How baseball and the Detroit Tigers became Mike Ilitch's true love

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press
Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch at the groundbreaking for Comerica Park in 1997.

Baseball was in Mike Ilitch’s blood.

It was embedded in his life as a kid growing up on the west side of Detroit, starring at shortstop for Cooley High School in the mid-1940s. It remained part of his life after graduating high school, playing while serving four years with the Marines. It was a dream when he signed a minor-league deal with the Detroit Tigers in 1951 and many moons after his baseball career ended and his business career started, it was an even bigger dream when he bought the Tigers in 1992.

“A guy like myself,” Ilitch said at Tiger Stadium after buying the team on Aug. 26, 1992, “to be able to come back to the game, it just never gets out of your blood. There is a special camaraderie in baseball that the guys know when they leave the game, they are never going to have that same association in business. It’s really something special.”

Ilitch, the longtime owner of the Tigers whose financial backing led to the revitalization of baseball in Detroit, died Friday. He was 87.

After years of success as a pizza conglomerate and businessman – he founded Little Caesars Pizza in 1959 – Ilitch began working toward the Tigers by sponsoring youth hockey and adult softball leagues. In 1982, he bought the Red Wings. But still, baseball remained his true love and even after the Tigers were sold to pizza competitor Tom Monaghan in 1983, held hope of owning a major league franchise one day.

“Any big league team,” he told Free Press columnist Bob Talbert years before he bought the team. “I doubt if the Tigers will ever be for sale.”

Ilitch bought the Tigers from Monaghan for $82 million in 1992, at age 63 and at a time when baseball’s future didn’t seem as fruitful as it has proven to be.

“No, I felt this way, that this franchise would not have been available if baseball was in good shape,” Ilitch said in his introductory statements as Tigers owner. “I believe in the future of baseball. I know the salaries are high here, but I feel that is going to work its way out. … This is America’s game. I believe in the game, and I believe it is a good business opportunity to buy when things are down.”


How legendary owner Mike Ilitch made Detroit 'Hockeytown'

Little could Ilitch have predicted the kinds of salaries he would be paying two decades later, or the way the game would evolve with technology into the cash cow it is these days, but fulfilling a lifelong dream with the Tigers was worth the investment, he deemed.

“I’m empty,” Ilitch joked back then, feeling for his pockets.

According to Forbes, the Tigers are now worth $1.150 billion – one of 17 teams in the league worth more than $1 billion. In 2016, they had a franchise-record payroll of over $200 million, as Ilitch continued to chase an elusive World Series championship.

It took 14 seasons, but Ilitch finally turned the Tigers into a perennial World Series contender. Starting in 1994, they recorded 12 consecutive losing seasons – including an American League-record 119 losses in 2003 – before advancing to the World Series in 2006.

It was the culmination of a change Ilitch made four years earlier, hiring general manager Dave Dombrowski at the start of the 2002 season, and proved his increased spending worthwhile.

In 2004, Ilitch signed Pudge Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million contract. In 2005, Magglio Ordonez signed a five-year, $75 million contract. Both players were key to the 2006 Tigers team, which put Detroit back on the baseball map.

“I’m not a savior of anything,” Ilitch said in 1992. “All the things I’ve done, if you broke them down, you’d see a lot of it was the people behind me. … But I’m excited. I want to bring baseball back to where it once was with this franchise. I’ll probably spend every spare minute I have here. This is the game I love.”

They lost to the Cardinals in the World Series that season, and again to the Giants in the 2012 Fall Classic, coming oh-so close to delivering Ilitch the world championship he so coveted, to pair with four Stanley Cup championships with the Red Wings.

Since 2006, the Tigers have consistently ranked among the top 10 in payroll and continue to hand out long-term, lucrative deals in a mid-market.

“It might sound silly,” Ilitch said in his last public appearance, sitting alongside right-handed starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, whom the team awarded a five-year, $110 million contract last off-season, “But I don’t care about spending money.”

Said Ilitch in November 2015: “You want to win. That’s all I think about. My wife’s got to put me in bed, patting me around and saying, ‘It’ll be OK, Mike. It’ll be OK.’ I don’t care about the money. I want to get as many good players out there as possible.”

He has proven that by signing Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera to contract extensions and other players like Prince Fielder and Justin Upton and Zimmermann to six-figure contracts.

Under Ilitch’s watch, the Tigers won four AL Central titles, in 2011-15. They reached two World Series and two additional AL Championship Series, falling to the Rangers in 2011 and Red Sox in 2013.

“You have to win,” Ilitch said in 1992. “You aren’t going to draw people into the stadium unless you win. That’s obvious. As far as the perception, I want the perception to be like I feel about the Tigers. Like I grew up with the Tigers. The Tigers were part of every family. They used to dominate the conversation all the time. They were part of your group. I want to restore that nostalgia, that aura, that feeling, the presence this stadium gives you as you sit out here and watch the players, the uniforms, the history, the four World Series.”

They moved out of historic Tiger Stadium in 1999 into Comerica Park the next season, a springboard for a corridor that will include the new Red Wings arena in 2017, dubbed “The District Detroit.”

Beyond winning championships with the Red Wings and restoring the roar to the Tigers, Ilitch talked that August day at Tiger Stadium about the city of Detroit, to which he will be remembered as one of its key contributors.

“I also look for the day when there is going to be more activity in our city,” he said. “The people are going to say, ‘I want my city back,’ and it is not going to be a hollow word.

“I'm excited. I want to get the fans excited. I want my team excited. I want to get the city excited. And I know before that can happen, we have to make things happen, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make things happen. Thank you very much.”

Contact Anthony Fenech: Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech.

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