Published June 24, 2017
First, a history lesson
The buttoned down, conservative major league baseball franchise was about to end a decade of irrelevance. It was September, 1959.
The Detroit Tigers began the 1950s as a joke and by the end of the decade had improved all the way to average.
The Tigers, never really an organization to be bold and innovative—or, to their credit, dysfunctional or impetuous—had tried a legend as general manager (Charlie Gehringer) in the early-’50s but as a GM, Charlie made a great second second baseman and let’s leave it at that.
Field managers came and went with little effect.
Not even the 1953 arrival of a skinny bonus baby from Baltimore who never played a single game in the minor leagues could lift the Tigers to prominence. Al Kaline was a special talent but he was only one man.
Bill DeWitt was far from buttoned down.
DeWitt was a flamboyant, risk-taking baseball executive who used trades and more trades to build the traditionally awful St. Louis Browns into a pennant winner in 1944. DeWitt wasn’t afraid to wheel and deal or to try something outside the box. It was DeWitt who gave a roster spot on the Browns to Pete Gray, who was your typical outfielder—except that Gray had one arm.
DeWitt was the riverboat gambler of baseball execs.
DeWitt eventually co-owned the Browns but then sold the team to even more flamboyant Bill Veeck in 1951.
DeWitt without a baseball team was like a nicotine addict without a cigarette. He plied his time from 1954-56 as assistant GM of the Yankees and then he worked in the commissioner’s office after that. But it wasn’t the spotlight; DeWitt missed being at the table, shoving his chips into the center of it.
The Tigers, a proud baseball franchise, were treading water as the ’50s ended and they needed a spark. Heck, they needed some fireworks.
So team owner John Fetzer, never known for being a risk-taker, nonetheless rang up DeWitt in September of ’59.
It didn’t take long to convince DeWitt to run the Tigers as team president.
It also didn’t take long for DeWitt to go back into riverboat gambler mode.
In 1960 alone, DeWitt teamed with Indians GM Frank Lane—another one who wasn’t shy to deal—on three major moves.
In April, DeWitt: fleeced the Indians by trading the virtually unknown Steve Demeter for a slugging outfielder/first baseman named Norm Cash; traded reigning batting champion Harvey Kuenn to the Tribe for reigning home run champion Rocky Colavito (this was the first and only time in big league history that such a deal was made); and in August, DeWitt and Lane traded managers, with Joe Gordon going to Detroit and Jimmy Dykes taking over the Indians.
And DeWitt loved every minute of it. He was a pig in slop.
Lane thought he got the better of the Kuenn-for-Colavito trade. He said he had “traded hamburger for steak.”
DeWitt was unfazed.
“I like hamburger,” he told the press.
Proving DeWitt to be clairvoyant, Colavito put up huge numbers for the Tigers (1960-63) while Kuenn only played one year for the Indians and then bounced around MLB as a journeyman. Hamburger can indeed be more gratifying than steak.
DeWitt’s time in Detroit was mercurial. He was gone by 1961, moving on to the Cincinnati Reds. But the impact that DeWitt made with the Tigers in such a brief period of time was significant. DeWitt, with his dealings, elevated the Tigers from mediocre to pennant-contending.
Fetzer, to his credit, saw a stale, stagnant franchise and injected some life into it with the hiring of Bill DeWitt. The owner would repeat that approach in 1970, with the hiring of bombastic skipper Billy Martin.
However, for the most part, the Tigers haven’t been one of baseball’s biggest risk-taking organizations.
Chris Ilitch is on the clock
But it’s time now, in 2017, for some boldness. It’s time now to open the windows and let the stale air out.
Chris Ilitch, Tigers fans turn their lonely, bleary eyes to you.
Loyalty has been a hallmark of the Ilitch family when it comes to their ownership of the Tigers and the Red Wings—sometimes to a fault. Some curious contracts have been handed out to players of both teams. Management hasn’t always been able to read the proverbial writing on the wall—as if it appears to them as hieroglyphics.
The Tigers haven’t fired a manager mid-season since early in the 2002 season. That kind of thing hasn’t been their style.
The cashiering of President and GM Dave Dombrowski in August 2015 was an anomaly, though DD was in the final year of his contract and the more we learned about his standing with the team, the less shocking the move appeared to be in the rearview mirror.
The Tigers are wearing Mr. I patches on their sleeves this season, honoring their late owner, who passed away in February. They spoke in spring training of how they were grateful to have been given another year together as a veteran-laden core. They vowed to win a championship for Mr. I, the lack of which while he was alive supposedly grinded their gears to no end.
Some players even said that divine intervention could be a factor, with Mike Ilitch looking down on them.
It’s all turned out to be a bunch of bullpucky.
The Tigers are not only going to extend their championship drought to 33 years, they’re currently one of the worst teams in the entire sport. Certainly one of those with the bleakest of futures.
A bloated payroll. A minor league system that anyone who knows anything about that kind of thing, abhors. No dynamic young players and none coming as far as the eye can see. Veteran players who are aging at a banana-like rate.
What ails the Tigers goes far beyond their field manager, Brad Ausmus. It even goes beyond the GM, Al Avila.
