The Detroit Tigers are not for sale, CEO Christopher Ilitch says.
“I am committed and we are committed to long-term Ilitch family ownership of the Detroit Tigers,” he told The Detroit News in an interview this week. That’s smack in the middle of month-long festivities marking the opening of Little Caesars Arena, cornerstone of Ilitch Holdings Inc.’s sprawling, billion-dollar District Detroit development.
Ilitch is CEO of the family company and, as of last May, successor to his father, Mike, as the Tigers president and CEO. The younger Ilitch dismisses pointed public speculation that dismantling a perennial contender — by dealing pitching ace Justin Verlander and five more big names to shrink team payroll and shift the lineup amid a disappointing season — is a precursor to peddling the team.
“My father would have done the exact same thing that we are doing at the Tigers,” Ilitch said. “And ya’ know how I know that? Because he did it at the Red Wings and he did it at the Tigers. The approach that they’re taking right now is exactly the approach that he followed.”
Maybe so, in Mr. I’s quest to deliver both the Stanley Cup and a World Series victory to the teams he built. He succeeded big with the Red Wings, but the one-time shortstop in the Tigers minor-league system did not live to see his beloved team win it all.
“At the Red Wings, he built a team that won four Stanley Cup championships, and he did it through incredible drafting and development,” Ilitch said. “And guess what? In 2006, the Tigers made it to their first World Series since my father bought the team. The way he built the ... team was primarily through drafting and development and then augmenting the remaining needs of the club through free agency.”
Now it’s big-time rebuilding after a major sell-off, a move the elder Ilitch might well have made as a much younger man with lots of years ahead of him — but really never did to such a massive scale. The sale began July 18, when the Tigers sent slugging outfielder J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for three infield prospects.
Less than two weeks later, on the eve of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Tigers dealt left-handed reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila to the Chicago Cubs for two more infield prospects. Outfielder Justin Upton, the Tigers’ home run and RBI leader, was shipped to the Los Angeles Angels for a pitching prospect.
Then went Verlander, dispelling any doubt that a wholesale rebuild is well underway, capping a six-week span that saw two-thirds of the outfield, their closer and an iconic pitcher leave. Dealing Upton and Verlander alone cut payroll by $170 million.
Still, Mike Ilitch’s successor atop the Tigers insists the club will remain family-owned. That closely echoes the patriarch’s promise before his death in February that its myriad collection of assets — the Wings and Tigers, Little Caesar’s Pizza Inc. and Olympia Development Inc., MotorCity Casino and more — would remain “100 percent” controlled by the family.
None of which is likely to quash persistent speculation that Detroit’s iconic franchise is in play, aired as “rumor” this week on NewsTalk 760-WJR’s Frank Beckmann show and elsewhere. Not even Chris Ilitch himself, who picks his words very carefully in public and is naturally predisposed to saying less and doing more, is likely to end the matter.
Not in a town where no fewer than four multi-millionaire (if not billionaire) owners in roughly a square mile or so are competing for fans, for entertainment dollars, for leadership in the biggest development boom Detroit has seen since, what, the 1920s.
Add a few losing seasons, the death of an outsized figure like Mike Ilitch and the specter of inheritance taxes (which assumes, incredibly, that the family in question failed to plan for succession), and you get a rich environment for all sorts of scenarios.
That’s one reason the Tigers rumor mill is grinding. The team is trading big-name talent, trimming payroll, and holding on to Manager Brad Ausmus, so far, despite another disappointing season under him. The team’s also a very expensive asset, valued at more than $1 billion last year by Forbes, that could — emphasize could — be very attractive to one of Detroit’s own.
Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert, owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and a Detroit mega-booster, has long been rumored to covet owning the Tigers. Pistons owner Tom Gores, a Flint native, agreed to move his NBA franchise to the Little Caesar’s Arena and is likely to reach additional partnerships on entertainment. He also is partnering with Gilbert to plant a Major League Soccer franchise in Detroit.
What about the Ilitches and Gores swapping franchises, as one scenario floated by Beckmann earlier this week had it, so the Ilitch family could completely control the new arena by owning the Pistons; Gores would get the Tigers; and the game of mogul musical chairs would advance one step — to what end?
By owning the Tigers and the Red Wings, and essentially controlling the home venues of each, the Ilitch organization can claim far more revenue streams over more of each year than it would controlling just Little Caesars Arena, albeit with Gores as a partner.
The opening of the new arena, and the ambitious plans for District Detroit just beginning to come on line, would culminate a years-long vision to create one of the nation’s pre-eminent downtown sports-and-entertainment empires. Ceding control of the Tigers and Comerica Park would create another competitor and would undercut that vision.
It would also break with the legacy Chris Ilitch takes every public opportunity to reinforce. Could the Tigers someday get a new owner? Of course, but the guy in charge says it’s not happening anytime soon.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.