The First Time Dave Dombrowski Tore Down A World Series Winner

Dave Dombrowski has had plenty of experience dismantling World Series-winning teams. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Dave Dombrowski did what every executive sets out to do: built a World Series winner. He crafted a roster through aggressive trades, expensive signings, and even some prospect development; that roster both played well and got lucky, ending their season with a championship. But before the celebratory champagne had dried, ownership presented Dombrowski with a demand: slash payroll. 

The year was 1997, when Dombrowski was general manager of the then-Florida Marlins. But the year was also 2018, when Dombrowski was president of baseball operations with the Red Sox. Dombrowski is one of the few senior executives to have had the honor of winning two World Series titles. But unlike most who have shared that honor, Dombrowski has also twice been instructed to unwind those winning teams immediately after the World Series — a far more exclusive and far more dubious honor. The symmetry is curious, and the differences between the two build-ups and tear-downs are a stark demonstration of how MLB’s relation to profit has changed over the last two decades.

Baseball teams are the work of many different hands, but if any team can belong to one executive, the 1997 Marlins belonged to Dave Dombrowski. He essentially created the team from scratch; the franchise itself originated in the 1993 expansion, and Dombrowski was its first (and, through that season, its only) GM. After the first couple of Marlins seasons proved lackluster in both on-field performance and attendance, owner Wayne Huizenga sought to squeeze more public money out of Miami for a new stadium. He decided on a new method: spiking interest in the franchise by investing in a talented squad, then leveraging that increased interest into a better negotiating position. 

If you didn’t know how this story ends, you might think this plan was a good thing: an owner investing in the on-field product instead of cutting it down to the bone, even the investment was being made for selfish financial reasons. And really, even knowing how this story ends, it was, ultimately, a good thing. Over the next couple of years, Dombrowski continuously made the kind of aggressive, clever, present-focused moves that he has since become famous for. 

Through his seven full seasons of play through 1995, Kevin Brown had run an 89 ERA- over 1,451 innings. Dombrowski signed him to a three-year, $12.6 million contract in the 1995–’96 offseason, and over the life of the deal, Brown was a full-blown ace, carrying a 58 ERA- over 727 innings. Next offseason, Dombrowski signed a pair of all-stars in a youthful Moises Alou and an aging-but-still-good Bobby Bonilla. Starter Alex Fernandez was coming off a 258-inning campaign with a 72 ERA- for the White Sox and signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Marlins. Dombrowski also called up Liván Hernández for 17 starts with a 79 ERA-, good for second place in the ’97 NL rookie-of-the-year voting. He traded for Gregg Zaun partway through 1996 and Craig Counsell in ’97. In a single offseason, the team’s payroll spiked by a whopping 55%.

The upshot: the Marlins under Dombrowski added a ton of talent leading up to the 1997 season, and it paid off. Florida won 92 games, good enough for its first winning season and the NL Wild Card. The Marlins beat the 101-win Braves for the NL pennant, then won Game Seven of the World Series against Cleveland on an 11th-inning walk-off single by Édgar Rentería. Dombrowski had spent Huizenga’s money wisely, and it worked out better than anyone could’ve hoped for.

But it’s what happened next that really distinguishes the 1997 Marlins season. Floridians had turned out in droves for the Marlins’ World Series run: Total attendance for the year was 2.3 million, up a whopping 35 percent from the prior season. Huizenga seemingly got just what he wanted, and the franchise was set up for a sustained run of success. But for whatever reason – because the ploy didn’t get Huizenga the publicly funded stadium he had hoped for; because the team’s costs still outweighed its profits; because he was never really interested in owning a baseball team in the first place – less than two weeks after the end of the World Series, Huizenga announced that he was selling the Marlins and mandated that Dombrowski engage in the most destructive tear-down of a team in modern baseball history.

And that’s exactly what Dombrowski did. On November 11, 1997, he traded Alou to the Astros for three minor league relievers. He sent  Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, and three other major leaguers to the Dodgers in exchange for Mike Piazza, then traded Piazza to the Mets for a pair of minor leaguers. He traded Brown to the Padres for three minor leaguers (are you sensing the trend?); in the last season of the deal Dombrowski had made with Brown, he threw 257 innings with a 60 ERA- and led the Padres to the NL pennant. (The Marlins, by contrast, went 54-108.)  Hernández was the only player on the team for the entire ’98 season who was paid more than $550,000.

