Ilitch ignores his own past as he guides Tigers into the future

The first 13 years of his ownership of the Detroit Tigers were the worst period in franchise history.

The first 13 years of his ownership of the Detroit Tigers were the worst period in franchise history.

When you have enough money you can say just about anything you want. Even if it doesn’t make sense or defies logic.

Donald Trump has been doing that for months now as he gobbles up headlines like Pacman in his pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination. The owner of the Detroit Tigers illustrated the same knack on Monday.

Though still-wet-behind-his-ears general manager Al Avila was serving as master of ceremonies for the presser welcoming Jordan Zimmermann to the Tigers, it was Mike Ilitch’s voice that carried the story.

“We talked a lot,” Ilitch said of former Tiger GM and President Dave Dombrowski. “We talked like old friends. He knew that he wasn’t coming back. That’s all there was to it because I didn’t win with him. We were close. He’s a great guy.”

Well, that’s interesting.

Then there was this about why he fired Dombrowski via the phone two days after the trade deadline this past August:

“But there are times when you’ve got to change. When you’re not winning, you’ve got to change. I made up my mind that you’ve got to change.”

Lastly, consider this quote from Mr. I about why he made an abrupt change in his front office last season:

“You get frustrated and I get a little upset and then I said ‘Al, get out there and get me more.’ I want to win more.”

Ilitch’s very-public mutterings lead me to a few conclusions. Namely:

  1. This octogenerian still has some piss and vinegar in him.
  2. The senior Ilitch is not ready to cede control of his baseball team to his son or his wife.
  3. He’s grossly uneducated on how a successful baseball team is assembled.
  4. He’s not at all self-aware.

Ilitch is still very feisty
Before you quibble with any of those four points, let me make my argument.

In regards to point #1, let me share some more words attributed to Mr. Ilitch at Monday’s presser, this time he’s talking about The Departed Ace, Max Scherzer, who packed his bags for a larger stash of cash.

“We made him an offer and it looked like he was gonna take it, and all of sudden he wanted a little bit more. It irked me a little bit. I figured, how much you want? I just asked you what you want, and he tells me, and then he wants more. Forget about him.”

Yeah, the “forget” in that last sentence can just as naturally be replaced with another F Word. Ilitch wasn’t happy that Scherzer spurned him. Quite obviously Mr. I is still feisty.

He’s still in charge
On point #2, look no further than the fact that the Detroit owner is still very willing to fire who he wants to fire, hire who he wants to hire, and spend whatever the hell he wants to spend. Hey, it’s his team and his money, so he has that right. The fact that Ilitch was willing to spit all sorts of juicy quotes into the microphones at Monday’s event shows that he is still “the man” in charge of the Detroit Tigers and he has no intention of stepping aside as long as he can drag his walker to the press room. This comes as a little bit of news to those of us who saw his last public appearance during the 2014 postseason when he looked ill and fragile.

Delusions of grandeur
Now we come to the juicy parts. On Monday, Ilitch told reporters why and how he fired Dombrowski. According to his logic, it was necessary, because a “change had to be made” and he “didn’t with him.” How anyone sitting in that room kept a straight face when the 86-year old said that is beyond me. I would have fell off my chair and laughed hard enough to have them take me away in a straightjacket.

To be clear, I’m not (necessarily) defending Dombrowski against some grave injustice. His contract was due to expire after the 2015 season and Ilitch had every right to not renew it. But the manner in which Dombrowski was fired (Ilitch claims he didn’t fire him, but I bet the human resources department of the Detroit Tigers would disagree) was more like a temper tantrum than a business decision. Dombrowski’s head was lopped off because Mr. Ilitch had watched too many losing ballgames last summer and he needed to jettison someone in a Steinbrennerian move.

Tantrum aside, Ilitch’s choice of the phrase “a change had to be made” is ludicrous. The Tigers won four consecutive division titles from 2011-2014. They averaged 92 wins per season and advanced to baseball’s “final four” in three of those seasons. This wasn’t a team overdue for hope and change. The 2015 Tigers were a team that was course-correcting and getting a little older. They had several players who failed to perform and a few who were nagged by injury. Let’s not act like the Tigers under Dombrowski were the Cleveland Browns. (You’re welcome, Detroit football fans, for me not using the Millen Lions as a barometer).

