Tigers owner Mike Ilitch wants to resurrect his hometown of Detroit
By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY, April 13, 2012
DETROIT – Michael Prather walks unevenly down Montcalm Street past Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers will play in a few hours. He holds a whiskey bottle, clumsily covered by a brown paper bag, in his right hand. He requests handouts with his left.
Prather, 54, who says he's an unemployed general laborer, is wearing a stained black sweatshirt. His gray paints are torn. The reek of alcohol is overpowered only by the stench of his clothing.
"I know I don't look so good, and the city don't look good, either," Prather says. "But things will be better. They got to. There are good people trying to make this city better. The man over there, the one that runs the Tigers and our hockey team, he's trying. He's trying real hard. You got to admire that man."
That man is 82-year-old pizza baron Mike Ilitch, owner of the Tigers and Red Wings. He is fervently trying to resurrect life in his hometown of Detroit.
His downtown office might be surrounded by poverty and despair on the streets, but when Ilitch looks outside all he sees is resurrection and revival. Once the fourth-largest city in the country, Detroit lost 25% of its residents in the last decade, and nearly one-quarter of its homes are unoccupied. But he thinks his city will return to prominence.
Ilitch and his wife, Marian, are worth about $2 billion, but he realizes it will take more than money for the city to fully recover. It will likely take more years than he has left. Yet he has a baseball team ready to jump-start the movement.
The Tigers, off to a 5-1 start and loaded with superstars Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, might just be the entity to help repair a city's self-esteem.
"I want to win the World Series," Ilitch, the son of Macedonian immigrants, tells USA TODAY Sports in a rare interview. "But not for me. For our community. Baseball has such a tremendous effect on a city. It would bring so much joy. It would mean everything."
Ilitch is synonymous with Detroit. He owns Little Caesars Pizza. The Fox Theatre. Motor City Casino. The family holdings alone are responsible for bringing 10 million people into downtown every year, and his sports teams are worth an annual economic impact of $443 million, according to the Detroit Regional Chamber.
"If not for Mike Ilitch," says Emmett Moten, director of economic development for late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, "there may not be a Detroit.
"He believed in us at a time when the city was fighting for survival. He brought the Tigers downtown and got the Lions to come along with him. He brought Fox Theatre back to life. If we didn't have all of that, what would Detroit have? I'm afraid we'd have nothing."
Says Bud Selig, Major League Baseball commissioner: "What Mike Ilitch has done for that city, sociologically, is stunning. Here is an owner that understood the social responsibilities as well as anybody could. Not everything might have been in his best interest, but it was in the best interest of Detroit and Michigan.
"It's hard to articulate just how much the Tigers mean to Detroit."
After amassing a fortune, winning four Stanley Cup championships and qualifying for the NHL playoffs in 21 consecutive years, Ilitch is desperate to win a World Series. He's paying the price. The Tigers' payroll of $132.3 million ranks fifth in baseball. And he stunned the industry when he invested $214 million on free agent first baseman Prince Fielder in January despite already having an MVP-caliber first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, who will make $21 million in 2012.
"Fans want to see the stars," Ilitch says. "And if you want stars, you have to pay the price."
It might defy accounting logic, but Ilitch thinks the Tigers' first title since 1984 could lead the way to reinventing Detroit, returning vibrancy and faith to the city.
"I'm up in years, as you know, so it would really be special," Ilitch says. "It's been a great life.
"But winning a World Series, it would be like a banana split with a cherry on top."
The parking lot at Elizabeth and Witherell, across the street from the Fox Theatre, is nearly deserted at 8 in the morning. The only vehicle is a white Ford F-150 pickup.
It is the truck where seven men are tailgating eight hours before game time, cooking breakfast burritos and drinking Fireball liquor.
"This is what it's all about to be a Tiger fan," says Brad Henderson, 32, an electrician wearing a Brandon Inge jersey.
