BALTIMORE -- It was 1:30 p.m. on July 31, the baseball trading deadline just 2½ hours away, when David Dombrowski, holed up in his room at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel here with his top lieutenants, placed a call to his boss at the time, Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.
"If we're going to get the guy we want for [Yoenis] Cespedes," Dombrowski told Ilitch, "this is going to come right down to the wire. Do I have your OK to make this deal? I know we can trade him for sure, but do you want me to trade him even if it isn't a good deal?"
Around 8 that morning, Dombrowski had received a phone call from Sandy Alderson, the general manager of the New York Mets, who told him that after a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for Carlos Gomez had fallen apart, the Mets had serious interest in Cespedes. Dombrowski told him that the Tigers wanted 6-3, 200-pound pitcher Michael Fulmer, a former No. 1 draft pick in 2011 who was having a terrific season for the Mets' Double-A affiliate in Binghamton, New York.
Alderson said he would remain in touch.
Only two days earlier, as soon as they arrived in Baltimore on Wednesday night after beating the Rays earlier that day, Dombrowski, his assistants and top scouts had gathered in his hotel room and begun making phone calls to other clubs. The message? The Tigers, after losing five of their previous seven games, had decided in Tampa, Florida, that the chances of returning to the postseason were not in their favor, and on Tuesday Dombrowski called Ilitch with their recommendation they move their elite pieces, pitcher David Price and outfielder Cespedes, plus closer Joakim Soria. All three players were eligible for free agency after the season.
"He called me back on Wednesday," Dombrowski said, "and said go ahead, make the moves."
So the Tigers began working the phones, and one of those calls went to the Mets, who had already informed the Tigers they had interest in Cespedes if he became available.
This is the story, from Dombrowski's perspective, of how Cespedes, who has been on a historic tear since the Mets acquired him, wound up in Flushing and helped transform the Mets into odds-on champions of the National League East.
Until the phone rang in Dombrowski's suite at 3:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the deadline, the deal was far from certain. Ilitch's reply to Dombrowski had been this: "If you can't get the deal you want, we'll keep him."
The Tigers' history with Cespedes began long before the 2015 trading deadline six weeks ago. Dombrowski, who was back in Baltimore this week in his new position as Red Sox president of baseball operations, recalled how close the Tigers had come to signing him after he left Cuba in 2012.
"I think we would have signed him," said Dombrowski, whose top aide, Al Avila, had been point man in scouting and negotiating with Cespedes. "The only time I went to the Dominican while I was GM with the Tigers was to go see Cespedes. That's how much interest we had.
"We were basically set to sign him, but Victor Martinez blew out his knee, and that week we got Prince Fielder. We weren't sure [Cespedes] was going to be able to produce right away. Mike Ilitch asked us, 'Who's going to help us win right now?' It was Prince Fielder, so we backed off Cespedes. But we always liked him."
The Red Sox, who had traded Jon Lester to Oakland for Cespedes at the trading deadline in 2014, gave Dombrowski another chance to acquire the Cuban outfielder last winter. Sox GM Ben Cherington called Dombrowski early in the offseason, around the November GM meetings, asking if the Tigers would consider trading pitcher Rick Porcello for Cespedes.
"But we couldn't even begin thinking about making the trade because we didn't have starting pitching," Dombrowski said.
"But then everything happened quick. We got to the winter meetings in San Diego, and the Alfredo Simon thing happened within a day."
The Tigers made a deal with the Reds for the veteran Simon, and that's when the Tigers got back to the Red Sox. Dombrowski was looking for more than a straight one-for-one deal because there was no compensation attached to Cespedes. Cherington sweetened the deal with reliever Alex Wilson and minor league left-hander Gabe Speier, and a deal was struck.
"So that's how that all happened, real fast," Dombrowski said. "We weren't able to get Cespedes unless we got pitching. We got Simon and that's how we were able to make that deal."
The Tigers installed Cespedes in left field, and in 102 games he posted an .829 OPS with 18 home runs.
"He was tremendous for us," Dombrowski said. "A Gold Glove left field, tremendous in the clubhouse, he really played great for us. We thought he should have been an All-Star; he got short-changed on that. We knew his favorite player was [Miguel] Cabrera, and thought it would be good for him to be around Miguel, to see how he used the whole field.
"But just as with a lot of other things, even though we really loved him, we just felt we weren't going to win."
And the Tigers were hardly in a position to offer him an extension, not when they had long-term salary commitments to Cabrera, Martinez, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez that totaled over $100 million next season.
And so Dombrowski and his staff assembled in his hotel suite, working the phones.
The Price deal with Toronto came first.
"Alex [Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays' GM], he had already made the big trade for [Troy] Tulowitzki, he said, 'You can have anyone in our system that you want,'" Dombrowski said. "We needed pitching, so that's why we took [Daniel] Norris."
Dombrowski had already showered, dressed, had his coffee and read the papers when Alderson called Friday morning. At the time, he said, the Tigers were still talking to a half-dozen teams with varying degrees of interest in Cespedes.
"We were talking with other clubs, but the Mets, we always felt they were the best fit because they had good pitching and we felt they might give up a guy like Fulmer, who we really liked. They had so many starting pitchers, he was the one guy we identified from other clubs we liked the most."
The Tigers had heard only intermittently from the Mets. Dombrowski assumed that was because they were getting Gomez from the Brewers. But that deal fell apart, and when Alderson called Friday, he said: "We really want to go after Cespedes."
"I'm sure he was working on other things," Dombrowski said. "[Justin] Upton's name was out there, a couple of others. At one point we didn't know what his priority was, but he kept in contact with me, and it really came down to the Mets had the best package for us. We really liked Fulmer a whole bunch, and the other guy in the package [minor league pitcher Luis Cessa] had a good arm."
Jim Leyland, the former Tigers manager now a special assistant with the team, made a call to Mets manager Terry Collins, a good friend. "Jim said, 'Terry, get him -- he's going to help you guys,'" Dombrowski said.
At 1:30, Dombrowski placed his call to Ilitch. He did not go into the specifics of what the Tigers were trying to get from the Mets, but the owner gave him clarity on how to proceed.
Now it was a waiting game. Dombrowski had advised Alderson that if they were going to make a deal, it had to be struck 10 minutes before the deadline, because there was a loan provision in Cespedes' contract that would require approval by the commissioner's office.
"Sandy said he would call back with an answer by quarter of four," Dombrowski said. "And he did."
After considerable internal debate, Alderson had decided to cut the trade. The Tigers got the prospect they wanted. "If we hadn't gotten what we wanted," Dombrowski said, "we would have kept him."
The Mets? They acquired a transformative piece. In just 193 plate appearances since the trade, Cespedes has hit 17 home runs, just one fewer than he hit in 427 plate appearances for the Tigers. He has a 1.028 OPS, the catalyst to turning the Mets into an offensive juggernaut.
"Nobody could say they knew he'd go off like this," Dombrowski said. "He's hitting at a record pace. But we knew he was a good player, and he's responded to the challenge."