The typically joyous opening of Spring Training across Major League
Baseball this week was tempered against the news of the passing of
Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch just days before pitchers and catchers
were due to report.
In losing Mr. I, the Tigers and their fans
lost one of the game’s great owners. But his death leaves a void far,
far greater than will be felt by those wearing the Old English D.
was born in Detroit, raised in Detroit and spent his life being a
champion for the city, even as it faded. Ilitch made his fortune, over
$3 billion of net worth, as the founder of Little Caesar’s Pizza, and
the company headquarters is in Detroit. He purchased the NHL’s Red Wings
and Tigers and spent money without regard to profits in order to bring
championship-level play to the downtown area.
Baseball and hockey
pundits have been saying for years that those teams are outspending
their means and cannot sustain that level of financial commitment, but
Ilitch never really backed off, only paring his hockey payroll when the
league adopted a salary cap.
His Red Wings brought him three
Stanley Cups. His Tigers got close twice, winning American League
Championships in 2006 and 2012, but couldn’t win a World Series before
He even offered to buy the NBA’s Pistons when
rumors of a relocation out of Michigan were happening. Instead, he
partnered with new Pistons owner Tom Gores to build a new downtown arena
for both the Red Wings and Pistons to share, bringing the team back from
their Auburn Hills exile that has lasted nearly 30 years.
Tigers farmhand, Ilitch’s passion for winning was fueled both by a
personal desire to succeed at the highest level of sports and a desire
to provide his beloved city with the pride that comes from winning it
all. His dedication to the city and its residents has been a major
driving force behind the rebirth of the downtown area of Detroit. While
empty, rotting buildings can still be seen in the city, much of the area
has been or is in the process of being revitalized. Neighborhoods are
reawakening and people who once moved into the suburbs are now coming
back in droves.
That doesn’t happen without the commitment of Mike and Marian Ilitch to bettering the city.
was a man unlike most owners in sports. In 2008, when the Detroit
automakers fell into bankruptcy, Ilitch turned down a $1.5 million
sponsorship of the center field fountain at Comerica Park, one that had
been occupied by General Motors, and instead gave away season-long
advertising not only to GM, but added Ford and Chrysler to the fountain
Many people know that story. Not as many know about the
countless other things he did for the good of the city and its people,
without fan fare or publicity. In the mid-1990s, Ilitch read a newspaper
report about an aging Rosa Parks, who was robbed in her Detroit
apartment. There was a group looking to find her safer housing. Ilitch
phoned the group and took care of the finances needed to move Parks to a
safer area. He then paid her rent every month until the day she died
more than a decade later.
For one reason or another, many, if not
most, owners in sports are disliked by their respective fan bases. Mr.
Ilitch was revered, and for good reason.
He will be missed; not
only by Tigers fans and Red Wings fans, but by residents of Detroit.
Maybe the Tigers can bring home a World Series in his honor this season.