July 27, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers are built to win and have box-office appeal

Detroit — Pay and performance probably should be a tighter relationship than exists in baseball.

The Yankees have the highest payroll ($228 million) and are six games below .500, in fourth place in the American League East, where a team with the 28th-highest overall payroll, the Rays, is a half-game out of first.

The Dodgers ($216 million, second in salaries) are in first place in the National League West but have a soft 53-48 record. The Giants ($140 million, sixth) are three places behind the Dodgers.

In the AL West, the A’s (27th, $60 million) are atop the hill, thanks to a nifty record of 59-43, 10 games in front of the Angels ($127 million, seventh).

And the Phillies (third) were 49-53 as they arrived Friday at Comerica Park to play the Tigers ($148 million, fifth), who were in first place with a 56-45 record in the AL Central.

You get the picture: Money gets you only so far in this game. And while going cheap and winning games is endearing, you haven’t seen a lot of deep playoff runs by the Rays and A’s.

The Tigers are neither a sales pitch for heavy payrolls nor are they an indictment. Rather, their status as contenders and as entertainers is in line with owner Mike Ilitch’s design to fund a team that has a chance, in an exceedingly difficult game, to leave spring training each year with a chance at winning a World Series while drawing 3 million customers at Comerica Park.

“When a team wins a World Series, it means 29 other teams failed,” Jim Leyland was saying Friday afternoon as he lounged on a sofa in his office. “You buy a Rolls Royce and it still gets a flat tire.

“If I was a fan of this team the past seven years, I’d be pretty damned happy over what’s going on here.”

Box-office appeal

His critics won’t care for Leyland’s take. But he happens to be right, given the rate at which baseball world championships are rationed and fan bases are deflated. Ilitch and his front office have done a reasonable job of forging a winner, even if it hasn’t yet hit October’s jackpot.

The Tigers have been in two World Series the past seven years. Three times they have been a playoff team — four if you count the 163rd game they played against the Twins in 2009.

Ilitch’s business dividend is that, even when his team doesn’t make the playoffs in a sport that can be cruel to well-built clubs (check the Nationals), his roster has box-office appeal. He likes stars for their dual ability to pursue championships and please his fans, which fills the coffers.

Ilitch’s consolation in not yet winning a World Series is that his park is regularly sold out, local television ratings are the highest per capita of any market in baseball, and team merchandise sales are generally among the two or three best.

Why, then, don’t the Tigers run away with a division everyone agrees they should win minus any undue blood and sweat?

Because baseball is a game waiting to ambush teams arrogant enough to believe cash, alone, will deliver you a champion. Another way to look at it, with regional perspective, is to glance at the White Sox, who have baseball’s eighth-highest payroll. Their record is 40-59 and they might well stick in the Central Division’s doghouse for the remainder of this season.

Money well spent

The Tigers take pokes from critics who argue they should be sledge-hammering their division and most of the teams they play. Money. Superstars. A poor division. Where’s the ring?

In fact, most of their payroll goes toward guys who do, or have, performed up to code: Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander (recent stress aside), Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez. And most of those names were not so much products of front-office pursuit as they were transactions authorized by the owner, who also had the good sense in earlier years to spend money on draft picks (Verlander, Rick Porcello, Jacob Turner, Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, Nick Castellanos) who either have helped this team directly, or made whopping trades doable.

If the Tigers division partners didn’t believe any of the above business decisions were smart, then they probably deserve their perch today. The Tigers are in first place. They’re winning at the gate and anywhere else commerce counts.

They, in a final analysis, seem to confirm an old and true adage: You get what you pay for. And that’s as true in baseball as it is at the car dealership.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Victor Martinez shouts as he chest-pumps Andre Jackson (14) before Friday's game against Philadelphia. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News
See Also