You saw the headline, so you know what #1 is on this list. But what about the other bad decisions in Detroit history? I picked ten, and they’re not pretty.
10. Ignoring their history
The Tigers have a rich legacy filled with great players and memorable moments. But you wouldn’t know it based on how they treat their franchise history. Several petty decisions have illustrated how much ignorance (or perhaps contempt) the Tigers have for their own history.
After the retirement of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell in the mid-1990s and the exit of Sparky Anderson, the team refused to honor any of the greats through ceremony or by retiring their numbers. Former pitcher Jack Morris, who has received more votes for the Hall of Fame than any player who has not been elected, has never had his #47 retired or even been honored in Detroit. The team didn’t have an official event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1984 World Series title.
No statues exist of Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Harry Heilmann, or Sam Crawford, three legends who played large roles in successful stretches in team history. In 2006 when the Tigers won the pennant, Sparky Anderson was not invited to Detroit for the event, instead being asked (at the last minute and only after negative publicity) to record a video greeting to fans.
In 2011 the Tigers finally retired Sparky’s #11, but only after his death the previous November. Why the wait? Team owner Mike Ilitch was holding a personal grudge against Anderson. (More on that next)
9. Blackballing Sparky
This is yet another gaffe that occurred during the Ilitch era.
In 1995, MLB owners and the Players’ Union were at an impasse. The previous season had been halted due to a labor stoppage, and the World Series was cancelled. As spring approached, the two sides were still far apart.
What did the owners do? They doubled-down on their stupidity and decided to fill their rosters with “replacement players.” Camps opened with free agents, minor leaguers, or scabs in uniform. Every big league manager reported to camp to work with these “major league” players. Except one. Detroit’s Sparky Anderson would have none of it.
“I have too much respect for this game to be part of this,” Sparky told reporters.
The veteran skipper refused to manage the replacement players. Not until the labor issues were settled did Anderson report to camp to be with his players. But owner Mike Ilitch was fuming. He saw Sparky’s decision as defiance. He vowed to get rid of his skipper after the season, which is precisely what he did. The team announced that Sparky was “retiring,” but really he was being pushed out.
To add insult to injury, Ilitch made sure Sparky was never hired in baseball again, colluding with his fellow owners to blackball the famous manager. Sparky was only 61 years old at the time and he was still interested in managing. Despite more than 2,000 victories and three World Series titles, he never got an offer.
8. Bo Schembechler & Firing Ernie
Schembechler should have stuck to football. But for some insane reason, Tom Monaghan hired Bo as team president in 1990 and let him loose. In 1991 he approved the firing of popular radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell in what was the worst public relations fiasco in Detroit history. By 1993, Ernie was back behind the microphone and Bo was fired.
7. Bungling the exit from Tiger Stadium
There’s not enough space here to debate the merits of saving Tiger Stadium. Should the team have stayed at The Corner? Could they have salvaged the old ballpark, like the Red Sox saved Fenway Park? I don’t know.
But I do know this: the team, led by owner Mike Ilitch, didn’t handle the migration to a new ballpark very well. The team ignored local groups who wanted to have their voice heard, and after Comerica Park was built, Ilitch used his power to ensure that Tiger Stadium would rot rather than be used for anything else.
6. The Juan Gonzalez fiasco
Who trades for a player who is going to become a free agent the following season? Who trades for a righthanded power hitter when their home games are played in a park with deep fences in the power alleys? Who gives up six prospects for that player?
Randy Smith, that’s who.
The clueless GM acquired Gonzalez from Texas after the 1999 season for a batch of young players, including Justin Thompson, Gabe Kapler and Frank Catalanatto. The Juan Gone era was a mess. The temperamental two-time MVP never liked playing in Detroit, refused to accept a contract extension, and even spent time on the disabled list suffering from “flu-like symptoms.”
5. Letting Billy Pierce slip away
The morning after Detroit general manager Billy Evans traded lefty Billy Pierce to the White Sox for catcher Aaron Robinson (even sending $10,000 in cash to the Sox), he called Chicago GM Frank Lane begging him to cancel the deal.
