyone else, he asked to push them back. Or move them up. Whatever it took so he could attend Major League […]

Late in the fall of 1977, a business administration major at Western Michigan University made an unusual request. Rather than taking final exams the first week of December, like everyone else, he asked to push them back. Or move them up. Whatever it took so he could attend Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings.

In Hawaii.

It was a hard sell. But Dave Dombrowski, 21 years old yet clear-eyed about his future, explained why the trip was so necessary that he would spend most of his savings to take it. With help from two faculty advisers, he persuaded a half-dozen professors. Some must have been baseball fans. Maybe they were just dreamers.

Forty-four years later, with Dombrowski on the cusp of his first season as the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, that week in Honolulu and the months leading up to it remain seminal. In a practical sense, it’s how he landed his first job for $8,000 a year with his hometown Chicago White Sox. On a broader level, it shaped his understanding of the challenges of building a major-league roster, as outlined in his 77-page undergraduate honors thesis titled “The General Manager: The Man in the Middle.”

“I loved baseball and was fascinated by the intricacies of running a team, but when I say that, of course I didn’t understand all the intricacies,” Dombrowski said last week. “When I did the paper, it provided a lot more information to me on what would be involved, and it only verified my interests in entering the game. Because I was only more fascinated by it.”

Dombrowski worked on the project for more than a year. He interviewed, or received written feedback from, more than half the GMs in the game, including the Phillies’ Paul Owens. He also found a mentor in then-White Sox GM Roland Hemond.

And he drew conclusions that, for as much as baseball has changed, still ring true.

Dombrowski, 64, has worked for six organizations across parts of five decades, a reality of a job that he characterized in his paper as “potentially transient.” He has led the expansion Florida Marlins and the tradition-rich Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox. He has been hired and fired, lauded and criticized, and built four pennant-winners and World Series champions in Florida (1997) and Boston (2018).

But he has been in demand all these years because of his knack for judging talent, which he described in 1977 as “the GM”s most predominant duty.” He also realized then that a GM “must have enough confidence in himself to make an important decision, and then be willing to take the second-guessing from the fans, media, and even the players.”

Dombrowski oozes confidence, right down to his designer suits. The man has traded away five future Hall of Famers (Randy Johnson, Tim Raines, Trevor Hoffman, Mike Piazza, and Ivan Rodriguez), talked owners into spending gobs of money on free agents (Kevin Brown in Florida; David Price and J.D. Martinez in Boston), and pulled off franchise-altering blockbusters (for Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer in Detroit; for Chris Sale in Boston), all without one of his well-coiffed silver hairs coming out of place. He has put teams together, torn them down, and rebuilt them.

Always, he’s been the man in the middle.

Making contacts

When Dombrowski was in eighth grade in suburban Chicago, a girl in his class asked what everyone wanted to be when they grew up. The answers were typical. Doctor. Lawyer. Dentist.

“I said, ‘I want to be a general manager of a Major League Baseball team,’” Dombrowski recalled. “And I remember she said, ‘Oh gosh. Give me something that’s realistic.’”

Dombrowski played football at Cornell before transferring to Western Michigan and trying to walk on to the baseball team. But he loved numbers from the time he began poring over newspaper box scores. He had a head for math and naturally wondered about teams’ finances and budgets.

Then he met Dr. Bruce Kemelgor, an associate professor in the business school at Western Michigan. Kemelgor started a sports management and consulting firm and was privy to inner workings of some teams that had become clients. Dombrowski took one of his classes and began meeting with him twice a month.

“He became a mentee of mine,” Kemelgor said by phone.

Kemelgor remembers Dombrowski as “well-focused,” an “eager learner,” and locked in on someday running a major-league front office. Dombrowski pitched a thesis that explored the evolution of the general manager. Kemelgor supported it as both an in-depth study of the role and an entrée into the baseball industry.

Step one: Send a questionnaire to every GM.

Dombrowski enlisted Kemelgor and fellow faculty adviser David Rozelle to help him come up with a set of specific questions that would yield information and help organize the paper into eight sections, ranging from the history of the GM position and famous former GMs to the more modern responsibilities of the job and the changes that may be coming.

But the questionnaires served another purpose. They were a way for Dombrowski to network with potential future employers. At a minimum, they could lead to a follow-up conversation.

