Lakeland, Fla. — There were a lot of happy memories and heavy hearts among the men who played and worked for Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who died Friday at the age of 87.
“I worked for Mr. I as both a player and as a manager,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “I can honestly say it was an honor to work for a man who made winning the priority. Baseball is a business but Mr. I was a baseball player who became a businessman.
“He loved baseball, and my memories will always be centered around the passion with which he talked about it.”
In 2002, Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski and his top lieutenant Al Avila to revive his moribund baseball team. In the 14 years that followed, the Tigers won four straight Central Division titles, two American League pennants and saw attendance climb over 2 million annually.
Ilitch fired Dombrowski in August of 2015 and did so in his usual blunt manner — telling the media essentially that the goal was to win a World Series, that goal was not met and it was time for a change.
Dombrowski, now the president of the Boston Red Sox, spoke somberly and respectfully of his former boss in a phone interview with the News.
“First of all, my deepest condolences to the Ilitch family for their loss,” he said. “I know they loved their father, grandfather and husband. He did so much. He was a devoted family man. There are a lot of heavy hearts but we shared a lot of moments together, a lot of fine times.
“But, at the end, you know, sometimes things work their way through and it’s time for changes. But for me overall there, we shared a lot of great memories — we won a couple American League championships, won some division crowns, had a lot of great moments, lot of great players and times together.”
He and Ilitch shared the same regret, though.
“He was driven to win,” Dombrowski said. “My only regret was we never brought home a World Series for him and for the fans. But overall, the franchise was very good in our time there. We build a respectable franchise with great fan support and lots of great memories.”
Jim Leyland, who was hired by Dombrowski to manage the club in 2006, recalled the pain of losing twice in the World Series (2006 and 2012).
“Mr. Ilitch never fell short of making every effort, every attempt to put a world championship team on the field,” Leyland said on MLB Radio. “We got close a couple of times and I know it broke his heart.
“Everybody, from the manager to the coaches to the players, clubhouse people, front office, the men and women who worked in the organization — everybody wanted that world championship for one reason, that was to give it to Mr. Ilitch.”
Dombrowski and Avila both talked about how Ilitch’s impact transcended sports.
“I’ve never seen a man more dedicated to this community and to baseball than Mr. I,” Avila said. “What he’s done for this franchise and for Detroit is immeasurable. He was always there to give us whatever we needed because he wanted greatness and happiness for all of us — especially the fans.
“Mr. I was truly one of the great ones. He was a friend and an inspiration and he will be deeply missed.”
“He was the utmost competitor but loved the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan and the fans,” he said. “He always thought of them with his heart. He wanted to be good, but he also wanted to make sure the fans had a great experience and that they could afford to come to the games.”
Dombrowski recalled how Ilitch reached out to the auto companies at their lowest point and offered them promotions — putting cars and trucks alongside the giant scoreboard in center field at Comerica Park.
“He was totally conscious of that part of it,” Dombrowski said. “He was an utmost businessman but he also had that civic part to his legacy. This is a tough day for the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.
“He was a most famous individual and one of the greatest sports owners in history.”
Leyland agreed that Ilitch’s impact, his legacy, reached far beyond the two sports teams he owned.
“He was so proud of the city of Detroit and he wanted to bring Detroit back,” he said. “He’s done so many things trying to bring Detroit back. The Ilitch organization has done so much — nobody has done more for the city of Detroit than the Ilitch family. No question about that.
“He was just one of those kind of guys: he was so proud of Detroit and he did everything in his power to make everything right.”