DETROIT — The Phillies were flying back from Colorado on Wednesday night when general manager Dave Dombrowski got the text message from his son Landon: Miggy has three hits against the Yankees, and he was one away from 3,000 with one more at-bat to go.
Only problem for the elder Dombrowski: He couldn’t watch or stream the game on the flight, so he asked his son to keep him posted.
They were somewhere over the Midwest when the next text message came in. It was simply a sad emoji, after Cabrera struck out in his final at-bat.
The Phillies were off on Thursday when Cabrera made his next attempt at 3,000. Jet lag wasn’t going to stop Dombrowski from following the chase.
Asked how he would describe his perspective, the Tigers’ former president/general manager said, “I would guess I would describe it as an interested observer. I’m thrilled.”
Dombrowski was the Marlins’ general manager when Florida signed Cabrera out of Venezuela as a teenager. As the Tigers’ GM, he was the architect of the trade that brought Cabrera to Detroit at the 2007 Winter Meetings, and both contract extensions that have kept him in the Motor City ever since.
It was one of the biggest trades in the career of an executive known for big trades. Detroit swapped six Minor Leaguers, including top prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, for Cabrera and All-Star starter Dontrelle Willis. It reshaped the paths of two organizations.
In many ways, this chase for 3,000 hits — and the run for 500 home runs that preceded it last summer — is the culmination of the vision that late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch had in mind when Detroit signed Cabrera to an eight-year extension through the 2023 season.
The deal came together at the end of Spring Training in 2014. Cabrera had two years to go before free agency, but he was coming off three consecutive American League batting titles and back-to-back MVP Awards, and he was a year separated from his Triple Crown. The Tigers, meanwhile, had won three consecutive division titles, and the club went to the AL Championship Series in each of those years.
The Tigers knew the contract was long for a hitter nearing his 32nd birthday at the time. They realized that Cabrera could be a different hitter at age 40. But Ilitch knew the value of superstars, knew what Cabrera meant to the team’s success, knew what Cabrera had sacrificed to help the team win, and he wanted Cabrera to be a Tiger for the rest of his career.
“When [Cabrera] goes into Cooperstown,” Dombrowski remembers Ilitch saying, “I want him to go in as a Tiger.”
They didn’t talk about the milestones, Dombrowski said. Still, given the numbers Cabrera had already posted, it was clearly a strong possibility. And events like this would be part of the legacy.
But the ties between Cabrera and Dombrowski go even deeper. Their families grew close in Detroit. Landon was a young boy when Cabrera came to town; the two became friends and remain so.
“It was a family experience [Wednesday] night,” Dombrowski said. “It’s a bonding experience for us. We know him so well. He treated my family so well. And I’m so proud of him.”
Cabrera will be just the seventh player to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in his career. Whenever he hits his next double, he’ll be just the third to add 600 doubles to those milestones.
Dombrowski’s career in baseball front offices has connected him with several Hall of Famers. He was the farm director with the White Sox when a young slugger named Harold Baines came up through the system. He was the Expos’ general manager in the late 1980s when Tim Raines was a star and Larry Walker made his Major League debut in Montreal. He became the Marlins’ GM in the early 1990s and brought in Andre Dawson for his final few seasons. He took over in Detroit in 2002 and signed Ivan Rodriguez a couple years later.
“When you get to that point, they’re all great,” Dombrowski said. “But the one thing [Cabrera] had was the ability to be a great hitter with power. And the way he hit to the opposite field, I can’t tell you anybody I’ve been around that hit to the opposite field with that power.”
Dombrowski saw that opposite-field hitting, that philosophy, carry over to other hitters he brought into Detroit — J.D. Martinez foremost, but also Nick Castellanos and Yoenis Cespedes. But nobody compared to Cabrera.
“The players who benefitted from him, learning from him, are numerous,” Dombrowski said.
Dombrowski could well end up recognized in Cooperstown at the end of his career for his work in baseball. If and when he does, Cabrera will be a major part of his resume.
“I just think the world of him,” he said.