Ilitch Offered Model for Owners to Follow

As you know, late Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch died last week.

Even if you follow the sport only casually, you’re probably aware that Ilitch wanted to win as badly as his club’s fans did — to a point, even, that sometimes led to irrational decision making. When Victor Martinez hurt his knee in the winter of 2012, for example, Ilitch spent $214 million on Prince Fielder. Since 2006, the Tigers’ payroll has been higher than the major-league average every season, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts via Baseball Prospectus — and higher by at least $30 million on eight occasions since that same year, including each of the last six years. As a reference point, the Detroit metro area was the 13th largest to host a major-league team last season.

Said Ilitch of winning to after signing Jordan Zimmermann to a $110-million deal:

“That’s all I think about,” Ilitch said. “It’s something that I really want. I want it bad. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we get as many of the best ballplayers out there.”

Not all owners can say that. What percentage can say that, I’m not certain.

FanGraphs’ own Nathaniel Grow wondered in December of 2015 if Ilitch had accidentally suggested the possibility of collusion when asked if he’d go over the luxury threshold:

“I’m supposed to be a good boy and not go over it,” Ilitch said, “but if I think there are certain players that could help us a lot, I’ll go over it. Oops, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Even those of us who aren’t Michigan natives – but care about the game – have some familiarity with his interest and passion for the Detroit community. While, as the Detroit Free Press has recently reported, his relationship with the city was complicated at times, he rehabilitated parts of downtown Detroit when few others were willing to make an investment in the depressed central business district. He was a philanthropist. He paid Rosa Parks’ rent.

Many of us are familiar with his story: the self-made pizza king was the son of immigrants, a Marine during the Korean War, and a former minor leaguer with the Tigers and Yankees. His rise from humble beginnings to billions in wealth is the type of American success story we prefer from our business tycoons. David Laurila wrote about Ilitch in his Sunday notes.

There’s little I can add to what has been said and written of Ilitch over the last week, and those that can say and write it best were and are part of the Detroit community. But when I remember Ilitch, there was one gesture that stands out to me in observing from a distance.

Think back to the 2009, in the midst of a financial crisis. Fear was palpable and widespread. And few areas where hurt more than Detroit. Once a mighty industrial center fueling the creation and growth of the middle class, the city was dealing with 20%-plus unemployment rates. Housing prices had collapsed to unthinkable levels. And the city’s iconic industry, that of the automobile, was in peril.

What I remember while living in South Carolina was a symbolic act Ilitch made at that time, which was recounted in a 2009 Sports Illustrated feature by Lee Jenkins.

The most stunning example of community outreach did not involve a nonprofit organization but a bankrupt one. At the end of last season General Motors decided it could no longer afford to sponsor the fountain over the centerfield fence at Comerica Park, which shoots great plumes into the air whenever a Tiger hits a home run. The fountain is the most valuable piece of advertising space in the stadium, and two corporations quickly expressed interest in taking GM’s place. One offered to pay $1.5 million for three years. Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ owner, considered the offer seriously. Then he rejected it in favor of a deal that would pay him nothing at all. Ilitch kept the GM name where it was, free of charge, and added the Ford and Chrysler logos on each flank, over the message: THE DETROIT TIGERS SUPPORT OUR AUTOMAKERS. To emphasize the point, the Tigers invited one employee from each of the embattled car giants to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day. Before GM inspector Loretta Abiodun went into her windup, she turned and looked at the fountain. “It was breathtaking,” she says.

I’m not sure what keeping the ad above the center-field batter’s eye did for morale for the city, but everyone who attended a Tigers game saw it that year, everyone watching a Tigers home game via television saw it. A lot of folks saw it. The entire community saw it. By not chasing every dollar, Ilitch provided a powerful civic statement of hope and faith. The act said that not everyone was giving up on Detroit or its automakers.

I thought Ilitch at the time ought to be considered for SI’s Sportsman of the Year in 2009. (Derek Jeter won the honor instead.)

Major League Baseball is, of course, a business. Owners expect to make profits. And while it’s a business, it’s certainly not a normal business, as a sanctioned monopoly. Moreover, there’s a civic element few businesses share and enjoy. Major-league owners aren’t selling widgets, they’re selling a product to emotionally involved fans who see the club as an extension of the community, an element of the same tribe.

It probably wasn’t a rational decision to give Fielder $214 million, and other owners might not have agreed to zero dollars in ad revenue from the most valuable ad space in the ballpark. But one decision was made in an effort to win at all costs, and the other was made at no cost due to a sense of civic and moral obligation.

From the outside looking in, Ilitch seemed to exemplify what an owner of a major North American professional sports team should be, how he or she should operate, which is to not always act in a self-interested or rational manner. At a time when owners’ share of revenue has increased significantly and pinched MLB’s middle class of player, Ilitch is remembered fondly by many in Detroit for his willingness to act irrationally when it was required.

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