By: Terry Foster
Mike Ilitch is the greatest sports owner in Detroit history.
He did not always succeed or make the right moves, but he was always pushing and prodding and trying to knock down the door to success.
Now that he has died, it has become a little more difficult for the city of Detroit to taste victory again. None of the other sports owners left have that “whatever it takes” mentality to winning.
Martha Ford and the Lions are more about putting a competitive product on the field. Tom Gores and the Pistons are still in the learning stages of winning. And the Ilitch children are going to be more about the bottom line than winning championships like their dad.
Mike Ilitch liked art and beauty. And he love winning.
Twice spent time with him during crowning sports achievements. I spoke to Mike and his wife Marian on the ice after the Red Wings won the 1997 Stanley Cup championship and again after the Tigers advanced to the 2006 World Series.
He never spoke about the Tigers or the Red Wings winning. He spoke about Detroit and the fans winning. It was always about “we” and not “me” with Mike Ilitch. It was always about community because he realized we were all in this together and that Detroit played a major role in the Tigers being successful.
We played a role by buying tickets and buying Tigers merchandise. But we all played a role in making Mike Ilitch a success by snapping up Little Caesars Pizza Pizza while growing up. How many times were you at a high school or college party and the room was filled with the warm smells of cheese or pepperoni pizza and Crazy Bread?
It was a staple of our youth and Ilitch used that wealth to purchase the Red Wings and Tigers. He understood that and wanted to give back to the community that made him. That’s why we played hockey in the Little Caesars leagues and on baseball diamonds built by Ilitch.
That’s why he kept pressing trying to bring titles to Detroit.
That’s why we had The Russian Five, Dominik Hasek, Brandan Shanahan and Brett Hull.
That’s why the Tigers featured Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Kenny Rogers and David Price.
And let me point to one of his failures. It was Ilitch’s idea to sign Prince Fielder to a huge contract and bring him to Detroit although Fielder always felt uncomfortable here because his estranged father played here. But Ilitch did it because he thought the bat was too big to ignore and that it would lead to a title.
It did not.
Let me ask what was he thinking when he brought his pizza empire to downtown and created Fox town? It was a noble but foolish move at the time. Now he looks like a visionary and created the spark that encouraged others to invest in Detroit.
The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups in the NHL and the Tigers were one of baseball’s biggest failures after losing 119 games in 20003 under General Manager Randy Smith and with a pitching staff that featured 20-game loser Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Cornejo.
I was granted a sit down with Ilitch in his Comerica Park office where he announced that he was going to spend to bring a winner to Detroit. He felt comfortable doing that because Dave Dombrowski was going to take over baseball personnel decisions and he felt that DD could do the job better than Smith.
If Ilitch trusted you, he’d go to the mat for you.
Since that day he kept pushing to bring a title here, bringing in Pudge Rodriguez, Cabrera and a host of others. The “win one for Mr. I” mantra never happened but Mike Ilitch was still a winner for Detroit.