FORT MYERS, Fla. -- They had met only a few months earlier, John Henry inviting Dave Dombrowski to lunch aboard his yacht in Miami. Yet there was Henry, at the press conference to announce his purchase of the Florida Marlins in 1999, telling the world what he thought of his general manager by holding a handmade sign that read, "In Dave We Trust."
It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Henry has turned to Dombrowski again, 17 years later, to restore his faith in how to build a winning baseball team.
More than ever, Henry is unsure his philosophy still works. In his first eight seasons as principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, the team made the playoffs six times and won two World Series after going 86 years without a championship. But despite winning another title in 2013, over the past six seasons, the Sox have been to the playoffs only once and finished last in the American League East in three of the last four years.
Once unassailable, the Red Sox Way -- Henry's way -- appears broken.
And so, last summer, with another season wasted despite a franchise-record payroll nearing $200 million, Henry began "looking under the hood" for answers. At the same time, Dombrowski was let go after 14 seasons with the Detroit Tigers.
It took less than three weeks for Henry to convince his partners to co-sign the hiring of his old friend as president of baseball operations. More importantly, he gave Dombrowski the autonomy to remake the roster, even approving the seven-year, $217 million signing of ace lefty David Price, precisely the sort of free-agent contract Henry has been loath to bestow.
"He has tremendous experience, tremendous relationships throughout the game," Henry said of Dombrowski. "He has a leadership skill that has been developed over how long he's been a general manager -- 35 years, 30 years. He's the total package from my perspective as someone to lead a baseball operation."
Indeed, the Red Sox Way has become Dombrowski's Way.
Forming a bond
When Henry asked to meet Dombrowski on a Saturday afternoon late in the 1998 season, he was in negotiations to buy the Marlins from Blockbuster video mogul Wayne Huizenga.
Henry, now 66, made his fortune by studying numbers, developing an algorithm that netted billions in commodities trading. Dombrowski, 59, was a baseball lifer, working his way up through the Chicago White Sox front office to become the youngest general manager in baseball history with the Montreal Expos in 1988.
But Dombrowski also had a head for numbers, having majored in accounting at Western Michigan University. And Henry was an avid baseball fan, growing up listening to St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio and idolizing Stan Musial before becoming a limited partner in the New York Yankees in 1991.
"We hit it off very well," said Dombrowski, seated at a table in his office overlooking the Red Sox player-development complex. "We had lunch and visited for hours and just talked. It was a chance for him to ask me questions, me to ask him questions. I liked him. You could tell he was inquisitive yet he also understood the game of baseball. That came across well."
So well, in fact, that Dombrowski turned down a chance to become the Los Angeles Dodgers general manager in favor of a five-year extension to work for Henry. After being directed by Huizenga to gut a team that won the 1997 World Series, Dombrowski oversaw a rebuilding effort in which he fleeced the Yankees for third baseman Mike Lowell, drafted Texas high school pitcher Josh Beckett and young first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed teenage slugger Miguel Cabrera out of Venezuela.
The Marlins were using analytics even before Henry bought the team. According to Dombrowski and longtime assistant Frank Wren, Florida was among the first teams to enlist AVM Systems, a company that helped pioneer the study of sabermetrics. But while Henry espoused the use of data, baseball had not yet entered the Moneyball era in which statistical analysis became a widespread team-building tool.
"It wasn't that we were averse to it," said Dombrowski, who nevertheless is often characterized as being partial to old-fashioned scouting. "But the game had nowhere evolved to the present way from the statistical aspect of it. Even though John was statistically oriented, his mind was that way, we just hadn't developed to that point, not just the Marlins but the game itself."
By 2001, Henry was entangled in a political battle to build a new ballpark in South Florida. When he determined he couldn't win the fight, he decided to sell the team. Dombrowski lacked the appetite for another teardown, so Henry gave his blessing to seek opportunities elsewhere. Dombrowski interviewed with three teams before taking the Tigers job. The Marlins, with most of Dombrowski's players, won another World Series in 2003.
"I said to Dave," Henry recounted, "'Throughout your career, you've never had the resources to build and keep great teams except for one year. I don't know who's going to own this club. If you can go somewhere where you'll have a chance to have better resources, you should do so.'"
What's that they say about setting something free?
When Dombrowski unexpectedly became a free-agent executive in August, the Red Sox were bound for another last-place finish and dealing with an organization-wide crisis of confidence. Nearly every move they made since winning the 2013 World Series backfired spectacularly.
Henry began to wonder if the Sox relied too heavily on the information spewed by Carmine, their computerized database which suggested, among other things, that a lowball $70 million extension offer to erstwhile ace Jon Lester was market value. Deep down, Henry knew it wasn't good business to give out long-term contracts to free-agent pitchers in their 30s. But without a homegrown ace in the pipeline, it was looking like a necessary evil.
Then, in a bit of serendipitous timing, Dombrowski became available. Henry hardly needed his old placard to know what needed to be done, signing Dombrowski to a five-year contract and giving him more power than former general manager Ben Cherington and even his predecessor, Theo Epstein, ever enjoyed.
"I have tremendous confidence in Dave, confidence in [new GM] Mike Hazen and in our baseball ops," Henry said. "He has made adjustments. It hasn't been a revolution; it's been more of an evolution."
Maybe so. Dombrowski kept the baseball-operations department largely intact, promoting from within in several areas, and retained almost the entire scouting staff. His only high-profile hire was Wren as a senior vice president of baseball operations.
After years of the Sox hoarding their prospects in what has become a loaded farm system, Dombrowski convinced Henry to sacrifice a few (center fielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra, both of whom were blocked in the big leagues by Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts) to acquire closer Craig Kimbrel from the San Diego Padres. And with a comprehensive presentation that offered both scouting- and analytics-based arguments, he shoved Henry in the direction of signing Price.
It was a push the owner needed, one that perhaps only Dombrowski could've given.
"He was open-minded to the discussion from the very beginning," Dombrowski said. "I didn't really consider it a sell as much as I considered it a deep-rooted conversation as far as approach in signing David Price and then also step-by-step in how we could get it done, and he was open-minded. Hopefully I made the points that made sense. But I also would've respected his ability to say, 'It just doesn't make sense.' I think it probably helped him in hearing it from somebody who he knew, but I would hope that I would've been as strong in my convictions with another owner even if we were new in our relationship."
Dombrowski made four significant offseason moves, all within a span of 25 days. And while Henry likes the look of the Red Sox in spring training, he's quick to note he was optimistic going into last season, too. In the end, he only wound up "shocked at how bad we were" and doubting the effectiveness of the Red Sox Way.
And so, with the payroll set to reach franchise-record heights once again, Henry has put his faith back in the Dombrowski Way to put his team back in the postseason.
After all, in Dave he trusts.