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At eight o'clock in the morning in the stand-up coffee shop on Chicago's Near North Side, almost everyone wears a sleepy expression. But one patron is percolating. Roland Hemond, the general manager of the White Sox and a baseball man for more than 30 years, can barely contain his enthusiasm as he speaks of David Dombrowski.
"David has tremendous ability," Hemond says. "He has great physical and mental strength. He's like a Mantle, Ka-line, Aaron or Mathews when they were in their early twenties. They were regulars, and they were stars."
Dombrowski, 26, looks as if he could put the ball out of Comiskey Park, but he isn't a player. He's the assistant general manager of the White Sox and is responsible for, among other things, administering all minor league operations and coordinating the Sox's scouting operations. He negotiates contracts and aids Hemond in other tasks, including the draft and trademaking. He is, quite simply, major league baseball's Youngest Turk.
In a sport in which owners usually allow former players to graze in the farm system's front offices and set their own children up with cushy management jobs with the big club, Dombrowski is a walk-on who became a star. Hired in January of 1978 at age 21 as administrative assistant to the director of baseball operations—"I was a glorified go-fer," Dombrowski says—he became assistant director of player development in 1979. By the spring of 1981 he had been promoted to director of player development, a position he held for less than a year before becoming Hemond's right-hand man.
Dombrowski had all but given up his baseball aspirations when the White Sox finally granted him a job interview in December 1977. He had been pursuing the Sox and every other major league organization for two years, having decided during his sophomore year at Western Michigan that he wanted to be a baseball general manager. That decision had been reached when he realized he would never be a professional baseball or football player. He had been a Chicago-area high school star in both sports and had played football at Cornell before transferring to Western Michigan. He had interviewed Hemond while doing research for a paper on the role of the general manager in baseball, and Hemond had suggested he job-hunt at the winter meetings, held in Honolulu in December 1977.
A few months later Dombrowski, then a senior at Western Michigan, was sitting on the beach in Waikiki wondering if his whole baseball fantasy was really worth pursuing. He had rearranged his exam schedule so he could attend the meetings and flown to Honolulu at his own expense, and none of the organizations seemed interested in him. Returning to his hotel, he learned that the White Sox wanted to meet with him immediately. "I was sandy, and in my cut-offs and asked if I could shower and change, but they said to come right away," Dombrowski says. Charlie Evranian, then director of baseball operations for the Sox, recalls the cut-offs, but he also remembers, "It was obvious within a few minutes that David was very bright." Hemond was also impressed by Dombrowski's intelligence and demeanor. And it didn't hurt that he could type. "I told them I'd do anything," Dombrowski says, "move cartons, shovel sidewalks, type. I just wanted to get my foot in the door."
After a second interview in Chicago, Mike Veeck, Bill's son and then the team's assistant business manager, called. The good news was that the Sox wanted to hire Dombrowski; the bad news was he had to start immediately. Dombrowski had one semester remaining at Western Michigan, and because he was the first in his family to attend college, there was parental pressure on him to graduate. "When I told my mom I wanted to take the job, she didn't talk to me for three days," Dombrowski says.
"I felt it was important that he get his degree," his mother, Laurie, says. They compromised. Dombrowski agreed to finish his accounting major with correspondence courses and night school. He accepted the job and immediately—and successfully—negotiated his first baseball deal, persuading Veeck to give him an $8,000 salary, instead of the $7,000 initially offered.
His first-year duties included everything from filing to making transportation arrangements for spring training to operating the scoreboard to chauffeuring Bill Veeck, then the team's owner, and Hemond home after games. Hemond was amazed by Dombrowski's ability to grasp every task thrown his way and his skill at dealing with people older than he, which is almost everybody in baseball. And his personnel skills aren't lost on others. Dombrowski has earned the respect of one of management's natural adversaries, agent Steve Greenberg, who represents nine players in the White Sox organization. Says Greenberg, "Dave is one of the brightest young executives in baseball. He's largely responsible for Chicago's outstanding record in salary arbitration. Most executives don't want to tell a player he's doing well and is an asset to the team, because they figure he'll remember it and use it against them during contract negotiations. But Dave thinks that if a player does well, he should be rewarded, economically and psychologically."