DREW SHARP: Mixed feelings for Dave Dombrowski back in Detroit

It was admittedly strange for Dave Dombrowski this afternoon. His home for 14 years was now enemy territory. The former Tigers president and general manager returned to Comerica Park for the first time since his tenure unceremoniously concluded a year ago this month following an abrupt telephone conversation with owner Mike Ilitch in the Tigers’ clubhouse.

“It feels mixed,” said Dombrowski, in town with his new team, the Boston Red Sox. “There are many great memories here. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of friends who have called me. It’s just a little unusual in that the last time I was at the ballpark was a year ago and it didn’t end in the best of circumstances.”

When Dombrowski saw Al Kaline standing outside the Red Sox clubhouse waiting to talk with him, he ran over and gave Kaline a big hug.

“I don’t get to see this in Boston,” Dombrowski said, pointing to the Hall of Famer.

Ever the politician, Dombrowski understood the importance of publicly maintaining the gracious high road regardless of whatever personal feelings may still simmer underneath the surface a year later.

“I don’t want to reflect on last year,” he said. “There were a lot of emotions involved. It was a great place to be for 14 years. But I’m not going to talk about that at all. I’ve been asked numerous times and I’m not going there. That’s something that I’m going to stay away from.”

Dombrowski said he has spoken with Tigers’ chief executive Chris Ilitch. But he has not spoken with Mike Ilitch since his dismissal.

Suspicions of residual bitterness were the root of reports that the Red Sox were upset that the Tigers wouldn’t change the starting time of Thursday’s game. They requested a later start because the Red Sox had a night game Wednesday in Baltimore. And they made the request long before anybody knew the Lions would host an exhibition game Thursday evening across the street from Comerica Park at Ford Field, potentially creating some logistical challenges.

“It’s got nothing to do with me,” Dombrowski said about the Tigers’ refusal.

But the attention the conflict received has everything to do with the polarizing opinions regarding Dombrowski’s overall performance in his 14 years in Detroit.

Within the narrow prism of World Series title-or-failure, Dombrowski was a disappointment. Ilitch plainly said during his last public appearance last November that “he didn’t win enough” despite two American League championships and four straight divisional titles. He signs the checks. He can set whatever standard he wishes.

But within more abstract terms, Dombrowski left an organization in far better shape upon his departure than the desolation he inherited in 2001. A year later, the fingerprints of Dombrowski’s legacy are apparent in rookie Michael Fulmer’s meteoric rise to serious American League Cy Young Award consideration as well as youngsters Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris looking like they’ll become solid contributors to the Tigers’ starting rotation for several years to come.

There’s little middle ground when publicly evaluating Dombrowski. He deserves his rightful share of criticism for the bullpen woes that cost the Tigers their last great shot at a world championship in 2013. But had he not maximized the value of trade chips David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria at the deadline last summer – which led, by the way, to Ilitch formerly offering the GM job to Al Avila without Dombrowski’s knowledge – the Tigers would be in far worse shape right now.

“At the time,” Dombrowski recalled, “we focused on trying to do the best job we possibly could in trying to get the best young talent and build for the future. It was important to get young pitching. I’m happy that those young players are doing well, but it’s not my circumstance any longer.”

Ironically, Thursday marked Dombrowski’s one-year anniversary as the Red Sox’s president of baseball operations. There remain some regrets that he never led the Tigers to the mountaintop, but he’s happily moved on to the next chapter of his baseball life.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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