The Tigers, as an organization, need an enema.
As with the hockey team in town, the fans are ready now for a baseball makeover. In fact, they’re practically crying for it.
Chris Ilitch, now the man in charge, has to do a John Fetzer, circa 1959. The entire organization needs a new direction. Fresh faces are in order. New, progressive baseball people are now required.
This isn’t an opinion.
A needed enema
The current group, from the GM on down, is living in an alternate reality. Everyone seems to think that everything is going to be fine. The lack of a sense of urgency is stunning.
It’s fine to be optimistic. There’s nothing wrong with looking at a glass and seeing it as half full.
To a point.
In pro sports, the difference between seeing the world through rose-colored glasses and operating with blinders on can be fine but also fatal to an organization.
Al Avila has only been the GM for about two calendar years but he’s been with the Tigers since the early-2000s. That’s an eternity in his business—and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.
To a point.
David Chadd, Avila’s assistant, was vice president of amateur scouting prior to August 2015 before being promoted when Avila got his new job. Chadd has been with the Tigers since 2005 and his time in the scouting department hasn’t exactly been praised by baseball people outside of Detroit.
The front office is filled with folks who’ve been with the Tigers for at least 15 years. To be fair, that outfit has overseen the renaissance of baseball in Detroit that began in 2006.
But it’s time now for a change, and not an aesthetic one, like firing the manager.
Chris Ilitch is the only one, apparently, who can sign off on a potentially landmark shift in direction. If he’s not seriously considering this, then I weep for Tigers fans.
There’s no crime in this, by the way. It happens to the best of organizations in pro sports. Nothing can last forever.
Give everyone their gold watches, thank them, wish them well, and close the chapter on an era of Tigers baseball that thrilled, chilled and made everyone care again.
Since the beginning of 2017, Avila has had to tell the owner to pour salt and pepper on the contracts of Mark Lowe, Mike Pelfrey and Francisco Rodriguez and swallow them whole. And Avila was perilously close to having to do the same with Anibal Sanchez.
Sanchez’s contract wasn’t really Avila’s doing, as it was doled out under Dombrowski with the encouragement and blessing of Mr. I himself. But Avila is on the hook for Lowe and Pelfrey, two head-scratching deals—as well as Jordan Zimmermann, who until recently was looking like another bad contract. And Zim still might when all is said and done.
The painful fix
If I was Chris Ilitch—and wouldn’t millions of fans like to say the same—I’d broom Avila and Chadd at the end of the season, for starters. I’d let Brad Ausmus’ contract expire after the final pitch of 2017 and let the skipper’s career in Detroit die a natural death.
When Mike Babcock took over as coach of the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2015, Babs looked right into the glare of the lights and cameras at his presser and minced no words about the near future of the team. He was speaking directly to the fan base.
“There’s going to be pain,” Babcock promised. “Anyone who thinks there isn’t, is kidding themselves.”
The pain only lasted one season in Toronto, as it turned out. A kid named Auston Matthews helped accelerate the process, but the Leafs under the management of Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello have several young stars in the making to play supporting roles to Matthews. The future is bright for the Maple Leafs.
Babcock left the Red Wings because unlike management, he was able to look at the writing on the wall and not see hieroglyphics.
There’s going to be pain with the Tigers, and it’s going to last much longer than it did in Toronto with the Maple Leafs.
Chris Ilitch isn’t going to get out of this mess with the Tigers unscathed, unless his family sells the team. But he can alleviate some of the pain the sooner he acts. Right now, the Tigers are like the guy with a toothache who puts off seeing the dentist because he’s afraid of the cure, even though he knows the dentist can fix it.
Ilitch can’t possibly look at the current state of his baseball team and see a bright future. I’ve never met the man but I’m sure he’s not a bird brain. He just may not know when to initiate the moves, or which move to make first.
Forget firing the manager right now. This season is shot. If you want to can Ausmus to put him out of everyone’s misery, fine, but this would be window dressing—a calf put up for slaughter to the bloodthirsty masses.
Ilitch should bide his time for now, but also take some back channel meetings this summer with executives from other teams—both those steeped in experience and those who are younger and ready for a promotion—and put the wheels in motion for a major overhaul this fall.
Things have gotten stale with the Tigers. There’s no baseball equivalent of Auston Matthews on the horizon. The indictments on the scouting and drafting people need to be unsealed. The GM is delusional.
There’s going to be pain. It’s unavoidable. Tigers fans, who are mostly not delusional when it comes to this, should nonetheless brace themselves. This isn’t going to be pretty.
But there’s going to be even more pain the longer Chris Ilitch waits to get this reconstruction started.
It’s been a great run of baseball in these parts for the better part of a decade. We’ve seen pennants, MVPs, Cy Youngs and Triple Crowns. We’ve watched many a star slip on the Old English D at an off-season press conference.
There’s been no brass ring but the pursuit of it has made for quite a ride.
And now it’s winding down.
Tom Cruise said it in “Cocktail.”
“Everything ends badly, or else it wouldn’t end.”
This is going to end badly. So might as well get it over with as soon as possible.