“Part of our early strategy was, let’s reach out to these people,” Kemelgor said. “Let’s interview some of these people. Let’s use them as resources. And you have a legitimate reason to do so because of your senior thesis.”

Dombrowski received seven completed questionnaires. He did 16 interviews, many in person when he went home to Chicago in the summer of 1977 and teams came to town to face the White Sox or Cubs.

“I was probably a naive individual at that point in time,” Dombrowski said. “I would try to find out which hotel they were staying at and call their hotel and talk to them. But they were very accommodating as far as, if they had time they would talk to me or they’d say call back at such-and-such time. It was a lot different. It wasn’t anywhere near as large a business as it is now.”

Reached by email last week, former Toronto Blue Jays president Peter Bavasi remembered being impressed upon meeting Dombrowski.

“I’m sure Dave’s personality and upbeat outlook and his enthusiasm and intelligence stood out in that session,” Bavasi said. “Then there’s the Dombrowski smile and keen sense of humor. Who wouldn’t want to make a trade with that fellow?”

Hemond took an instant liking to Dombrowski.

After agreeing to an interview in the spring of 1977, he invited him to stay for a game at Comiskey Park. Dombrowski’s seat happened to be next to Cliff Kachline, the chief historian at the Hall of Fame. They struck up a conversation, and Kachline became a source of Dombrowski’s research.

Just like that, doors were beginning to open.

Heading for Hawaii

Dombrowski’s paper was taking shape. But if he really wanted to observe GMs in action, Hemond recommended he attend the winter meetings, the annual gathering of team executives to hash out league issues, wheel and deal, and carouse for four days in a hotel.

“I didn’t even know what the winter meetings were,” Dombrowski said. “People laughed when I said I was going to the baseball meetings in Hawaii. They were like, ‘Oh yeah, Hawaii.’ It could have been anywhere and I would have attended.”

Today’s iteration of the winter meetings are as much a job fair as a place for teams to do business. Thousands of aspiring young executives descend upon the meetings, résumés in hand. Back then, Dombrowski figures there were maybe a dozen.

An aspiring GM wouldn’t likely get much time with Dombrowski in a winter meetings setting today. But Dombrowski had little trouble finding Hemond in the lobby in 1977. Hemond introduced him to longtime White Sox scout and executive Paul Richards and legendary owner Bill Veeck. A job offer followed. The White Sox hired Dombrowski as an administrative assistant.

“I was a glorified gofer in that people told me, ‘Go for this, go for that,’” said Dombrowski, whose son, Landon, is an economics major and bullpen catcher at Wake Forest. “But I didn’t care. I loved it. I was absolutely thrilled to be able to do something that I wanted to do.”

In 1978, the White Sox employed fewer than 30 people in the front office. Today, before COVID-19, most teams had that many interns. Baseball is a nearly $11 billion industry today, with team revenues and player salaries skyrocketing. International scouting, once limited to mostly Latin America, has expanded to all corners of the globe. Data and analytics have infiltrated the sport. A GM has more information than ever to process and apply.

But the essence of the job hasn’t changed.

“If your club doesn’t do well on the field, well, that’s not good for you. And that wasn’t good for you back then,” Dombrowski said. “The ultimate end is the same. You need to find players. You need to put a good club on the field.”

It’s the reason Dombrowski is here. Former Phillies GM Matt Klentak oversaw five seasons without a winning record before stepping aside in October. Managing partner John Middleton wanted a proven winner and paid Dombrowski’s price: a four-year contract worth $20 million.

Dombrowski learned at Hemond’s side and got promoted quickly. In 1988, at age 31, he left the White Sox to become general manager of the Montreal Expos. His career was taking flight.

And it wasn’t a surprise to many of the executives who met him when he was still in college. Bavasi said he recently downloaded Dombrowski’s thesis and reread it. He was struck by how well it holds up.

“It’s wonderful material,” he said. “Amazing that while still in college he had the front office management of the game figured out so well.”

Even then, Dombrowski was in the middle of it all.

“It was a very focused and disciplined pursuit as a high-performing undergraduate,” Kemelgor said. “To have that come to fruition as well as it has, he’s had a fantastic career and he’s set a very good role model for many other people who aspire to be general managers.”

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