December 15, 2012 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers owner Ilitch confirms once more how much he wants championship

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch refuses to let budget limitations deter his desire to win a World Series. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

I should have known Mike Ilitch would do what he has so often done during these 30 years he has owned the Red Wings, and two decades in which he has been steward over the Tigers.

He writes checks to players he believes can help his Detroit teams win championships.

He did it again Friday, even if the Tigers are waiting for medical records and contract details to be tied up before they concede what everyone across big league baseball knows.

They have signed Anibal Sanchez to a five-year, $80 million contract. Ilitch has allowed a high-altitude Tigers payroll to climb even deeper into baseball's stratosphere, which probably shouldn't have surprised some of us as much as it did, even if some of the blown-away souls might work in the Tigers front office.

Ilitch wants to win a baseball title. He also believes a good team is good business. Two motivations — one emotional, one professional — have joined with Ilitch Holdings' entities to spur investments in an immense amount of Tigers talent.

And so why was this unexpected?

Because, at some point, salary ceilings in fact do become part of a team's reality. The Tigers already had shelled out $26 million on a two-year deal to Torii Hunter. They have massive 2013 raises on tap for Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Doug Fister, Alex Avila, Phil Coke, Brennan Boesch, etc.

Yes, they had shed some contracts from 2012, when they had the fifth-highest payroll in baseball. Jose Valverde, Delmon Young, Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn, and Gerald Laird had been allowed to move on, saving the Tigers almost $25 million. But they were still staring at a payroll tens of millions of bucks beyond anything a team in Detroit's modest market could be expected to support.

Jumping the wall

Dave Dombrowski, president and general manager of the Tigers, might have privately known his boss would dole out even more cash for a player of Sanchez's skills and age (28). But he implied with a certain conviction that the Tigers had probably hit the wall.

Except they — meaning Ilitch — hadn't. No more than he had flinched when Pudge Rodriguez was available in 2004; no more than he had backed away from Magglio Ordonez, or from a chance to trade for, and extend, Miguel Cabrera; with no less resistance than he had in signing Prince Fielder a year ago to a monstrous contract seven days after he lost Victor Martinez for the season, Ilitch gave the go-ahead Friday to keep Sanchez, a free agent, from signing anywhere but with Detroit.

So, what has he gained from adding one pitcher who will probably replace Rick Porcello in the Tigers rotation if Porcello is traded, as today is expected?

That world title Ilitch has been chasing all his life?

Baseball, as Ilitch knows, makes no promises. The game is a roulette wheel. It revolves around variables — injuries, pitching's unpredictable ways, not to mention the kind of postseason volatility that has seen the Tigers whip the mighty Yankees in their last three playoff duels.

Stars make it special

Ilitch got stronger Friday in securing Sanchez. But only in an objective manner — on paper, as they say — did the Tigers improve. And for that gamble in getting a tad better, the owner hiked one of 2012's five highest payrolls another $16 million.

It's flabbergasting, Ilitch's financial commitment to his team and to its leaders, Dave Dombrowski in the front office, and Jim Leyland on the field.

Then, there are the fans Ilitch has tried so faithfully to delight as he loads his teams with stars — "Stars!" he says when asked about his love for stocking a Red Wings or Tigers roster — that make a game ticket special and a victory more achievable.

They get a chance by way of Ilitch's largesse to experience this year-round state of intrigue and excitement. There is no down time any longer with the Tigers. The offseason is as entertaining as the regular season because of the personnel moves the owner enables Dombrowski and Co. to lock down.

He's quite the general, Mike Ilitch. And because he has put so much of himself and his money into his teams, one guy deserves everything Friday's signing of Sanchez was designed to ultimately help deliver Ilitch and Detroit.

lynn.henning@detnews.com

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