Under Dombrowski’s stewardship, the team’s payroll fell back to its 1996 levels. Huizenga sold the team to John Henry at the end of the season, and Dombrowski left for the Tigers a few years later.

In baseball writing, there’s a whole set of vocabulary that’s practically reserved for discussions of the 1997–’98 Marlins offseason. It was “one of the most complete and devastating fire sales in baseball history.” It was a “liquidation,” a “filleting,” a “purge.” Huizenga and Dombrowski had “burned down a World Series champion.” It has become the foremost symbol of a specific type of craven, greedy behavior by owners that are totally indifferent to on-field success and care only about their bottom line.

The 2018 Red Sox were not Dombrowski’s team to the degree that the ’97 Marlins were, but he had a critical role in their construction. He traded for Craig Kimbrel prior to 2016 and for Chris Sale prior to 2017; he signed J.D. Martinez to his current five-year, $110 million deal; he signed Mitch Moreland to a one-year deal for 2017 followed by a two-year deal for 2018 and ’19; he entrusted 21-year-old Rafael Devers with the starting third base job; and he traded for Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce partway through the 2018 campaign. As an imperfect measure of Dombrowski’s influence, consider that the above players accounted for 49% of the team’s pitcher WAR and 27% of the team’s position player WAR. He hadn’t built it from scratch, but the 2018 Red Sox were still Dombrowski’s team. And like the ’97 Marlins, the ’18 Red Sox won it all, breezing through the regular season (108 wins) and postseason (a combined 11–3 record across the three rounds). For the second time, Dombrowski had built a team and led it to a championship.

But in what must have felt to Dombrowski like a cruel episode of déjà vu, team owner John Henry – the same John Henry who bought the Marlins from Wayne Huizenga in the fall of 1998 – instructed Dombrowski to cut payroll within weeks of the final out. Unlike Huizenga, Henry didn’t announce his plans publicly, and because the reports detailing his mandate to Dombrowski only came out a few months ago, putting together a precise timeline is difficult. But one thing is clear now, and must have been clear to Dombrowski at the time: the Red Sox’s on-field success wasn’t enough for Henry, or wasn’t even the real point. Dombrowski had reached the pinnacle of success in his field twice in his career, 21 years apart, and each time been instructed to undo his work immediately thereafter.

This time, however, Dombrowski said no. Again, the precise details of these conversations are unclear, but during a press conference in September of this year, Henry said that he and the other members of the Red Sox ownership group met with Dombrowski “right after the World Series” for “preliminary talks about our way forward.” At that time, “it was clear” to Henry that “[t]here was a difference . . . in how we thought we should move forward.” While Henry didn’t specifically identify that difference in viewpoint, he said that “we’ve known for more than a year now” that the Red Sox “need to be under” the luxury-tax threshold for the 2020 season. 

Dombrowski seemingly had a different view of what the Red Sox “needed.” There was no fire sale in the 2018–19 offseason; Boston’s payroll at the start of the 2019 season was about $2.5 million higher than at the start of the 2018 season. But when the Red Sox faltered in 2019, Henry fired Dombrowski with 19 games left in the season. He has since replaced Dombrowski with Chaim Bloom, formerly the second-in-command of the notoriously stingy Tampa Bay front office; the big questions for this offseason are which of the Rays’ cost-cutting techniques Bloom will introduce to the Red Sox, and whether Mookie Betts will still be with Boston in April.

Baseball, You Make It Hard to Love You
Again, a scandal puts fans on the defensive about their game.

The Red Sox have not slashed payroll yet, and if (or when) they do, the cuts will undoubtedly not be as drastic as the Marlins’ were in 1998. But the Red Sox are not the Marlins. In 1998, the Marlins were just three years removed from expansion and just one year into their period of increased spending. The Red Sox, by contrast, are one of baseball’s oldest and most storied franchises. They have an immense fan base, are routinely among the top spenders in the major leagues, and according to the publicly available estimates make a tidy profit ($84 million in 2019) even with their high level of spending. 

