Mike Ilitch is 81 years old. He’s an octogenerian owner who soon will be shying away from buying green bananas.
He’s owned the Detroit Tigers for about 18 years. He’s sunk a boatload of cash into the team. Correction: not a boatload—enough for a flotilla. He’ s been through four GMs and seven managers.
And he has one (1) playoff appearance to show for all of it.
This isn’t what he had in mind when he purchased the Tigers from fellow pizza magnate Tom Monaghan in 1992.
There will come a time—and I think it’s sooner than you think—when Ilitch will look at all he’s put into his baseball team, see what he’s gotten back, and make a decision that will pain him.
He won’t sell it. But he WILL clean its house.
Ilitch loathes firing people, even when it’s justified. When he canned Red Wings coach Jacques Demers in 1990, both men had a good cry at Ilitch’s home.
Ilitch leaves the rendering of the ziggy to his executives. Dave Dombrowski, while holding the singular title of team president for the Tigers, fired GM Randy Smith and manager Phil Garner early in the 2002 season. It was up to Red Wings GM Ken Holland to dump coach Dave Lewis after two seasons and two disappointing playoff exits.
Ilitch doesn’t like to fire. He likes to hug and squeeze and shower his people with gifts. He’s a man of stability, of loyalty. He doesn’t like upheaval. He likes consistency, routine. The Red Wings and Tigers are owned by Mister Rogers.
But Ilitch is also a businessman. He doesn’t get his mitts onto anything unless he thinks he can turn it into a buck.
His money poured into the Tigers has been mismanaged. He has a whopping payroll of well over $100 million and all it took was a couple of injuries to make his team look like the Toledo Mud Hens barnstorming with a few Tigers along for the ride.
The Tigers have lost 18 of 23, largely because they’re fielding Toledo North on any given night. And that’s not counting Brennan Boesch, who was so good in the first half that you thought of him as a seasoned big leaguer. Now Boesch looks like a Mud Hen himself.
The Tigers can’t compete, not with what they’re trotting out there currently. It’s soooo hard for them to score runs now.
Ilitch is 81 and another baseball season has slipped away.
Ilitch is mostly a hands-off owner. In observing him since 1982, when he bought the Red Wings, I don’t think there have been many occasions (they could probably be counted on one hand and you’d still have some fingers left over) where he’s vetoed anything his upper management people wanted to do. He’s usually erred on the side of spending.
In fact, when he does get involved, it’s usually in a constructive manner, as opposed to disruptive.
Don’t forget that it was Ilitch who called Dombrowski at home—a rarity in of itself—and told DD that Miguel Cabrera would look nifty in a Tigers uniform, so why don’t you make it happen?
I’m not sure Cabrera becomes a Tiger if Ilitch hadn’t placed that phone call to his GM.
Ilitch didn’t imagine, when he bought the Tigers in ‘92, that he’d have one playoff appearance some 18 years later.
Had he, he wouldn’t have bought the team. Period. He loves baseball and the Tigers, but not enough to make a bad deal to buy them.
Owning the Tigers has been a bad deal for Ilitch. His 18 years have been filled with losing. All he’s gotten out of it was the addition of Comerica Park, and the subtraction of Sparky Anderson—both things he wanted very badly.
The owner is 81 and he can see the sunset. He wants a World Series title in the worst way. And he sees that possibiliy fading away.
That’s why, I believe, Ilitch has Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland on a short tether. He won’t like it, but I imagine he’ll broom them both out when Leyland’s contract expires after next year, barring an unforeseeable WS victory.
Dombrowski is more culpable than the manager. Leyland can only manage who he’s provided with. You can make solid cases against Leyland regarding his managing skills, but Dombrowski is the one who mismanaged the funds and who put the team perilously close to disaster in terms of depth.
Even before the Tigers signed Pudge Rodriguez in 2004, the team was thin as onion skin at catcher throughout the organization. Six years later, that hasn’t changed one bit. At the big league level, it’s gotten far worse.
The Tigers have embarrassingly gotten a combined BA of around .200 from their catchers, with few homers and a sprinkling of RBI.
The Opening Day shortstop, Adam Everett, is out of baseball.
The Opening Day second baseman was rushed to the big leagues, when an All-Star could have been retained.
There is no corner outfield depth, and that’s WITH Boesch’s amazing start factored in.
No one else can play centerfield other than rookie Austin Jackson.
Dontrelle Willis was kept over Nate Robertson, who was released by the Florida Marlins on July 27, but who wouldn’t have imploded like Willis (predictably) did. Robertson signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals a few days ago.
Leyland, of course, has made some curious decisions, as he always does. He has a maddening fetish of resting players who don’t need rest, like the rookie Jackson. He sent a pinch-runner in for Cabrera—CABRERA!—in Boston last weekend. Also in Beantown, Leyland let his closer throw 60 pitches in what started as a non-save situation, rendering Jose Valverde useless for the next two games. He’s had a silly man crush on Ryan Raburn that’s bordering on obscene.
Leyland had a stacked team in 2008, and didn’t have them properly prepared in spring training to rise to their hype, stumbling out of the gate 0-7 and never recovering.
The Tigers, during the Leyland Era (2006-present), have too often been a fragile bunch, shockingly vulnerable to being knocked out of synch by outside forces like injuries and expectations.
Ilitch, for whatever reason, hasn’t been able to find that crack management/coaching team with the Tigers as he has with the Red Wings. The Dombrowski/Leyland tandem is without question the closest Ilitch has come with the Tigers, but it’s not good enough.
And the Tigers haven’t exactly been in a Rolls Royce division all these years, either.
The 2006 Tigers, in fact, are one of only two AL Central teams (2005 White Sox) to win the league pennant since joining the division in 1998.
Mike Ilitch is 81 and he made a bad deal in buying the Tigers some 18 years ago. He got rooked. Yet he can salvage his legacy as Tigers owner with a World Series title.
He may have no option but to part ways with both Dombrowski and Leyland in order to fulfill his dream, as much as he’d hate to do it.