Detroit — The Tigers honored former manager Jim Leyland before the team's 9-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Saturday. However, the most significant development was that owner Mike Ilitch watched from his suite down the third-base line at Comerica Park.
It was great to see Ilitch stand and applaud as the Tigers honored Leyland with a tribute, photo and kind words from his former players. Ilitch is often out of sight and out of mind, but there he was, dressed in a blue blazer and enjoying a sunny afternoon at Comerica Park.
Ilitch’s health isn't what it was when he celebrated Stanley Cup championships with the Red Wings. But those around him say Ilitch, who will be 85 in July, still has fire and badly wants a World Series championship this season.
"I know he is feeling pretty good, and that is fantastic," Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander said.
The Tigers’ nice nine-year run is courtesy of Ilitch, who has overpaid to try to win a title. The Tigers are 721-628, (.534 win percentage) the past nine seasons, own three AL Central Division titles and made it to the World Series twice. They continue to have one of the highest payrolls in baseball despite a little trimming of the budget this year.
Ilitch has put his team in position to win, but sadly the Tigers have won just one game in their two most recent World Series appearances. However, they keep knocking on the door, and I am convinced they were a better six-inning team than the Boston Red Sox during last year's American League Championship Series. The problem is the Red Sox featured a shutdown bullpen. The Tigers are still working on it, although we are seeing positive signs.
When Ilitch shows up, it brings a buzz to the clubhouse.
"It means a lot to me, and that is not a cliché statement," pitcher Max Scherzer said. "He puts a lot into this and forces us to be great. He wants the World Series as bad as any of us. When you see the owner show up and show his commitment to the team, that strikes a chord with us. I love it."
We know that Ilitch's passion to win is great. But here’s an important question for Tiger fans: What will happen when he is no longer around?
Ilitch struggled early in his ownership with cutting back on payroll and not having faith in his leadership. The risk of failure was greater when Randy Smith was running the show than it is with Dave Dombrowski. Once Ilitch trusted his people, he has been a very good baseball owner.
"I know he cares," Justin Verlander said. "He has not just given money, he has given his heart and soul to this franchise and this city. He knows how much this ballclub means to the city and in having a winning atmosphere."
Verlander ran into Ilitch when the Red Wings were in the heat of battle against the Boston Bruins in the playoffs. You know Ilitch was focused on that series, but he wanted to know how Verlander was doing and even gave him some tips and observations.
"He likes to talk baseball and what he is seeing," Verlander said. "That is pretty cool. Some owners probably have no clue. He knows what he is talking about, and he pays attention."