November 6, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Tom Gage

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch's diminishing role in public eye is apparent

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has been less visable at similar team functions recently like this one announcing the signing of Torii Hunter in November 2012. Ilitch did not attend Sunday's press conference introducing Brad Ausmus as new Tigers manager. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)

Detroit — Dave Dombrowski works for the only man in the Tigers organization more secretive than he is.

Owner Mike Ilitch.

Getting information out of either is like looking for a lost wedding ring in the ocean. If it washes up on shore, count your blessings.

But good luck otherwise.

The time has come, however, to stop beating around the bush about Ilitch’s absence from team functions he typically attends, but also to wish him well if his empty chair indicates anything more than a schedule conflict.

Some developments transcend the frequent iciness that has existed between Ilitch and the reporters who’ve covered his teams.

He’s feisty, that’s for sure.

More times than once, a fierce, defensive look has changed his entire demeanor at media functions, as if to indicate a question either has come close to irritating him or already has.

For Ilitch to feel the need to defend his teams, players or front office is the same as having to defend his family.

His devotion is unequivocally admirable

Years ago, when the Tigers hired Phil Garner as manager and the announcement took place in a trailer outside Comerica Park, the news conference took a turn for the worse.

Someone, Ilitch thought, had questioned the teamwork of the decision to hire Garner, and the fierce look on Ilitch’s face not only returned, but remained.

After the conference adjourned, Ilitch got in the face of a couple reporters, continuing his defense, before a family member calmed him down.

Glaring vacancy

Ilitch likes to win, of course.

But even more than that, knowing what it takes to be successful, he likes a team to be a team, whether it’s a front office, a 25-man roster or a marketing department looking for a better way to sell pizza.

He’s dedicated much of his adult life to teamwork.

And that’s why when there’s suddenly a vacant spot in the Tigers team photo — like this year — you notice.

And when he didn’t attend Jim Leyland’s retirement announcement — like last month — you notice.

And when he didn’t attend Brad Ausmus’ introduction as manager — no other family member stood in — you notice.

That’s not to say Ilitch, 84, stays away entirely. When the Tigers were eliminated from the American League Championship Series in Boston, he was there.

But his rare visits to the clubhouse have become even more in-frequent.

And when, in the span of two months, he’s absent from the team photo, the retirement of a manager who’s led you to the postseason four times in eight years, and the hiring of a new manager, it means something.

At the very least, it means this: Time has forced Ilitch to withdraw from the appearances which involve his teams.

Will to win still there

With that comes the realization the window for him to enjoy that ever-elusive championship for the Tigers isn’t exactly expanding.

Ilitch has a loyal employee in Dombrowski, though, one who’s not indicated that anything has ever changed about his boss.

“Mike Ilitch is fine,” Dombrowski said when asked about Ilitch at Leyland’s retirement announcement. “He was at the postseason games. He’s doing fine.”

As for Ilitch’s role in the hiring of Ausmus, Dombrowski said: “Mr. I needed to know who the new manager was going to be, and have a feel for it, so Brad flew in Friday to meet him at his house (without Ausmus yet knowing he was going to be hired). Once Mr. I gave his OK, which I thought he would after having a nice visit, I offered Brad the job.”

Ilitch has become an absentee owner only in this sense: He doesn’t appear at functions that once were automatic for him to attend.

Even last year, he happily appeared at the signing of Torii Hunter.

But it’s different now. And if you want to wish him the best as he transitions out of the visibility of ownership, this is probably the time.

He’s made the Tigers a perennial contender.

It hasn’t just been his wallet making it happen, it’s been his will to make them good. To stay good.

And to give the fans what he feels they deserve.

No doubt that will remains strong.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com
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