Home featured Amid the Storm, Dave Dombrowski Plots an M.L.B. Future in Nashville

Amid the Storm, Dave Dombrowski Plots an M.L.B. Future in Nashville

Credit…Jeanetta Gonzales

Assume for a moment — and it is a grand assumption — that Major League Baseball safely completes its 60-game schedule and postseason. Even in that best-case scenario, the sport faces a murky immediate future.

Owners will seek to cut payrolls this winter. The players’ union will seethe. When teams reopen ballparks to fans, they will try to sell tickets to 81 home games in a stricken economy. And the same negotiators who could not agree on the structure of this mini-season must devise a new collective bargaining agreement by the end of next year.

In other words, it’s stormy out there, and nobody builds an addition during hurricane season.

But there is no harm in hunkering down to plan, and that is what Dave Dombrowski, the longtime baseball executive with two World Series titles to his name, is doing now. Dombrowski, 63, was named last week as an adviser to Music City Baseball, a group that wants to bring an expansion team to Nashville. Experience tells him these clouds will pass.

“Early in my career, I had the fortune to work with the White Sox when Bill Veeck owned the team, and looking back at what he went through in the war era — the economy, the world, everything was different, and all of a sudden the game bounces back,” Dombrowski said by phone last week. “So you look at all different types of things that have taken place over 100-plus years, and the game still bounces back, because it’s such a great game. That’s how we have to approach it.”

Dombrowski was most recently the president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox, spending big to win a championship in 2018. He was fired last September as ownership prepared to shed payroll — a task Dombrowski has accomplished himself. He built the expansion Florida Marlins into champions in 1997 — their fifth season — then tore down the roster and set the foundation for another title six years later, after he had moved on to Detroit.

The sport has weathered two extended strikes and a lockout during Dombrowski’s career, which is probably over as a top baseball operations executive. He will soon move to live in Nashville full time, and said it could take four or five years to start a new team. But he likes what he sees.

“Looking out my hotel room, I can see one, two, three” — he counted to 11 — “cranes for buildings being built downtown,” Dombrowski said. “They haven’t shut down during the pandemic. So the town is just booming, and it’s going to continue to do it. It’s a young city, with a vibrant entertainment area, hockey has done great, and they just added a soccer team.”

Baseball has not expanded since 1998, and Commissioner Rob Manfred has often said he wants to expand to 32 teams, from the current 30. Doing so would make scheduling easier while growing the game and enriching owners through expansion fees.

At the All-Star Game two years ago, Manfred named Nashville as a “viable” market, with Charlotte, Las Vegas and Portland, Ore., in the United States, and Montreal and Vancouver in Canada. There is other business that must be handled first: The two current teams seeking new stadiums — the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays — must resolve those issues before the league expands, and neither franchise has broken ground.

Credit…John Minchillo/Associated Press

Nashville could theoretically lure one of those teams, but it too needs a major league-size ballpark. The plan, Dombrowski said, calls for a privately financed park with a retractable roof beside the Tennessee Titans’ stadium on a bank of the Cumberland River, just a pedestrian bridge away from downtown. Fitting into a growing sports landscape — with the Titans, the Predators of the N.H.L., Nashville S.C. of M.L.S. and Vanderbilt’s teams in the Southeastern Conference — would be another challenge.

“Right now there’s not much of a drive for it because it’s not realistic to a lot of people,” said Willy Daunic, a longtime radio host for ESPN Nashville and a former minor league pitcher. “But a five-year plan is a smart plan because it’s going to take that long with the logistics of the stadium. And the key is for guys like Dombrowski to stay present and make those connections with the city leaders and the fans. If they can do that, they can definitely build a lot of support.”

Dombrowski is not alone in the effort. The advisory group also includes the Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and the former All-Star pitcher Dave Stewart, who was recruited by his friend John Loar, a longtime real estate developer in California who moved to Nashville in 2018 and is the group’s managing director. Alberto Gonzales, the former United States attorney general, is chairman of the board.

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., is another board member, and the plan is to call the team the Nashville Stars, after a Negro leagues team. To Stewart — who has been a coach, a general manager and an agent since retiring as a player in 1995 — the group’s commitment to diverse ownership is critical to help change the largely homogeneous culture among baseball authority figures.

Derek Jeter is the Marlins’ chief executive and part of the Miami ownership group, but among M.L.B. field managers and top baseball operations officials, more than 83 percent (50 of the 60) are white, and all are male. A Nashville team, Stewart said, would promote progress.

“We didn’t know two years ago we were going to be going through this pandemic and the social injustices at the rate we have this year,” Stewart said. “But baseball has been one of the most closed sports when it comes to hiring in upper positions and on the field, and this calls for a time to do something historic, which is to have true Black ownership — or diverse ownership — in the game.”

The specifics of achieving that goal will take time to sort out. For now, at least, it is part of an encouraging vision, far off in the distance, hinging on the premise that baseball can lift itself up — again — and find a way to flourish, even in a new environment.

“You look at the city, the people involved, the ability to try to do this thing right,” Dombrowski said. “It’s high risk, with no guarantees, but it’s an interesting proposition, and I think it’s fun.”


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