That the owners of a marquee franchise like the Red Sox can demand that their GM slash payroll immediately after winning the World Series is concerning. When the Marlins did it in 1998, it was a historical travesty; time will tell what the Red Sox actually do and how they are viewed for it. But the coverage of a potential Betts trade isn’t encouraging – most writers are seemingly content to treat it as a possibility within the boundaries of accepted team management, not a shameful retreat for a championship team. In 2019, running your team to maximize profit extraction from the host community is the norm, not a shocking departure from it.

If there’s any reason for optimism, it’s that Dombrowski didn’t go along with it this time. Of course, he was in his first GM job in 1998; two decades of GM-level work later, Dombrowski presumably felt confident that refusing to cut payroll wouldn’t endanger his career prospects in the same way it would have in 1998. But there’s still something to be said for the fact that he refused to go along with Henry’s unsavory orders, even at the cost of his job. 

Most examinations of the present sorry state of baseball’s economics use a binary framework: the owners versus the players, with any hope of limiting the ownership class’s tepid competitiveness and thirst for profit lying with the MLBPA. And major league executives have most often been allies of ownership in their drive to cut costs and boost profits at the expense of the on-field product. In 1997, Dave Dombrowski was, but in 2018, he wasn’t. It’s worth wondering whether principled executives could help bring the league back to a healthy state. If anyone would know, it’s Dombrowski.


Henry is a very-part-time baseball writer whose past work has appeared at Beyond the Box Score and Baseball Prospectus. Find him on Twitter @henrydruschel, and find his other writing at medium.com/@henrydruschel.
newest oldest most voted
Jim
Member
Member
Jim

Excellent, Henry. Nice to read your work again.

John W.
Member
Member
John W.

This is a great read- thanks.

frank
Member
frank

Ditto!

Jolie
Member
Member
Jolie

Well written and a good read. Thank you!

LightenUpFG
Member
Member

I haven’t read the article yet (will do soon) but I have to say I am impressed at the inclusion of the least flattering picture I’ve ever seen of Dombrowski. It definitely foreshadows the article’s contents quite well.

Takiar
Member
Takiar

You just proved indeed that you commented before you read the article 😉

LightenUpFG
Member
Member

True that! Yeesh… no foreshadowing whatsoever. Crummy picture, then.

Takiar
Member
Takiar

Great read. At least Dombrowski got to to teardowns after a World Series win. I saw the Expos do it after the World Series got cancelled (hey, another team linked to Dombrowski).

Dave T
Member
Dave T

This comparison is wildly overstated. Going by a Google search for old payroll numbers, the Marlins cut payroll by about 2/3 from 1997 to 1998. Their payroll went from the 7th highest in 1997 to the 3rd lowest in 1998. It was bizarre at the time as a business decision, not just a baseball decision. Getting rid of so much of 1997’s team basically guaranteed that they wouldn’t get the 1998 attendance jump – and overall interest level jump in a new expansion market – that a team typically gets after winning a World Series. Looking at numbers from Cot’s,… Read more »

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Did you miss the part about how Dombrowski disobeyed the Red Sox management about cutting payroll?

Also, the Tigers weren’t really his fault, as he was basically ordered by Illitch to do whatever he could to deliver a World Series Championship to him before he died, a quest that ultimately failed, and now Illitch doesn’t care how bad the Tigers are.

Nasty Nate
Member
Nasty Nate

Disobeyed? GMs can’t just agree to big extensions like the Sale and Bogaerts ones without ownership approval.

Dave T
Member
Dave T

I read that part, but, echoing Nasty Nate’s point, I consider Druschel’s claim that Dombrowski somehow went rogue and ignored a payroll budget set by ownership to be absurd on its face.

Also, add Eovaldi at 4 / $68 to the list of big contracts that the Red Sox signed after the 2018 season that must have had ownership approval.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Wow, no wonder Dombrowski was fired. When you go against upper management and then wind up with disappointing results, it’s not good for your employment longevity.

Nasty Nate
Member
Nasty Nate

The headline seems to imply that there was a second time that Dombrowski tore down a WS winner.

Ian Kinsler was the only player who appeared in the World Series who wasn’t on the roster the following year, and he is washed up.

Even today, most of those guys are still with the organization. I’d guess there’s only been an average or less turnover compared to other World Series winners a full year later.