A city's self-esteem
Chris Chelios, the oldest NHL player to ever win a Stanley Cup, walks by and takes pictures with the tailgaters before heading back to his bar, Cheli's. The Hockeytown Café, featuring five floors and a rooftop, is soon packed. This is a big day. The Red Wings are playing the Chicago Blackhawks at 1 p.m., the Tigers are at 4, and Flashdance is playing at 7 at the Fox Theatre.
At night, just a few blocks away at the historic Cliff Bell's jazz club, the tables are jammed. This is where New York businessman Anthony Haralson, 44, and Detroit coffee shop owner Josh Greenberg, 40, are sitting. They are talking politics. They are talking Tigers. And they are talking Detroit, which soon will have its first downtown grocery store in generations, Whole Foods.
"I call myself a Detroit refugee," said Haralson, who traveled to Detroit to take his four nephews to the Tigers' home-opener. "My heart is here. It will always be here. But when you're living in your folks' basement, and can't find work, you've got to leave."
Said Greenberg, who has lived downtown for 19 years: "People are saying so much stuff about us, they want to us to die. They want us to crumble. We refuse."
Brian Johnson, 44, a former Stanford catcher who played for eight years in the major leagues, has lived in an affluent downtown neighborhood for 13 years. He bought his home for $485,000 and had it appraised a few years later at $650,000. Three years later, when he tried to refinance, the appraisal staggered him: $36,000.
"Our collective self-esteem is pretty low," says Johnson, who played for the Tigers in 1997. "Our city leadership is pretty bad. Our last mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick (charged with 38 felony counts, including perjury, obstruction of justice and corruption) was like a black Al Capone.
"But it's kind of a bunker mentality here. You don't want to leave. There's a lot of good people here. And sports provide a backbone for the city.
"It's like people are saying, 'We may live in a city that's (expletive), but our sports teams can kick your (expletive).' "
This is the strength and passion Ilitch envisions. Last Saturday morning the city was eerily vacant, but by nightfall the Red Wings had their 69th consecutive sellout, the Tigers sold out and had their largest crowd for a second game of a season since at least 1947 and the 5,000-seat Fox Theatre also was sold out.
"You're so appreciative, because the dollars are not easy around here," Ilitch said. "To draw 3 million people here (for the Tigers), wow. You put two and two together here, and it doesn't make sense. But it does here in Detroit."
Another auto bailout
Ilitch, relying on his own instincts, has made plenty of decisions that initially made little financial sense.
He moved his family headquarters' offices into downtown when everyone else was fleeing the city. He moved the Tigers downtown when he could have made more money moving to Ann Arbor or suburban Dearborn. He purposely limited stadium parking spots, forcing fans to park in neighborhoods and on downtown streets. He could make a fortune moving his Red Wings out of Joe Louis Arena. He vows to soon move, but they will be downtown and not in the affluent suburbs.
Ilitch cost himself perhaps $1 million in 2009 when the struggling automakers could no longer afford their lucrative advertising signage in center field at Comerica. Ilitch says he had plenty of companies offering to buy the spot. He told the Big Three automakers they could have the advertising for free.
"We were going though our darkest hours there," says Joel Ewanick, chief marketing officer for General Motors. "We told Mr. Ilitch, 'We've got to pull down our sign because we can't make the payments.' He said, 'You pay us when you can.' "
The spot now has two Chevrolet cars sitting proudly in center field, a symbol for the automakers' resurgence.
"I told Mr. Ilitch on opening day," Ewanick says, " 'I will never, ever, let anybody forget what you did for our company.' "
Ilitch's commitment is no different for his baseball team. Dave Dombrowski, Tigers president, broke the news to Ilitch on Jan. 17 that DH Victor Martinez was out for the season with a torn knee ligament. Ilitch listened quietly, conceded it was a cruel blow and said they'd talk contingencies the next day.
"I told him, 'There are some names that will appeal to you, but a lot are past the prime of their careers,' " Dombrowski recalls. "I said, 'There's only one difference-maker out there: Prince Fielder.' "
Says Ilitch: "I didn't get that (gut) feel initially. I'm thinking, 'It's going to be very, very expensive.' But all of a sudden I got that message, that gut instinct. I called Dave back and said, 'Let's see what we can do.' "
Fielder signed within a week. He received the largest contract in Detroit sports history, returning to where his dad, Cecil, became a star and ate barbeque after games with Ilitch.
