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The legacy of Mike Ilitch

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Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch passed away last week at the age of 87. Ilitch oversaw the Tigers’ transformation from perennial losers in the 1990s and early 2000s to a consistently competitive organization in the last decade.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers - Game Four Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction. In the early 1990s the Detroit Tigers were owned by a “pizza mogul,” and no, it was not Mike Ilitch, at least not yet. Ilitch, the owner of Little Caesar’s purchased the team from Tom Monaghan, the owner of Domino's Pizza (seriously, you can’t make this up). He owned the team until his death last week and oversaw the Tigers organization as they moved to a new stadium and changed their image from perennial losers to a team willing to dole out huge contracts to impact players in pursuit of championships.

Mike Ilitch always had a penchant for sports. He played for the Tigers in the minor leagues for several seasons before becoming a highly successful businessman. He purchased the Detroit Red Wings in 1982 and ten years later, decided to try his hand as a Major League Baseball owner.

Amidst rumors the Tigers would leave Detroit-proper and move to the suburbs, Ilitch committed to the community, and announced that the team would remain in the city limits as part of a downtown revival project. With a good reputation among his NHL colleagues, Ilitch took over for the full 1993 season. Despite futility on the field, Ilitch garnered enough support for a new stadium for the Tigers, replacing old Tigers Stadium with Comerica Park in 2000. Financing 60 percent of it himself (but reaping all of the profits), the rest of the cost for the $350 million facility was paid for by the Detroit taxpayers and federal grants.

Coming off a 1992 season in which Detroit finished 21 games out of first place and sixth out of seven teams in the American League East. It would be another twelve years before the tigers even finished .500, with the worst year coming in a dismal 2003, when the team won only 43 games.

In 2002, Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski as the General Manager and the team hit rock bottom before emerging as a threat in the American League. With Dombrowski bringing on former Pirates skipper Jim Leyland as manager, the team finally broke out of their near 20-year playoff drought and won the wildcard in 2006. The Tigers won the American League pennant that year and ushered in a new era of competitiveness for Detroit.

Detroit won the American League Central in four consecutive years from 2011 to 2014, but despite their regular season success, the team never won a World Series on Ilitch’s watch. Ilitch did not mask his desire to win and opened his checkbook to continue to field the best team possible; it’s part of the reason he brought on Dombrowski. Al Avila continued the same trajectory as Dombrowski.

Under Dombrowski’s GM leadership, Ilitch approved prospect trades to bring franchise player Miguel Cabrera from Miami (Andrew Miller was part of that deal), and authorized various other big-ticket signings for the rest of his tenure as owner. Detroit has been a major player for free agents for over ten years, and since 2010 has annually ranked in the top five in payroll.

Impact players such as Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was one of the first signings that signaled a new era of free agency signings in Detroit. In 2005, the Tigers signed a multi-year deal with Magglio Ordonez (who was a four time all-star when he was with the divisional-rival White Sox), and Prince Fielder’s contract was the fourth-largest in baseball when it was signed in 2012. Justin Verlander’s 2010 extension fit the trend as well, as it was the largest payout for a pitcher to that point. With authority to sign nine-figure deals with players such as Jordan Zimmerman and Justin Upton, Ilitch consistently signalled his intent to see the Tigers compete in the twilight of his ownership.

Ilitch’s legacy as a good owner is deserved, but does come with some caveats. While he did have an appetite to invest in the team, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Tigers still provided a significantly profitable investment for the Ilitch family. Based on the best estimates I can find (because these records are not widely available), Ilitch bought the team for around $80 million in 1992; the Marlins were reportedly valued at $1.5 billion this past week (or nearly twenty times the Tigers’ 1992 purchase price), and the Tigers are surely worth more than that. But even if the team represented an investing opportunity to Ilitch, it’s clear that it also represented something far more than that, as he could’ve benefitted from that increased valuation without spending in the way he did.

The future of the Tigers is now in the hands of Ilitch’s son, with Al Avila already intimating the roster will get younger and less expensive in the foreseeable future. Either way, fans would be remiss to admit they have not enjoyed the last ten years. Feeling like the owner’s box is occupied by a part-fan, part-financier, who wants the team to win as much as you do, generally brings credibility to the long-term and short-term plans. You can’t ask for much more than an owner who spends freely and always tries to win; that’s a great legacy for Mike Ilitch to leave behind.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano