By: Kurt Snyder & Holly Horning
This week’s Thursday topic focuses on the Tiger owner. Mike Ilitch is one of the best owners in baseball and it has been his long time goal to bring a World Series title to Detroit, but he has continued to come up short.
Holly and Kurt will answer a question focused on his performance as owner, answers they have not shared until now.
As great of an owner that Mike Ilitch has been, has he hurt the franchise as well?
It took most people awhile to warm up to Tiger baseball under Ilitch because the opening decade of his tenure represented the continuation of a dead period in Detroit. The Tigers hadn’t won a division title since 1987 and they didn’t see a World Series again until 2006, when things finally turned back around for the Tigers and Ilitch.
Mike had built a new park catering to the new fan in 2000, which has been highly successful once the Tigers began their climb back to relevance in the early 2000’s.
The Tigers took some risks prior to 2006 with high-priced signings of Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. But, these 2 represented high-profile players that were willing to include Detroit as a destination at a time when few stars would. Things began to click after that as the farm also began to supply star power.
Ilitch became known as one of the few owners that would invest big in the talents of their draft picks. Guys like Verlander were passed up in the draft by other teams because they didn’t feel they could afford to sign them. But Ilitch would.
So the combination of high-priced veteran talent and young guns like Verlander and Zumaya helped build a team that should have won a title in 2006.
But Ilitch has spent the better part of the last 10 years gambling. The farm system hasn’t been used to build our team, but to build other teams, resulting in a very thin minor league system.
The philosophy helped bag talents like Miggy and Price and Cespedes, among many others, helping to make this a very exciting team to watch for several years now. They have been a highly marketable team for the franchise and Ilitch; a team the town has supported in a big way, filling the Comerica seats every year.
However, as the years have gone by, Ilitch has gotten desperate, appearing to get personally involved with his desire to acquire the likes of Prince Fielder, David Price and Justin Upton. At the same time, key areas that could have been improved, like the bullpen, defense and depth were not fortified the way they have needed to be, to become championship caliber.
So as passionate and dedicated as Mike Ilitch has been, I think a little bit of selfishness has driven some of these high-profile moves; transactions that have handcuffed and depleted the organization. The results have left him with a team that has always been short of complete, regardless of its appeal.
So even with all of his successes, which included division titles, ALCS and World Series appearances, the hump has never been eclipsed. Only disappointments have ended what were thought to be promising seasons.
Detroit has been lucky to have Mr. I as an owner – and I speak as someone who has lived in a couple big cities filled with constantly meddling, cheapskate, egotistical owners who have ruined formerly vaunted teams.
But, like everyone else, he has his faults and they have impacted the Tigers.
The first, even if one can call it a fault, is loyalty. He kept a GM on board for 14 years who couldn’t get it done and even showed the signs of growing cracks in his strategy over the past 3 years of his tenure.
Mike was also confirmed as the one who signed Prince Fielder to that monstrous contract, based in part, because he had known Prince since he was a small kid and the Tigers desperately needed his power given VMart’s injury. And most recently, Victor Martinez – a contract I would not begrudge overall given the need for his bat and leadership – because Victor was “family.”
Loyalty has led to potentially another fault – overruling the expertise of his GM with the signing of the above players. It is unclear whether Mr. I had any influence re the JV and Miggy extensions but my guess is not. It has the earmarks of a Dave Dombrowski move, especially since Dave has continued those same insane contracts with Boston now.
But potentially, the Pelfrey contract was Mr. I’s doing. Pelfrey’s agent is Scott Boras who generally bypasses GMs and deals strictly with owners. And Mr. I may have given the green light re Upton’s signing because of concerns about attendance and the needed buzz which sells tickets.
Comically, where Mike should have overruled is in the hiring of a manager with no managing experience whatsoever to take the reins of a champion-caliber team and win that trophy in his first year. It was learned that he opposed the hiring but acquiesced without much of a fight.
Ironically, Ilitch’s other two faults are opposed to one another. First, a man impatient and unable to wait for a team to develop and grow so he attempts to cut to the chase and buy experience. Yet, he hires a GM and patiently waits and watches for that World Series ring – for 14 years. I don’t know another competitive (“competitive” being the operative word) owner who would give someone that long.
Let’s hope that Mr. I’s patience has worn out this year because he needs to take charge if the Tigers are to salvage this season. And not just by action – he needs to set the tone and culture and clearly define the qualities expected of all employees if the team is to be successful.