Henning: Ilitch again pays price for a Tigers star

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

The boss said OK. Always he said OK when the heyday Red Wings dreamed about adding or keeping a superstar on a Hollywood-grade hockey team loaded with luster.

Brendan Shanahan? Get him. We'll keep him happy, Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch would say.

Brett Hull? You bet. He'll be the clincher on a club ripe to win another Stanley Cup.

Steve Yzerman? Lock him up for eternity. And while you're at it, do the same for Nick Lidstrom. And later on, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

Mike Vernon? Dominik Hasek? Bring them aboard. The owner wants Stanley Cups.

And he wants stars.

Above all, he wants stars, and he wants them even more to work at Comerica Park, a venue that hasn't yet blessed him with a World Series flag, but a place where Ilitch most demands that his box office boys be regularly on stage, winning games and pleasing customers, not to mention an 85-year-old owner who won't yet yield on his dream.

The owner wrote another giant check Wednesday. He told his front-office commander, Dave Dombrowski, to authorize a $68 million payday for Victor Martinez, a Tigers tribal chief who in six weeks will turn 36.

What a hoot. Four years ago, some implied the Tigers were making a casino-grade gamble when they signed Martinez for four years and $50 million. It was heavy cash for a man then 32 who likely would work most days as a designated hitter.

So, Martinez, who apparently has some kind of personal competition going with Ponce de Leon, last season, at age 35, put together these garish digits: .335 batting average, 32 home runs, 103 RBIs and a world-class OPS of .974.

He hit early in the season and he hit late. And he hit everything in between. And in Ilitch's amazing world, the thought of a batter so sublime wearing another uniform, diminishing his Tigers team and making life more difficult for the grand man who bats ahead of him, Miguel Cabrera, was too much for an owner of Ilitch's tastes and tenets to abide.

So, Wednesday he gave one more OK on an investment — nearly $20 million more than Martinez drew in 2010 — Ilitch had to have viewed as personally as he appraised it financially.

Appreciating talent

Ilitch loves classy players. And the studious slasher, Martinez, perhaps as much as anyone Ilitch has employed, is the owner's brand of man and athlete.

He sees how a hitter stands at the plate in his crouching, S-shaped set-up. He notices the artist's eyes and expression. He absorbs Martinez's craftsmanship.

And when a hitter so skilled delivers a base hit, or knocks a tough pitch into the seats, which helps win a game and sends home happy another Comerica crowd, Mike Ilitch is not about to watch that gent leave town for a paycheck offered by a poacher.

How he justifies these expenditures is known only to Ilitch, his family, and his accountants. But he is, even above his sentiment for Detroit athletes, a businessman for the ages who knows there are ways of making hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries compute.

He had the same disposition toward Max Scherzer when Detroit last spring offered its ace pitcher a $144 million payday prize to remain in Motown. Scherzer has other plans and, unlike Martinez, seems motivated to head his own free-market business venture during free agency.

That's capitalism. And in professional sports, it cuts both ways.

Ilitch, though, clearly had another thought in mind as he re-upped with Martinez. It gets back to his track record, forged during these decades of stewardship over the Red Wings and Tigers.

He wanted his fans to hold interest in the Tigers. Ilitch knew what was up there. Season tickets are in the early days of being renewed and Ilitch sensed what most of us knew: Business was about to take a hit with the specter Scherzer and Martinez no longer would be taking Comerica curtain calls.

Play trumps payroll

In the owner's world that can't happen. After all, this not only is a sports team. It's show business.

And the Tigers, who are a long way from patching their holes — center field, bullpen, a fifth starter, etc. — nonetheless get a huge immediate boost from knowing Martinez will be there, lashing that incredible bat alongside Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, an ever-maturing Nick Castellanos, and a gifted shortstop geared to return from leg fractures, Jose Iglesias.

The due-bills on all this lavishness are another matter for another time. Ilitch and presumably his family have thought this one through. It could be that a franchise bought for $82 million and now worth as much as $1 billion makes these splurges academic.

It might also be some other owner's responsibility to amortize half-a-billion bucks in contracts (Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Martinez, etc.) owed to these three stars, alone. It might be for another owner to deal in a few short years with crushing mounds of old players and bad contracts.

Only the boss, and his family, have a bead on such projections and scenarios.

What we know is Ililtch is something else. Just when you think he won't do it — again — he does it. He pays something unfathomable to a star athlete, probably because he knows we, and he, long ago refused to care what they made as much as how they played.