Ilitch doesn’t get to rewrite history just because he wants to justify firing a baseball genius. He also doesn’t get to claim undue credit for the success this team enjoyed under Dave Dombrowski. Let’s not forget, after Ilitch bought his beloved Tigers, the team had losing seasons in 12 of the next 13 years. I think some people might be forgetting what happened when a much younger Ilitch, fresh pizza money overflowing from his pockets, bought the Tigers in the early 1990s. In that case, let’s all take a quick history lesson.

  • In 1994-95, as major league baseball’s owners and players haggled over how to split the billions in their coffers, Ilitch threatened to field replacement players to start the ’95 season and he openly suggested that the team wouldn’t suffer from it.
  • After Sparky Anderson refused to manage (“scab”) replacement players during spring training in 1995, Ilitch fumed and later used that as a reason to shove Sparky out as manager. It took almost a decade for the Tigers to honor Anderson in Detroit and he was essentially persona non grata until Alan Trammell brought Sparky back as a special coach during his tenure as Tiger manager.
  • Ilitch used his money and political muscle to silence any critics to his plan of abandoning Tiger Stadium, one of the most revered ballparks in the game. After the team relocated to Comerica Park, Ilitch and his business partners stiff-armed any attempt to save Tiger Stadium or to have it used to field any other teams. Anything that would remind Detroit fans that the Tigers used to play baseball elsewhere was scrubbed from team history.
  • After Sparky’s “retirement,” Ilitch employed five managers in eight years and his general manager (the appropriately bland-named Randy Smith) was set free to make some of the most bizarre and brain dead moves in team history, including three trades that shuttled catcher Brad Ausmus back and forth to and from the Tigers.
  • The historically pathetic stretch the Tigers were on in their first decade under Ilitch’s ownership included a putrid 109-loss season in 1996, 106 losses in 2002, and a record-setting 119 in 2003 from a team designed and orchestrated by Smith and Ilitch.
  • Fans were diving away from the Tigers in droves. In 1996 and 1997, the team drew fewer fans combined than the Tigers did in their 1984 championship year.

The 1990s Ilitch is the real Ilitch
When Dombrowski was hired after the 2002 season he inherited a mess. A stinking, sloppy, embarrassing mess. Being a Tigers fan in the early 2000s after a decade of mismanagement by Ilitch was not fun. People were hiding their Old English D hats in their closets. They weren’t taking weekend trips to Detroit to watch the Tigers. Very few people had a “Favorite Tiger,” in fact that’s the reason Trammell was named manager in the first place: it gave Detroiters someone to love on the field.

But within three years — THREE YEARS — Dombrowski (and his handpicked manager Jim Leyland) had the Tigers in the World Series. Fans were so drunk with team-love they may have not noticed that the American League trophy was handed to Ilitch on the field after clinching the pennant. He should have been hiding in the corner of the dugout hoping and praying everyone forgot how shitty the team was under the first 13 years of his ownership.

That guy — the guy Ilitch says “he never won with”— is the guy who built the Tigers into the envy of most of the rest of baseball. All of the draft picks, deals, free agent signings, every one of them that worked out for the Tigers, were masterminded by Dombrowski, a man who rescured Ilitch from being as reviled as William Clay Ford.

Come to think of it, that’s who Mike Ilitch the baseball owner is. He’s one good hire away from being William Clay Ford.

Remember when Ilitch had a voice in who was managing his baseball team? He fired Sparky Anderson and replaced him with a series of managers who rotated in and out of the Motor City like they were skinless chickens on a rotisserie.

Remember who Ilitche’s first choice for GM was? It was Smith, the guy who traded his farm system away to get Juan Gonzalez a year before he’d become a free agent (and predictably bolted Detroit).

Ilitch is the guy who told Dombrowski to sign Prince Fielder to a $214 million contract and then had to be bailed out of it a few years later when Fielder basically quit on the team.

Tell me again why we should be happy that Mike Ilitch is in charge? The only good move he ever made as owner of the Tigers was to hire the best executive in the game. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Boston Red Sox, one of the most astute teams in the game, quickly snatched Dombrowski off the waiver wire.

Am I supposed to be fired up when Ilitch says “I’m not afraid to spend money to get the best players”? Is that supposed to inspire confidence?

The real Ilitch is the man who helped ruin the Tigers for 13 years, sending them into a spiral that made 90-loss seasons seem like small victories, who made them a laughingstock. The Ilitch who has sat by and written checks the last ten years while better baseball men made good baseball decisions, that was the only Ilitch this team can survive under.

I’m all too afraid that the sane men have been cast away and the lunatics are running the asylum again.