Published September 9, 2017
The young, handsome, suntanned man with his young, beautiful, suntanned family waited in the wings while the man’s new boss introduced him to Detroit.
A baseball era had ended in Motown and another was set to begin.
The scene was in the bowels of Tiger Stadium, circa November, 1995. We in the media had been trumpeted to the ballpark for a press conference. The occasion was the announcement of the Tigers’ new general manager.
After my tiny camera crew set up, I settled into my seat, pen and notebook ready, as a team delegate handed out the press release about which the brass would be discussing.
Sparky Anderson had retired as manager. Though “shoved out” might have been a more apt term. A baseball era had ended and another was set to begin.
The Tigers were cleaning house, both in the carpeted offices and in the wooden-planked dugout. Sparky was gone. GM Joe Klein was gone.
The new GM was the suntanned, handsome young man brought to the harsh winters of Detroit from sunny San Diego.
Randy Smith, the press release said, was being handed the keys to the Tigers Den.
Smith was 32 years old. He was widely considered an up and coming star baseball executive, based on his two-and-a-half seasons as Padres GM—a job he accepted at the green age of 29. Smith came from a baseball bloodline; his father was longtime front office man Tal Smith.
In his time as Padres GM, the younger Smith acquired future MVP Ken Caminiti and eventual all-stars Trevor Hoffman, Andy Ashby, Steve Finley and—ahem—Brad Ausmus.
But to get Hoffman, Smith dealt popular, highly productive Gary Sheffield, which was a controversial flip at the time.
Regardless, Randy Smith was young, supposedly wise beyond his years and he was going to be the perfect man to lead the Tigers from the depths into which they sank, to glory days that would spawn memories of 1984.
At the presser, I asked Smith about his new manager.
“Does he have to possess prior managerial experience?” I asked.
Smith’s lips curled into a sly grin. “It’s not a prerequisite.”
A few weeks later, Buddy Bell was introduced as the Tigers’ new skipper. Bell had no prior experience as a manager at any level of baseball, though he served several years in Ohio as a coach for the Reds and the Indians.
Randy Smith and Buddy Bell traipsed to Lakeland in February, 1996, set to embark on a new era of Tigers baseball.
Two-and-a-half years of mostly horrid baseball later, Bell got under Smith’s skin by asking the GM for assurances about coming back in 1999.
Smith fired Bell in September, 1998 and replaced him with coach Larry Parrish. After one year of Parrish (more bad baseball), Smith fired him and hired Phil Garner.
The Tigers under Randy Smith were an unmitigated disaster. The depths into which the team had sunk prior to Smith’s arrival were still the team’s residence after six seasons of Smith’s leadership.
Draft choices were busts. Player development had screeched to a halt. The pitching was so bad throughout the organization that the only qualification, it seemed, that one would have to possess in order to take the mound for the Tigers was having a pulse.
Smith goes Gonzo
But the biggest example of Smith’s failure was a temperamental outfielder named Juan Gonzalez.
In the off-season prior to the 2000 season, Smith traded for slugger Gonzalez—AL MVP as recently as 1998—acquiring him from the Texas Rangers in a blockbuster, nine-player trade that featured young lefty Justin Thompson and infielder/outfielder Frank Catalanotto going to the Rangers.
It was a big gamble for Smith. Gonzalez was going to be a free agent after the 2000 season. The young GM was betting that he could secure the two-time MVP for the long term with the Tigers.
Gonzalez hated it in Detroit. The Tigers had moved to Comerica Park for the 2000 season and the fence distances were punitive to power hitters—especially those who bombarded the gaps like Gonzalez. Many a time you could see Gonzalez shaking his head in disgust as yet another long fly ball that would have been at least a double in most ballparks, turned into a harmless out.
Comerica Park wasn’t good for Gonzalez’s personal numbers, and since he was slated to be a free agent, that made Juan cranky.
Yet Smith courted Gonzalez hard all season to sign a contract extension. Smith did it all except send flowers and show up with a box of chocolates.
It became painfully evident—to all except Randy Smith—that Juan Gonzalez wanted nothing to do with the Tigers or their mammoth ballpark after 2000. Sure enough, Gonzalez skipped town after the year, signing with the Cleveland Indians.
DD pulls the plug
Six games—and six losses—into the 2002 season, new team president and CEO Dave Dombrowski, who’d been on the job for all of five months, had seen enough of Randy Smith and Phil Garner and fired both of them on the same day.
It was the Dave Dombrowski Era and after some growing pains that flushed the system of Smith’s malfeasance, the Tigers launched the most successful ten year period in franchise history—albeit one without any world championships.
Smith bounded into Detroit as a 32 year-old wonderkid. He left town as a 38 year-old has been. He never got a general manager’s job—or anything close to it, really—after the Tigers.
The Randy Smith Era is one that Tigers fans who are old enough to remember it, wince at.
Al Avila on the clock
I’m sorry to put you through these bad memories, but it’s relevant now, considering where the Tigers are under GM Al Avila.
I’m guessing that Avila will see the current rebuild through. I had suggested a couple months ago that an enema was needed, that would include brooming the GM. But that doesn’t appear to be nigh. The fate of manager Ausmus and his coaching staff is anyone’s guess, however.
Avila isn’t to be envied now. He has freed up tons of payroll by trading big contracts and big names, but that’s only a portion of his monumental task.
Avila must ensure the proper development of the kids he got back in trades for JD Martinez and the three Justins: Wilson, Upton and Verlander. He also must oversee competent drafting and make trades at the big league level that will keep the team from falling into an abyss similar to the 43-119 disaster of 2003.
Avila must also wisely reinvest the cash that was saved in his fire sale this summer.
He might even need to search for a new manager—one that is the “perfect” man to navigate a clubhouse through rough waters while also molding the youngsters into capable big league players.
If sheer big league front office experience in terms of years of service was all that was needed to be successful, then Tigers fans should rest easy with Al Avila as the team’s boss.
Yet despite the overall approval given by baseball “experts” in the wake of the Upton and Verlander trades as to the prospects the Tigers received, the fan base’s trust in Avila is still tenuous. If Avila retains Ausmus, who needs to go—but mainly because it’s simply time now, as opposed to his being incompetent—then confidence in the GM will self-destruct, fair or not.
Randy Smith couldn’t get it done as a young whippersnapper. We’ll see if Al Avila can succeed as a grizzled front office veteran.
The future of Tigers baseball for perhaps the next decade hangs in the balance. No big deal.