Henning: Tigertown tribute honors Ilitch's legacy
Lakeland, Fla. — In a touching union only baseball could have melded, a Tigers team’s grief process continued Friday at the same time it was celebrating a new baseball complex at Tigertown.
Two weeks after his death, Mike Ilitch was honored, rather perfectly, during a 15-minute farewell at the new Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, minutes before the Tigers began their Grapefruit League season against the Orioles.
Ceremonies began with a silent, somber single-file march by Tigers players and staff members who walked from the clubhouse, down the right-field line, turning sharply right and proceeding until they eventually formed a semi-circle around the infield’s outer edge.
Various players joined in a video tribute to their longtime owner, which included Justin Verlander saying: “I don’t want to start a rally cry, but would wouldn’t it be great if we did it (won a championship) this year?”
And after the American flag was raised, with a blue-and-white “Mr. I” flag rising beneath it, four players — Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, Justin Upton, and Verlander — lifted a forest-green tarp from a patch of turf between home plate and the first-base-side Tigers dugout.
It unveiled a gray-white circle, bordered in dark blue, with three dark-blue letters: “Mr. I.”
“He wanted to bring a (baseball) title to Detroit,” said Chris Ilitch, the son who now commands a business galaxy founded on pizza, and which later included ownership of the Red Wings and the Tigers. “That’s all he ever wanted.”
The father missed his World Series parade. But twice he got his teams to the finals. Four consecutive times, from 2011-14, his guys won the American League Central division. He also financed and directed overall the best 10 years of baseball the Tigers have ever known, years that included four times drawing 3 million customers to Comerica Park.
His son had stood on Publix Field’s fresh green sod, not far from the batting cage, two hours before Friday’s game and formal farewell. Dressed in a white shirt and light-blue suit, Chris Ilitch talked about the past two weeks. He said it was “heartwarming to receive that kind of support and to hear all the tributes about my father.”
How was his mother, Marian, doing in the days since losing a spouse of 60-plus years?
“She’s doing the best she can for the situation,” Chris said. “But she’s amazed, like we are, at the outpouring of love from so many people.”
In the same way that he had missed winning a baseball trophy he wanted more dearly than any of his four Stanley Cups, Mike Ilitch missed Friday the formal christening of a baseball complex refreshed and rebuilt by way of a $48-million makeover.
“We’re excited,” Chris Ilitch said, glancing at the project’s showpiece, a three-story administrative building beyond the right-field fence, with its orange-tile roof housing offices, a princely new clubhouse, and 8,400-square-foot weight room, not to mention spa-like, hydrotherapy pools.
“Physical environment is a big part of creating a culture.”
Quite the physical environment they have at Tigertown. It was financed because a state and community not disposed to taxes used common sense in scraping up funds. It was financed because the Tigers and their spring camp, which has been based here since 1932, bring $45 million annually to Polk County and to Lakeland. Factor in the Single A team and the minor-league headquarters based here and the number grows to $63 million.
It was financed because of Friday’s full parking lot. And because there were thousands of bodies tucked into those new green seats, many more of which are shaded by sections that have been extended far down the left-field line, with a broad white roof keeping folks clear of the sun’s occasional rough ways.
“This is our home away from home,” said Al Avila, the Tigers general manager who spoke during a pregame program emceed by Tigers announcer Dan Dickerson, who also deftly narrated Friday’s Ilitch tribute. “Tigertown looks spectacular. This is the best spring-training facility in all of baseball.”
The game's bond
Chris Ilitch understands baseball as relationship. It’s a bond he saw between his father and a town’s big-league team. He has absorbed the extraordinary kinship between Detroit, Michigan, and this central Florida town, which once was a citrus-fruit depot and now, to a large extent, counts the Tigers as one of its key industries.
No town and big-league team has anything that approaches the length of marriage between the Tigers and Lakeland. The two words are indeed wedded.
And so, too, are the words “Tigers” and “Ilitch.” An audience came to appreciate again Friday how they’ve been woven these past 25 years, all as soft string-and-brass music played over the ballpark’s splendid new sound system. The music was perfect in its tone, its tempo, and in its grace.
You could have said as much for the entire day Friday at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, beneath white clouds and a blue sky, with temperatures in the low 80s, and baseball, at last, back after its winter nap.
On the scoreboard screen high atop a red-tile cabana roof beyond center field, a photo of Mike Ilitch, above the inscription “A Life Well Lived,” left its imprint on those Friday who took turns applauding and, in their own way, grieving.
“Thank you, Mr. I” came a voice from the crowd.
Say it’s only a game if you must. But leave room for a potential change of mind.