Lane would not reverse the transaction, and Detroit lost Pierce. For the next 13 years the Tigers watched as the southpaw won 186 games for the White Sox and established himself as one of the best pitchers in the league.
4. Bunning traded to the Phillies
The tall righthander was 31 years old when the Tigers traded him to the Phillies for Don Demeter and a few others after the 1963 campaign. He’d won 118 games for the Tigers, serving as their ace and one of the best power pitchers in the AL. After leaving Detroit, he fired a second no-hitter, but more importantly he won 106 games and pitched very well in six of his remaining eight seasons.
If the Tigers had Bunning in 1967, it’s likely they could have won the extra game they needed to win the pennant. (Yes, the Tigers spun Demeter into Earl Wilson in a later trade, but Wilson was not the caliber of a Bunning, and though he won 22 games in ’67 he was a league average pitcher who benefited from great run support).
3. The firing of Dave Dombrowski
The architect of the Detroit success from 2006-2014, Dave Dombrowski made several lopsided trades that brought valuable players to the Tigers. Most notably Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Max Scherzer, and Austin Jackson, just to name a few. But, after leading the team to four consecutive division titles, he committed the crime of not winning a fifth. For that, Mike Ilitch fired him after the trade deadline in 2015. (Just a few days after Dombrowski cleverly acquired Michael Fullmer from the Mets).
While the other 29 MLB front offices were laughing at Ilitch’s decision to fire Dombrowski, the Boston Red Sox pounced and hired him. After two last place finishes before Trader Dave arrived, the Sox won the division title in 2016 and are in first place again this season.
Someday, Dave Dombrowski will probably be in the Hall of Fame. Mike Ilitch, a man who once employed four general managers in ten seasons and drove the franchise into the ground as they posted 12 straight losing seasons, fired him.
2. The VMart extension
In 2014, Victor Martinez had a great season for the Tigers, finishing second in AL Most Valuable Player voting. After the season he was an unrestricted free agent, but also a soon-to-be 36-year old DH with a history of health problems. Dombrowski was hesitant to resign VMart, thinking that a two-year deal was at best all the Tigers should offer. Ilitch stepped in and insisted that Martinez (one of his favorites) remain a Tiger.
The Tigers inked Martinez to a four-year deal for $68 million GUARANTEED that would ensure the DH would be paid through his age 39 season. That money has hamstrung the Tigers and was another reason Scherzer wasn’t signed. Since the deal, Martinez has had two terrible seasons and one decent season. In addition, since he clogs the DH spot, it leaves no room for Miguel Cabrera to get rest in that role.
1. Letting Scherzer walk via free agency
Ilitch agreed to offer Scherzer $144 million for six years prior to his free agent season of 2014. Scherzer declined, choosing to see what he could get on the open market. It was a risk. But it paid off,
Mad Max went 18-5 with 252 strikeouts and a 3.15 ERA in ’14, finishing fourth in Cy Young voting. His efforts helped the Tigers to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. But his start in the division series was his last in a Detroit uniform because Ilitch was not going to make him an offer again.
In the offseason, Scherzer signed a seven-year $210 million deal with the Nationals, or $6 million more per season than the Tigers had offered, with one more year guaranteed. It was a lot of money, but it was what he was worth on the open market.
Since the trade, Scherzer has only gotten better. He’s thrown not one, but two no-hitters for the Nationals. He’s won a second Cy Young Award, and in 2017 he has a chance to win another. He’s one of the best pitchers of his generation.
How could things have been different if the Tigers would have paid Max? Well, n 2016 the Tigers fell a game short of making the playoffs. With Scherzer, there’s no question they would have made it. Once your in the dance, especially with an ace like Scherzer and other starters Justin Verlander and Michael Fullmer, anything can happen.
Letting Max go in the prime of his career was a disastrous mistake. He’s a possible future Hall of Famer, and now he’s making history with someone else.
They say not to speak ill of the dead. I certainly didn’t intend to do that when I devised the topic for this article. But after researching and writing this list, I’m reminded that for all the good Mike Ilitch did for the city of Detroit and for the Tigers, he also made several terrible decisions, including having a hand in seven of the ten bad decisions on this list.