The Detroit Tigers go into this season with the third highest payroll in the Majors, behind only the Dodgers and Yankees. This is pretty commonplace for the team in the past decade, placing somewhere between third and tenth on the list every year since Opening Day 2008. But before that they typically fell somewhere in the lower third of the league as they wallowed in somewhat obscurity during the 90s and early 00s. So what happened? What spurred the change? The answer to that lies with one man and his unending desire to win a World Series.
Michael “Mike” Ilitch Sr. was born in 1929 to Macedonian immigrants. He grew up in Detroit, and upon returning from a 4 year stint serving in the Marines, he came home and was offered a minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers. Over the next 4 years he would play in the primarily second base for the Tiger’s farm teams, as well as the Yankees and Washington Senators. Sadly, his playing career was cut short before ever making the Big Leagues by a knee injury. Returning home, he and his wife, Marian, opened a pizza place. They decided to use Mike’s nickname, Little Caesar, as the name of their new venture. It’s safe to say, business went well. Near the time of his death, Ilitch was in the top 100 of Forbes’ 400 Richest Americans” List. A good chunk of that wealth game from the various Detroit sports franchises for which the Ilitch’s are the owners.
In 1982, Mike Ilitch bought the Detroit Red Wings. At the time the Red Wings were collectively known as the “Dead Wings” and hardly resembled the glorious dynasty of the early NHL. It didn’t take long for Ilitch to turn the team around, back into the powerhouse they once were. Under his ownership they won 4 Stanley Cups and made the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons, with that streak ending this year. But hockey was never really Mr. I’s passion.
In 1992, after selling the Detroit Drive (a wildly successful AFL team), Mr I. bought the Detroit Tigers from the owner of Domino’s Pizza (Detroit knows pizza, let’s get that clear). One of the first things Ilitch expressed an interest in doing was building a new stadium for the Tigers to play in, as Tiger Stadium was quite old. Fenway, Wrigley old. In 2000, Comerica Park opened. This was bittersweet for many Tigers’ fans as baseball had always been played at the corner of Michigan & Trumbull up until this point. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood took place there. I walked on that field, sat behind structural poles, and saw Sammy Sosa hit one of his home runs during the Chase in ’98. But the Stadium was old and the team definitely needed new digs. Mr. I got it done.
So it’s a new millennium and the Tigers have a shiny new park to play in. However, the team isn’t great. In fact they are outright bad. At this point, Tigers’ fans aren’t exactly happy with Mr. I. They’ve seen the success he is having with the Wings, and how much money went into the Park, so the general consensus is he doesn’t care about the Tigers. No one remembers, or knows, that Ilitch was part of the Tigers farm system and his dream was a World Series ring. They just see a bad on field project. And it was very bad.
In 2003, the Detroit Tigers had the 2nd worst season in baseball history, going 43-119. (The Mets lost 120 games in ’62. Never let Justin forget that). They miraculously won 5 of their last 7 to prevent being the worst ever. Mr. I had had enough. It was time to shake things up. He tasked then GM Dave Dombroski with bringing in some star talent. In 2004, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was signed which started a trend of bigger name signings. Coincidentally, 2004 is also when Little Caesar’s unveiled the $5 Hot and Ready pizza. We Tigers’ fans are indebted to every drunk college kid looking for a meal. In 2006, after letting Alan Trammel’s contract expire so as to not fire a local hero, Mr. I and Dombroski brought in Jim Leyland and the turnaround was complete. That 2006 team, only 3 years removed from 119 losses, made it to the World Series, where they got swept by the stupid St. Louis Cardinals. After being so close to his dream, they fell just short. Now it would seem, no amount of money was too large for Mr. I in his pursuit of a trophy.
In 2007, the best trade in the history of trades (hyperbolic, yes, but I don’t care) brought Miguel Cabrara (still a few years away from being the best right handed hitter the game has ever seen) and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit for peanuts. (Okay, it wasn’t peanuts as Andrew Miller has turned into a beast and Cameron Maybin is a perfectly capable outfielder). Willis was actually the big ticket at the time, but he was a bust. Luckily, you know, Miggy. And from there, the payroll exploded. Big names would come and go, bolstered by a bevy of young players from the farm system. Also during this time Justin Verlander would win a Cy Young and an MVP and draw a mega contract, the biggest ever for a pitcher at the time. Eventually Victor Martinez was brought in to give Miggy protection, as teams were starting to understand how special of a hitter he was. After a good first season with the Tigers in 2011, it looked like all the pieces were finally in place for 2012. And then, in January, Victor Martinez tore his ACL and required surgery. The season was over it seemed. And Mr. I opened his checkbook and signed Prince Fielder, son of local legend Cecil Fielder and the biggest free agent on the market, to a massive deal just 1 week later. Again, that team made it to the World Series only to be met by a stupid even year Giants squad. The trend of throwing money around has continued for the Tigers, always in search of that title their owner has dreamed of.
In Feburary of the this year, we lost Mr. Ilitch at the age of 87. The contributions he made to business and to sports are incredible. But above all else, he was a family man, completely committed to his home town of Detroit and its people, and for that he will never be forgotten. The best tribute I can think of would be the Tigers finally winning one for Mr. I. and I know they feel the same. It won’t be easy as there are many things this team needs to figure out, but the pieces are there, and if the passion is there then we will see.