Mike Ilitch grew up as a fan of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings in a neighborhood near Fenkell and Livernois in Detroit. He was the son of Macedonian immigrant parents. He went to Cooley High School, then served four years in the U.S. Marine corps before signing with the Tigers for $3,000 to play minor league baseball for four seasons. A knee injury ended his baseball career, and he worked as a door-to-door salesman and eventually opened his own business, a pizza restaurant in Garden City, Michigan. Little Caesar’s Pizza grew to become the largest carryout pizza chain in the world, with sales of $3 billion annually.
When Ilitch bought the Detroit Tigers for $82 million in cash from fellow pizza magnate Tom Monaghan in 1992, he took the reigns of a franchise with a recent history of success. The team was five years removed from a playoff appearance, but had registered a pair of second place finishes in the interim. However, only division winners qualified for the playoffs back then. He inherited some expectations.
Ilitch was known to Detroiters as the owner of the Detroit Red Wings, a franchise in futility prior to his ownership, restored to a perennial playoff team once he took over. The hockey team had not yet won a Stanley Cup under his stewardship, but the players were in place to make a championship run. The sale of the Tigers to Ilitch was welcomed by fans. The roster was aging, as Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell were just remnants of past glory days. Things would get worse — much worse — before they got better.
Years of decline
The early years under Ilitch’s ownership were not a pleasant experience for Tigers fans. In his first 13 seasons, the team never finished higher than third place. They posted a winning record only once, in 1993, when they finished 10 games out of first place. With Randy Smith as general manager, top draft picks flopped one after another, while mediocre players were given big contracts.
The Tigers’ payroll was around $50 million (average at the time), but was slashed close to $20 million from 1996 to 1998. Things hit rock bottom, as the team averaged 98 losses from 1996 through 2003, including an American League record 119 losses during the 2003 season. In the first 13 seasons under Ilitch, the Tigers had a combined record of 925-1276 for a winning percentage of .420. This was an average record of 68-94 per season.
The Red Wings won multiple Stanley Cups championships while leading the national hockey league in spending. Criticism rained down on Ilitch for not spending more on the Tigers. The Red Wings were his favorite child while the Tigers were just an afterthought, people said. As the criticism got stronger, the team on the field got even worse. But Mike Ilitch had a long term strategy.
If you build it, people will come
As the Tigers struggled on the field, Ilitch was determined to bring the team into the 21st century by replacing the antiquated but beloved Tiger Stadium with a new, state-of-the-art ballpark in the heart of downtown Detroit. He convinced local government agencies to sell bonds and implement a modest hotel tax, along with $175 million of his own money to build the new ballpark. That required reducing operating expenses, including payroll, to obtain favorable financing for the project. Diehard baseball fans whose only remaining joy in the beleaguered franchise was the 100 years of tradition were not sold on the idea.
After much political wrangling and expensive financing, Comerica Park was built as the largest baseball stadium in the major leagues, in terms of footprint. The new facility featured wide concourses, all new concessions, huge, clean bathrooms, luxury boxes for corporate clients, a ginormous scoreboard, and even a Ferris wheel and a carousel for the kids.
Ilitch was convinced that the new park was necessary for the success of the franchise. The team drew over two million fans for the first time during his tenure in 1999, the last year they played in Tiger Stadium, and again in the first season of the new park. But the intrigue of the new park quickly wore off, as fans could only be distracted from the performance of the team on the field for so long.
As attendance fell from 2.4 million fans in 2000 to just 1.3 million in 2003, Ilitch began to reinvest in players’ salaries, but it wasn’t working. With a payroll back up to the mid-range of MLB clubs but a team at the bottom of the standings, Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski -- a Michigander who had a track record of success -- as team president in 2002, and Smith was fired. Ilitch would later admit the mistake in keeping Smith too long as general manager.
Dombrowski hired Tigers heroes Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, and Lance Parrish to manage and coach the team, but things had not yet hit rock bottom. He traded and released players who did not perform up to their salaries, and the 2003 season left fans wondering if the team would ever again have a wining season. The Tigers would use their top draft pick the next year to select Justin Verlander, who would anchor their starting rotation for years to come.
Following the 2003 season, with the house swept clean, Ilitch and Dombrowski began to look for free agent players who would be willing to get on board a rebuilding effort. They were few and far between. Some would play the bargaining game only to take lower offers from other clubs, while most would not even answer the phone when Detroit called. Finally, Ilitch spoke with super agent Scott Boras, and future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was signed to a four year, $40 million contract. The deal had an escape clause in case a nagging back flared up on Rodriguez, but that never became an issue.
The team improved their record by 29 games in 2004, and were seemingly on the upswing. They signed a second marquee player the following winter -- another Boras client — in Magglio Ordonez, to a seven year, $105 million contract, and All-Star closer Troy Percival to a two-year deal. Ordonez’s deal had an escape clause in case of a knee injury. The knee was fine, but a sports hernia sidelined Ordonez for much of the season, and Percival suffered a career-ending injury. The Tigers finished with one fewer win than the previous season, and Trammell and his coaches were dismissed.
Return to Glory
Dombrowski hired Jim Leyland, a former player in the Tigers’ minor league system and manager who had won a World Series title in Florida to skipper the Tigers. The club also signed veteran pitcher Kenny Rogers and brought back closer Todd Jones as free agents. Ordonez returned to health, Verlander was promoted, and the team soared.
The Tigers made an improbable run all the way to the World Series in 2006 and have been perennial playoff contenders ever since. Dombrowski proved to be very effective in spending Ilitch’s money on free agents, and he swindled other clubs in trades on a regular basis. By 2008, the Tigers had a payroll among the top five teams in the game, and attendance soared. Detroiters came out in droves to see a winner. Attendance has not dipped below 2.4 million fans since 2005, and has topped three million four times. Television ratings are among the best in the game.
Most importantly, the team has won four division titles, two pennants, and made the playoffs five times since 2006. Ilitch leaves behind a team with the second-highest payroll in the game. The Red Wings won four Stanley cups and made 25 consecutive playoff appearances under his reign, and they spend up to the salary cap limit each season.
Mike Ilitch was the kind of owner that every fan should want in charge of their favorite team. He was a fellow fan, not a meddling owner. He let experts make the baseball decisions, but he stood ready with the check book, at times even urging Dombrowski to pursue very expensive players in pursuit of a championship for the fans of Detroit. He grew up a Tigers fan and he died a Tigers fan. He was one of us, living the dream. Our dreams were his dreams, and he will be missed.