AP Baseball Writer
LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — Following the death of owner Mike Ilitch, the Detroit Tigers are facing a bit of a transition, but they aren’t exactly in limbo.
Back in May, Ilitch Holdings Inc. announced a succession plan in which Chris Ilitch, the son of Mike and Marian Ilitch, would eventually take over his parents’ roles. Mike Ilitch said then that their businesses, including the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, would remain family owned.
So now the attention turns to Chris Ilitch, whose father became revered by many Tigers fans because of his willingness to invest huge amounts of money into the team.
“He’s a very intelligent businessman,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said about Chris Ilitch, who has been president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings. “He’s very organized, very disciplined, he knows what he’s doing.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred was at the Tigers’ spring training complex Thursday for a Grapefruit League media day, and he expressed confidence in the younger Ilitch’s ability to take over.
“Chris has become increasingly involved in major league baseball activities, attending owners meetings, starting about the time that I became commissioner,” Manfred said. “He’s been a positive force, obviously he has great sports background because of the hockey side, where he’s been more involved historically. I think the Tigers are in really good hands.”
Mike Ilitch died last Friday at age 87, and a public visitation was held Wednesday in Detroit. Prior to the Tigers’ first workout for pitchers and catchers Tuesday, star right-hander Justin Verlander expressed his gratitude for what Ilitch had done for the organization.
“Mr. I, he was like family,” Verlander said. “I grew up in this organization, and he changed my life dramatically. He changed a lot of people’s lives dramatically.”
Detroit’s payroll this season — around $200 million — reflects how much Ilitch was willing to invest to try to win a World Series, which the Tigers weren’t able to do while he was owner. Whether Detroit was signing Prince Fielder or bringing back Victor Martinez, whenever the Tigers made a big offseason splash, Ilitch seemed to be a big part of it.
“He did everything he possibly could,” Verlander said. “It tears me to pieces that we couldn’t do it for him. I don’t know. Hopefully, he’ll be an angel on our side this year, and he’ll be watching from above, and hopefully we can get it done for him.”
Even before Ilitch’s death, there were questions about how much the Tigers would be willing to spend going forward. There was talk of cost cutting for this coming season, but in the end, Detroit basically decided to stand pat, hoping Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and the rest of this talented, expensive roster has enough left for another strong season.
Avila made it clear recently that, while Detroit would be above the luxury tax threshold for a second straight season, the Tigers wouldn’t allow that to happen again next year.
While there will continue to be questions about how high the team’s payroll will be, there shouldn’t be many concerns in Detroit about familiarity. The team’s hierarchy has experience working together, and Avila stressed that his relationship with Chris Ilitch is a good one.
“We know each other very well. Since I’ve been hired in this position, I’ve traveled with him to the ownership meetings that he’s taken me to,” Avila said. “It’s been a great process of learning for me. I’ve gotten to get to know him in that setting, but also at home.”
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