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The Untold Inside Story of the 2008 Season
By Andy Van Slyke, Jim Hawkins
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Andy Van Slyke and Jim Hawkins
All rights reserved.
"What a Great Addition for Us!"
DECEMBER 4, 2007
Today's show-stopping, baseball-shaking, blockbuster trade with the Florida Marlins caught everyone, including the Detroit Tigers' brass, by surprise.
And it immediately catapulted the Tigers into the role of preseason favorites to win the Central Division title, the American League pennant, and, in the minds of many, even the World Series.
Literally overnight, the Tigers, injured underachievers in 2007, became the talk of baseball and, for the first time in more than two decades, the Team to Beat.
Yesterday morning, in a quiet corner of one of the many lobbies of the sprawling 40-acre Opryland Resort, with its waterfalls, atriums, bridges, gift shops, and endless hallways, Jim Leyland, the Tigers' crusty manager, admitted the team had come to baseball's annual winter convention intent on doing nothing more dramatic than maybe "tweaking" things here and there.
Dave Dombrowski, the team's president and general manager, said basically the same thing when he met with a handful of Detroit writers later the same day.
The Tigers were set for the 2008 season, content to sit back and watch baseball's other teams worry about filling holes in their rosters and shedding superfluous salaries.
For the Tigers, who surprised the baseball world by advancing to the World Series in 2006 — the once-proud franchise's first winning season after a dozen consecutive forlorn summers under .500 — it was definitely going to be a boring week.
"I'm down here to have a few glasses of wine and see a few friends," Leyland joked that evening, firing up another Marlboro outside in the parking lot, one of the few places around the 2,881-room Opryland Hotel where the Tigers manager's second-favorite pastime — smoking — was permitted.
For 106 years, baseball's executives on both the major- and minor-league levels have gathered each off-season to discuss the business of the Grand Old Game and, more importantly, to try to swap players.
Rumors were rampant that Minnesota Twins ace pitcher Johan Santana, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, and Florida's undercelebrated Miguel Cabrera, one of the most formidable young sluggers in the game, would be on the trading block this week.
However, none of the many hypothetical scenarios swirling around those two superstars, or others, involved the Detroit Tigers.
Parting with the pride of the Tigers' farm system, either pitcher Andrew Miller or outfielder Cameron Maybin — let alone both of them — was the furthest thing from anyone's mind.
Those two kids, both of whom debuted with the Tigers during the 2007 season, with mixed results, were assumed to be as untouchable as Eliot Ness.
Having already moved Carlos Guillen to first base to ease the stress on his aching knees; having acquired veteran Edgar Renteria to replace Guillen at shortstop and Jacque Jones to platoon in left field; having re-signed future Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez to again be their every-day catcher, Todd Jones to be their closer, and Kenny Rogers to be one of their starting pitchers, the Tigers were ready for 2008.
Or so they thought.
Then, at 7:00 am this morning, the telephone rang in Dave Dombrowski's swank sixth-floor suite.
On the other end of the line at that early hour was Larry Beinfest, president of the cash-strapped Florida Marlins, offering to swap the All-Star slugger Cabrera and former 22-game winner Dontrelle Willis for prize Tigers prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, plus four other players, none of whom figured prominently in the team's plans for the immediate future.
Members of the Tigers' front office were stunned.
Following a mandatory general managers' meeting this morning, an anxious Dombrowski summoned Jim Leyland along with all of the Tigers' executives, scouts, and minor-league officials to his suite.
Then Dave locked the door.
"All I want is your opinion on whether you would make this deal or not," Dombrowski told his staff, most of them handpicked by the Tigers' CEO after he was given almost total control of the floundering franchise in 2002. "Don't get into the financing. I'll worry about the financing."
"That room was intense," Jim Leyland admitted later. "I usually don't get too excited about trades or free-agent signings. But I was a little shook up. I did a lot of pacing."
One by one, each man in the room spoke his piece.
"It was unanimous: 'Let's do it,'" Leyland said.
"This wasn't a no-brainer," the Tigers manager added. "This was a brainer."
Late this afternoon, Dombrowski phoned Tigers owner Mike Ilitch at his home to let him know — in terms of both dollars and talent — exactly what it would take to put Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis into uniforms bearing the Olde English D.
After all, given the big bucks involved, a deal of this magnitude is not made without the blessing of the boss.
"Are you sitting down?" Dombrowski asked Ilitch, who made his fortune peddling Little Caesars pizza pies.
The reclusive 78-year-old Tigers owner laughed.
When Dombrowski laid out the details of the proposed trade with the Marlins, Ilitch — who played a prominent role in the earlier signings of free agents Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, key cogs in the Tigers' renaissance, and who had recently urged Dombrowski to explore the possibility of acquiring Cabrera — simply said, "Wow!"
