One has to feel for Mike Ilitch. For the third straight year, the talent-laden Detroit Tigers, sporting a payroll that could finance a NASA exploration of Mars, came up short. While being among baseball’s “final four” three straight Octobers is nice, and all that hardware sure to come Max’s and Miggy’s way are wonderful, when everything is said and done, who cares or will even remember a few years from now? (Quick: Name me the American League MVP for the 1981 season or the ALCS loser in 1993.) Championships are what teams are best remembered for.
Let’s be honest here. Detroit may be Hockeytown to many of us, but in the greater sports universe the NHL still rates way behind the NFL, MLB, and the NBA in terms of popularity, prestige, and media coverage. For all the success and personal laurels Ilitch has enjoyed as owner of the Detroit Red Wings (he’s a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame), it has to be remembered that he was first and foremost a baseball guy. He grew up attending games at Briggs Stadium and was a shortstop in the Tigers’ farm system. He bought the Wings for $8 million in 1982 because they were cheap and available, and the Tigers weren’t. (The following year, John Fetzer sold the Tigers to Tom Monaghan for $53 million.) In an interview he gave a year or so ago, a fragile-looking Ilitch wistfully said winning a World Series would complete his life. The money he has been throwing at the club, especially the $214-million he agreed to shell out over nine years for a one-dimensional player like Prince Fielder, suggests a man who is desperate to WIN NOW. Unfortunately, the soonest the Tigers can possibly win now will be next October.
The championship-or-bust mentality has become increasingly important because of Ilitch’s advancing age and obviously declining health. In his rare public appearances he’s looked gaunt, frail, and at times mildly confused. Rumors have swirled for some time that he has battled cancer, severe heart problems, or both. None of this is surprising, given his age. He turns 85 next July. I don’t want to prematurely send Mr. I off to whatever celestial home old shortstops and zamboni drivers go. But if he has a bucket list, I would be shocked that there isn’t one item printed in bold-face type: Win a damn World Series.
The best predictor of future behavior always is past behavior. This means Tigers fans don’t need to be hopeful as much as they need to be patient. Every professional sport team Ilitch has owned has ultimately won a championship. In fact, not only have they won a championship or two (or four), they’ve become dominant in their sport. Start with the Detroit Caesars, who won a couple of softball championships in Ilitch’s first foray into pro sports in the 1970s. And the Detroit Drive, who played in the title game in each of their six seasons in the Arena Football League, winning four championships. And the Red Wings, who in 1997 broke a 42-year-long drought with their first of four Stanley Cups under Ilitch. The owner’s approach has been the same throughout. Pay top dollar for top talent while surrounding himself with the best and brightest coaches and general managers. There have been missteps along the way, of course, but ultimately the result is a championship team and a full house of adoring, free-spending fans. Mike Ilitch is all about winning, be it pizza, entertainment, or sports. The only thing that has eluded him is a World Series title.
It’s a curious thing. During their century-plus time in the American League, the Tigers have won only four World Series. Yet, fate has doled them out perfectly: one championship per each major owner (that is, someone who owned the club for more a couple of seasons). Frank Navin won his world’s title in 1935 (and passed away just a few days later), followed by Walter O. Briggs in 1945, John Fetzer in 1968, and Monaghan in 1984.
Ilitch, who purchased the Tigers from Monaghan for $85 million in 1992, has now gone 22 seasons without a World Series title. For comparison’s sake, it took 15 seasons from the time he bought the Red Wings until he finally got the chance to smooch the Stanley Cup. Generally, it’s harder to turn around a team in baseball than in hockey (well, at least until the NHL adopted a salary cap), but there are some encouraging parallels between the Wings and the Tigers under Ilitch’s ownership.
Think back to 1982, when the “Dead Things” were stinking up the ice inside a half-empty arena. Could anybody then have predicted that, 30 years later, fans would be reminiscing about Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008, and an ongoing playoff streak that is one of the longest in the history of professional sports? Similarly, it’s possible that one day we’ll look back on the Tigers’ current string of postseason disappointments and recognize them as just the prelude to greater things to come.
I have little doubt that one day a World Series banner will be raised at Comerica Park, and probably very soon. The real question is whether the man most responsible for it will be able to savor the moment.