"It means so much to me to be here," Fielder says. "It just shows you that we have an owner that will do whatever it takes. That means a lot to players. You just don't find that in the game."
Ilitch has never cared about bucking the trend, whether paying exorbitant salaries for his hockey players, taking on high-risk baseball players or even overpaying in the amateur draft when the Tigers gave Verlander a five-year, $4.5 million major league contract. Look who's laughing now, with Verlander winning the 2011 MVP and Cy Young awards and dominant again this year.
"I got balled out, we got wailed at by the commissioner (Selig)," Ilitch says. "But, hey, we got another star."
The right people
Ilitch, a former minor league shortstop for the Tigers, doesn't wear any of his Stanley Cup rings. He wears an NHL Hall of Fame ring on his left hand and a commemorative 2006 All-Star ring on his right.
He did have a Stanley Cup ring in his pocket once. It was during All-Star outfielder Magglio Ordonez's negotiations. Ordonez asked Ilitch just what he expected out of his team.
"I dug into my picket, and I pulled a Stanley Cup ring out," Ilitch says. "I told him, 'I want one of these in baseball.' "
If the Tigers do win the World Series, Ilitch vows, that championship ring will indeed be worn.
"Right in my nose," Ilitch says.
Says Ken Holland, general manager of the Red Wings: "I know he's proud of what we've done with the Red Wings. But after everything he's already accomplished in his life, winning a World Series would be bigger to him than anything. And I understand that."
Ilitch, who says he hates that the NHL collective bargaining agreement imposes a salary cap, ending his days of buying the game's greatest stars, is ecstatic that there are no restrictions in baseball.
MLB never had a salary cap; but until catcher Ivan Rodriguez signed a four-year, $40 million contract in 2004 with the Tigers, they couldn't get stars to Detroit. All-Star outfielder Juan Gonzalez was so eager to flee town after the 2000 season that he actually rejected an eight-year, $140 million extension.
The Tigers were dreadful, losing a combined 225 games in 2002 and 2003, and Ilitch blames himself. He didn't have the right front-office people, he says.
He changed that when he hired Dombrowski and then manager Jim Leyland. They won the American League pennant in 2006, one year after Illitch lured Ordonez.
Last year they won their first division title since 1987. Now they're among the favorites to win the World Series.
"You've got to have the right people in place," Ilitch says, pounding the table for effect, "or it's not going to work. It took me 10 years to figure that out here. If you bring in someone who's not qualified, you're in trouble. Deep, deep trouble.
"I've got good people now."
Ilitch brought back Tigers great Willie Horton, the only one he regularly permits to sit with him during games. He couldn't convince Hall of Famer Al Kaline to play on his professional softball team but persuaded him to be one of his special assistants.
He employs a highly diverse front office, with 50% (58 of 116) of the employees minorities or women.
He says he'd like to see a similarly robust leadership group within the city of Detroit; last week the city agreed to a state-guided debt-restructuring plan.
"We've got the business groups here, the government there, and everyone has their opinions," Ilitch says. "They're confused what to do. It just hasn't been run well. I like (Mayor) Dave Bing. A great guy. But stepping in cold, there's not many people who could handle something like this.
"Once this all gets settled, we're going to surprise people."
It will be a proud, vibrant city again, one Ilitch will forever cherish, he says, alongside the memories of the man who symbolized its prominence.
"When this city was great, it had Joe Louis," Ilitch says of the late heavyweight boxer. "He was a great champion. And a very humble man. Forget the auto industry. He had this city.
"He rubbed off on me. Try to be humble, be a good listener, and I think you'll have a happy life.
"I've had a wonderful life. It would be nice to have that final piece, but in sports anything can happen. Just like in life. There are no guarantees.
"We found that out, right here in Detroit."