"It hit him out of the blue," Dombrowski said later. "He was thrilled."
A world championship was at the top of Ilitch's Bucket List.
The Tigers were going all-in.
With Ilitch's backing, Dombrowski phoned the Marlins to say they had a deal — a scant 19 hours after the two teams had first discussed such a trade in the most elementary, exploratory terms late last night.
However, there was one hitch. Before the trade could become official, the Tigers and Marlins had to exchange and review medical reports on each of the eight players involved in the deal. Even with the modern-day efficiency of the Internet, emails, and fax machines, that process takes time.
Worried that word might leak out and jeopardize the deal, the Tigers officials were sequestered in Dombrowski's suite, sworn to secrecy, and ordered to stay put.
"It was like walking by the tree the day before Christmas and seeing all those presents — and your mom and dad won't let you open any of them," a grinning Leyland admitted later.
I first became convinced that the rumors of a major trade involving the Tigers and Marlins that had been whispered throughout the hotel since midday were true when I approached Dombrowski's suite for his scheduled press briefing late this afternoon and found Rob Matwick, the Tigers' vice president of communications, standing guard outside the door.
"The meeting has been canceled," Matwick said cryptically.
I headed back to the media workroom, phoned my newspaper, The Oakland Press, with an update and immediately began writing the story that I had been piecing together since noon.
I have been in this business since 1966 and covered my first winter meetings in 1970, but I sensed this trade.
Upstairs, in Dombrowski's suite, the Tigers ordered pizza for the entire staff. With Dombrowski's permission, Leyland slipped out for a much-needed cigarette and a late-night dinner with his close friend, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
But other than that, until the blockbuster became official early the following day, the Tigers execs were rarely allowed to leave the room except to sleep. Loose lips sink ships.
"There was a big sigh of relief when Dave finally gave us the thumbs-up that the deal was done," Leyland admitted.
"You know," the Tigers manager added softly, as if somehow the thought had just crept into his mind after 31 nerve-wracking hours, "this really is a big deal. This is huge. It's all been mind-boggling.
"I had no idea something like this was going to happen. This is probably the most shocked I've ever been at any winter meetings. I've had a headache for two days.
"Dave [Dombrowski] really showed me something, the way he stepped up to the plate," Leyland declared.
"I think I'm a pretty aggressive manager. I pull some strings in the dugout. But I would never have been able to pull the trigger on this trade. That took some guts, man. I would have been a nervous wreck."
The unexpected addition of the boyish, underappreciated Miguel Cabrera, with his unlimited potential, and the effervescent Dontrelle Willis, with his funky wind-up, instantly propelled the Tigers into the baseball spotlight.
The Tigers haven't had a slugger of Cabrera's caliber and potential since young Hank Greenberg emerged in the 1930s.
This was the Tigers' biggest deal since the famous Denny McLain heist 37 years earlier.
Since their disappointing showing in the 2006 World Series, the Tigers have added a designated hitter (Gary Sheffield), a shortstop (Renteria), a third baseman (Cabrera), and a left-handed starting pitcher (Willis) — all of them All-Stars in seasons past — all without giving up a single player who had spent so much as one full season in the major leagues.
That's quite a tribute to Dombrowski's ability to wheel and deal.
Only after the trade was announced did Dombrowski reveal the story of how the stunning deal unfolded, beginning with a casual early-evening phone call from Mike Ilitch, the normally hands-off owner, to Dombrowski's home two days before Thanksgiving.
The fact that it was, incredibly, the first time in Dombrowski's six years as the Tigers' CEO that Ilitch had ever phoned him at home only added to the drama.
"I keep reading this guy Miguel Cabrera's name in the paper," Ilitch told Dombrowski. "Do we have any interest in him?"
"Yes, we do," Dombrowski replied, never imagining anything might come of the whimsical conversation.
Dombrowski, in fact, already knew Miguel Cabrera better than most. It was Dombrowski, then the general manager of the Florida Marlins, who had signed Cabrera to his first professional contract in 1999.
"It seems like he would be a great player for us," Ilitch said.
"Yeah, he would be," Dombrowski agreed, smiling to himself at the idea, no matter how far-fetched.
What team wouldn't want a young slugger of Cabrera's ability in its lineup?
"Maybe it's something we could do," Ilitch suggested. "Maybe we can work something out."
"We'll see," Dombrowski said.
Then both men hung up.
"I didn't think it was realistic," Dombrowski admitted after the dream had become a reality.
Nevertheless, in baseball as in any business, a smart executive never ignores a suggestion from his boss.
