Mike Ilitch was an institution. That’s the highest praise I can possibly offer to a man I never met. I can’t tell you first hand if Mike Ilitch was a good person or a great boss. I can’t share an anecdote about some time he wandered into the press box or made Jim Leyland cry. I can’t offer any sort of eulogy for Mike Ilitch, the individual. I didn’t know him. As is the case when anyone famous passes, there is a distance between the grief felt by those he touched as regular person and those he touched as a public figure.
I won’t venture to cover the breadth of Mr. I’s remarkable life. He was born in the months leading up to the Great Depression and grew up during a war that claimed the lives of 60 million. He served in the Marine Corps. He played minor league baseball. And that was just his first 27 years. It would be a story worth telling even if he hadn’t become a pizza mogul and the owner of two iconic franchises.
Ilitch was beloved in Detroit and in Michigan. If you’re reading this from afar, it might be hard to grasp the idea that Tigers and Red Wings fans adored their owner. Owners are often the bad guys. The ones who put the bottom line ahead of winning and jack up ticket prices simply because they can. Make no mistake, Mike Ilitch was a businessman and a good one, but he stood outside the mold of the modern tycoon.
What we loved about Ilitch was that he owned the Wings and Tigers the way we imagine we would own them if we had been in his shoes. Fans don’t see teams as investments. We wouldn’t pinch pennies and worry about making money. It wouldn’t matter if the club ended the year in the black or the red as long as there was a good product and a real chance to win. Ilitch ran the Tigers like a fan. He opened up his bank account when they needed a little extra and he took care of the team’s veterans. Over the last decade, Ilitch was thinking about the moment at the end of the season when the commissioner hands you the trophy. There was no owner who wanted to win for the sake of winning more than Mr. I.
At times, Ilitch was almost too aggressive in his pursuit of glory. The Tigers became famous for mortgaging the future to prepare for the present because Ilitch wanted to win before he died. Every year we knew that the Tigers wouldn’t rebuild because the owner was old and determined. He was running out of chances and taking a year or two off to restock for some blurry future made little sense. Certainly that strategy had its downside but the mistakes he made were made for the right reasons.
There are two stories that represent Ilitch’s legacy for me. After the Tigers clinched the division in 2014, Ilitch sat next to Victor Martinez in Brad Ausmus’ office. He put his arm around him and, as the story goes, said “I’m going to take care of you next year.” Martinez was a free agent to be coming off an incredible year at the plate. The basic math told you that Martinez was going to get a larger contract than he was worth that winter, but Ilitch wouldn’t hear of it. He paid the going rate – maybe even a little more – before Martinez even had a chance to test the market.
Ilitch was known for having that kind of attitude toward his players. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera got similar treatment. Ilitch cared about winning and wanted to win with the players who had worked so hard for him. A few million here or there didn’t matter. His approach made things feel less like a corporation and more like a family business.
However, the defining moment will always be the beginning of the 2009 season. The Great Recession had rocked the auto industry and two of the city’s Big Three automakers had to be bailed out by the federal government to survive. General Motors had previously sponsored the center field fountain at Comerica Park but were in no position to spend a couple million dollars on advertising. Rather than selling the space to another company in some other industry, Ilitch put all three logos on the fountain with the message “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”
Things were dire around the country but especially in Detroit. The Tigers themselves were feeling squeezed due to decreased ticket sales and surely could have used the capital. In fact, that offseason they traded Curtis Granderson in part because they needed to trim payroll. A city that was once the engine of the American Century was teetering on the brink, but in that moment, Ilitch wasn’t thinking about the ad space. He was thinking about the organization’s role in the community. It’s responsibility to the community, even.
That season ended painfully, after 12 innings in Minneapolis. It was unquestionably the most crushing moment I’ve had as a sports fan. Game 163 left scars on most of us. That season had been such a welcome distraction from the daily turmoil happening in the real world and a deep playoff run was exactly what everyone needed. In one final blow, the Twins took that away and the longest year in the longest decade of Detroit got a little longer.
I have no idea if the free space actually helped the industry recover, but symbolism mattered. Mike Ilitch did right by his city not just when it was easy and when it made him wealthy, but also when things were tough.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know the automakers survived and Detroit and Michigan are back on the rise. At the city’s lowest point, Mike Ilitch gave the Big Three free space on the fountain because Detroit wouldn’t have been Detroit without them.
I don’t know what’s next for the Wings or the Tigers without Ilitch at the helm. He hasn’t been involved on a day-to-day basis for sometime but it was still his vision that led the way. Our teams and their city benefited greatly from his stewardship, not just because he was savvy, but because he cared about the right things and was willing to take risks. May his example light the way for those who follow.