How Bo Schembechler Sent the Detroit Tigers Into a Spiral for a Decade

In the 1980s, Nike ran an advertising campaign around multi-sport athlete Bo Jackson. The tag line was “BO KNOWS.” The commercials showed how Jackson was an athletic polymath with amazing abilities.

In 1990, the Detroit Tigers had their own Bo. But Mr. Schembechler, a former college football coach with a sterling record at the University of Michigan, never applied his sports IQ to the national pastime.

It’s fair to say that the Tigers found out that “Bo didn’t know baseball.”

Schembechler’s brief tenure as president of the Detroit Tigers was dismal. But beyond being a footnote in team history, and more than being a sad postscript to a legendary sports career, it also proved to be devastating to the history of the franchise.

For more than a decade after Bo was unceremoniously fired (by a fax message), the Tigers were digging themselves out of the hole he helped create.

Draft Day Disasters: How the Tigers Failed to Pick the Right Players

Remember when I said Bo didn’t know baseball? Well, he did know football. Unfortunately, that skill couldn’t help the Tigers. Someone should have told the Tigers president that.

Three of Detroit’s picks in the 1990 MLB Draft went on to play in the NFL (Kerry Collins, Rodney Peete, and Greg McMurtry). Which means none of those athletes helped the Tiger organization. How Schembechler and his draft “experts” were so fooled is anyone’s guess.

The team had three of the top 75 picks in 1990, four of the top 78 in 1991, and the 16th overall pick in 1992. Yet, only Tony Clark and Bobby Higginson emerged out of that era to have any type of career in Detroit. In all the years that Bo’s Boys were strategizing in the draft room, only one pitcher of note was developed after being picked in the draft: Justin Thompson.

The bad drafts during the Schembechler days were tragically just a precursor to bad drafts later in the decade. But it can all be traced back to the crappy system Schembechler created. It would take more than 10 years for someone to come along who knew how to fix the problems Bo’s decisions had set upon the franchise.

Before that happened, the Tigers had 12 consecutive losing seasons and became a laughingstock in the game.

Neo-Luddism in the Front Office

What would happen if a professional baseball team decided to run its organization like an Amish business? As if it was existing in the 19th century?

The Tigers had lights and plumbing, and they used buses and plains in the 1990s. But, they didn’t embrace the transition to the computer age.

“When I bought the team we didn’t have a high-speed printer, and we only had two computers,” said Mike Ilitch.

Th Detroit front office was still recording season ticket sales customers on index cards in 1992. As Ilitch pointed out, the Tigers didn’t have many computers, but even more startling, they didn’t have enough phones.

“If you make a mistake,” said John McHale Jr., who came on as general manager in 1995, “you want it to be because you made a dumb decision, not because you missed a phone call.”

Ilitch and his front office team were surprised at the dated front office tools in place at Tiger Stadium when he bought the team in 1992. He worked quickly to update the technology, but even that wasn’t enough to make up for the mistakes made in other areas. An idiot with a computer is still an idiot.

Player Development: Whose Job is it to Teach the Kids how to Play?

When Tony Clark hit 27 home runs as a rookie in 1996, he was asked about his progression from the #2 overall pick in 1990, to becoming the best young player on the Tigers.

“It’s been a long road, but I’m glad to reach success here,” Clark told the Detroit News. “I felt like I had to do a lot of things, [so] I am proud to have made it up here. In the minor leagues, no one worked with me on fielding or running the bases. There just weren’t [enough] coaches.”

Teammate Bobby Higginson, the only other position player developed by the franchise who debuted between 1991 and 2000 who made an All-Star team, echoed Clark’s thoughts. As a young player in the Tigers farm system, Higgy was basically on his own. At the time, in the Schembechler Era and right after (Bobby was drafted in 1992), the organization actually reduced instructional staff.

From 1991 through 2002, the franchise had one fewer minor league team than most other organizations. The team also failed to use international scouting to add talent. From 1993 to 2003, the Tigers signed fewer international free agents than any team other than the four expansion teams who debuted during that period.

The Tigers only emerged from the dark days following the Schembechler Era when team owner Mike Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski. In 2006, after hiring former Tigers farmhand Jim Leyland to be his manager, Dombrowski watched the roster he built win the AL pennant. It soon became a much better time to be a fan of the Detroit Tigers.

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