It was no secret that Cabrera was available — for the right price. Everyone at this winter's meetings had heard that. And late yesterday evening, Dombrowski instructed his right-hand man, Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, to phone the Florida Marlins to find out exactly what they might be looking for in exchange for Cabrera.
The two teams bounced some preliminary names back and forth, but Dombrowski remained skeptical. Such a trade still seemed like a pipe dream. The Tigers had no intention of parting with either Cameron Maybin or Andrew Miller, who were considered to be the future of the franchise. And they certainly would not part with both of them.
Still, Dombrowski has been in baseball long enough to know you never say never.
"I told our people, 'We're going to be open-minded, we're going to throw some things out there and see if we can get better,'" the Tigers GM revealed later.
"Somebody was going to get him [Cabrera]," the often-blunt Leyland pointed out in a futile effort to dodge the barrage of premature pennant predictions that he knew were sure to follow. "What were we supposed to do, wait around for somebody else to grab him?"
Then, shaking his head in amazement at the suddenness of it all, Leyland admitted, "A month or so ago, we were a much different club."
Suddenly, the Tigers were much, much better.
For me, it was eerily similar to the scenario that had unfolded 37 years earlier when, on a flight to the 1970 World Series, Bob Short, the starstruck owner of the Washington Senators, handed a neatly folded sheet of paper to then-Tigers general manager Jim Campbell, who was seated across the aisle of the airplane.
On it, Short had written four names: Senators pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan, shortstop Eddie Brinkman, and third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez.
All that Short wanted from the Tigers in return were washed-up Denny McLain, over-the-hill third baseman Don Wert, and prospects Elliott Maddox and Norm McRae.
Campbell later confessed it was all he could do not to jump right out of his seat. Today, Dave Dombrowski understood how his deceased predecessor felt. Gifts like this fall into a team's lap, well, once every 37 years — if they're lucky.
"Top to bottom, this is the best Tigers team I've ever seen since I've been in a Tigers uniform," declared Al Kaline, the Hall of Fame front office executive who has been a part of the organization for 55 years.
* * *
It was all news to me. I didn't know anything about any trade in the works. I didn't know we were even talking to the Florida Marlins about Miguel Cabrera.
I had no sniff.
During the off-season, I basically become a fan until it's time to go to Florida again for spring training. For me, the off-season is a chance to play a little golf and spend more time with my wife, Lauri, and our four sons. During the season, obviously, I don't get to do that nearly as much as I would like.
So I was at home in St. Louis when a friend of mine, who has been a St. Louis Cardinals season-ticket holder since the 1960s, a guy who is a real baseball junkie, called me.
The first words out of his mouth were, "You guys just got better today."
I had no idea what he was talking about. I was completely out of the loop.
Certainly, nobody in the Tigers organization called to ask me what I thought about trading for Miguel Cabrera. Nobody asked me a thing. Nor would I expect them to. That's not the way it works in baseball. Guys like me are usually the last to know.
So right away, I said to my friend, "We did?"
I guess, to him, I must have sounded pretty clueless.
I had heard nothing about any trades involving the Tigers.
I go on the Internet a lot during the winter months. Of course, I always pay attention to what's going on with the Tigers and all throughout baseball. But nobody sniffed this one. Nobody was speculating about the Tigers trading for Miguel Cabrera. Nobody.
Anyway, my friend said to me, "You guys just got Miguel Cabrera."
I didn't believe him. I said, "Naw, you're kidding, right?"
We talked for a couple minutes, and when it finally sunk in that the trade really was happening, my first reaction was, "What a great addition for us!"
I only believed it could possibly be happening because I knew the value of Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin.
It was the perfect relationship between the Florida organization's philosophy and the philosophy and new commitment in Detroit.
I knew we were willing to risk trading young talent in exchange for proven talent at the big-league level. We wanted to win.
But the Marlins' philosophy is, they're willing to get rid of proven value in exchange for young talent so that they don't have to spend as much in players' salaries and they can build for the future.
If someone in the organization had called me today and asked what I thought about the trade, my initial reaction would have been, "Great! Put Miguel Cabrera in left field, right field, center field. Heck, put him at catcher. Just put that bat in the lineup." That's just my opinion. I don't know what's going to happen. But I'll tell you this: I'm looking forward to spring training already.
JANUARY 12, 2008
A sellout crowd of 8,500 showed up at chilly Comerica Park for FanFest this afternoon. They came out in the cold to get their first look at Miguel Cabrera and the rest of the mighty team that nearly everyone expects to muscle its way to the Central Division title and the American League pennant this summer.
Excerpted from Tigers Confidential by Andy Van Slyke, Jim Hawkins. Copyright © 2009 Andy Van Slyke and Jim Hawkins. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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