A rare in-depth interview with Mike Ilitch

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Mile Ilitch poses inside his private suite in Comerica Park  before the game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Sept. 28, 2006.

Originally published on Sept. 30, 2011, this interview with Mike Ilitch was possibly his last in-depth talk with a member of the media.

Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch sat down with Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski and talked about his health, his hometown and his continued passion for the Tigers.

Q. Your baseball team is headed to the playoffs, the city is buzzing. Life is good, I imagine?

A. Oh, it's a blast. You just wish it could go on forever. I can tell you, this is one of the happiest times of my life.

Q. You've won a lot in hockey with the Red Wings. Can you put into words what a Tigers culmination, a World Series championship, would mean?

A. I'd be kidding if I didn't say it's at the top of the list for me. Winning one World Series is like winning two or three championships in other sports. It's a tough thing to win, and we got a good shot.

The fans are really, really fired up. I've never seen them this fired up, so happy and so proud. I feel like a caretaker, because this sport has been around over 100 years. How can you own it? They own it.

Q. There is something different about the connection of baseball to a city, isn't there?

A. It's a fascinating sport. It's different. It's almost like going to church, when you got 45,000 people singing "Take me out to the ballgame." I mean, the smell of the hot dogs, everything.

Q. Have you been able to soak this season in? How many Tigers games do you come to?

A. I think 95 percent of them. I feel they know if you're here, even if they don't see it. That's the way the sport is, that's the way the players are, that's the way the administration is. If you're not there, quickly they start thinking you're losing interest, or he's not feeling well, or a bunch of stuff starts going through their heads.

Q. You're a baseball guy from way back, so the Tigers do seem more personal to you.

A. No doubt about it. If I don't get (a World Series championship), I'll feel something was a little empty in my life. Usually, I get what I want.

Q. You also go and get what you want. I mean, Victor Martinez is here because you paid $50 million for him.

A. When I heard he was a leader, I couldn't be happier to have him, because we were lacking leadership in our locker room. The first day I went to spring training this year, Dave (Dombrowski) always brings the coaches in and we have a little talk. And all of a sudden, (Miguel) Cabrera walks in, unannounced, right in the middle of the meeting. And I said, "Oh, here's my big teddy bear," and we hugged.

Then he leaves, and in walks Martinez. I've never met the guy, and he walks right into the middle of the meeting, too. Now, I could see Cabrera doing it, he's a funny guy. Victor's got a serious side to him, and I'm standing up and looking at him and I go, "You're my future leader."

'Everybody's got Tigers stuff on'

Q. I'm intrigued by your ownership style — you're passionate, yet you don't necessarily interfere a lot. Or do you, behind the scenes?

A. No, that's rule one in sports. You gotta expound on the word "interfere," but you have to know your people well, know what their jobs are, know the pressure they have, and you can't step into their area and just make decisions. They can appreciate comments, but you gotta pick your time, because they're very sensitive about their jobs and the pressure.

Q. Speaking of pressure, it was a lingering issue that your manager (Jim Leyland) and general manager (Dave Dombrowski) were in the last year of their contracts. You didn't give them extensions until Aug. 8. What was your strategy there?

A. The strategy was, I wanted to get a good feel how the season was going to go. I felt I would ride it out as long as I could, until Dave had to start hiring some of his people because a lot of them are on one-year contracts.

So I had it in the back of my mind, I'd like to get as much time in for the year, to see if the morale was strong, the team was going well, Leyland was doing a good job and Dave was doing a good job. I rode it out until things looked good.

Q. There was second-guessing — the Tigers were 61-53, a few games in first — when you extended them. There was a sentiment of, things are going fine, why now?

A. You know what I rely on? I rely on the most important thing a human being has, in business and in life — you gotta count on your instincts. Sometimes you get it right away and you've pretty much made up your mind. The real, real tough ones, I wait it out.

Q. Whether it was your intention or not, the perception was, jobs were on the line this season. Is that a fair perception?

A. Well, Jim and Dave were at the end of their deals, and I thought it was only fair to the team, myself and the fans to make sure, if that decision was going to be made, that it was the right decision. Go back to the instincts again. I got the message and I moved.

Q. After Aug. 19, the Tigers went 30-9. That's an unreal stretch. You ever get a chance to go sit in a coffee shop or something and mingle with the fans?

A. Oh, I get the vibe everywhere. If I go to the mall to buy something — I'm not gonna shop long — I get hit a lot there. If I go to restaurants, I get hit a lot there. I get hit a lot here (at Comerica Park). I'll tell you what I really enjoy — I ride the elevator with the fans before the game and after the game. That's a blast.

Q. Wait a minute, you're squished in the elevator with the fans?

A. We're all squished in together. We have a lot of laughs.

Q. What's the most common thing they say to you?

A. They just say, "I really appreciate what you've done for the Tigers." They're so passionate, it's so much a part of them. We try to make it as affordable as possible during these tough times, and I think they know we're doing the best we can in that area. I observe when I go to other arenas and ballparks, and you can't beat this park. Everybody's got Tigers stuff on.

Q. There were some rough spots this season, and naturally, everyone wants to second-guess the manager. You sit in the big chair, you ever pick up the phone and call Leyland?

A. Oh, we're all experts. And you know what, the fans are sharp. You can't take it personally, and I don't think Jim does. But he gets hammered with it.

I'll tell you what opens it up — with Al Kaline or past eras, when you made the team, you played every day. He has a different system, so that's brought up a lot.

Q. But he always has a reason for how he sets his lineup?

A. I'll give him credit for being very, very glib. He can handle the press, he can handle the fans. He does a good job. Jim's always had his team, his crew, and he's very loyal to them. And should they make a boo-boo, I gotta keep my mouth shut. (Laughs.)

'They say if you're a bum or good person'

Q. You've had some bad contracts and some good ones. You signed (Justin) Verlander two years ago for $80 million over five years. That looks like a pretty good one. How did he develop into the best pitcher in baseball?

A. There are a lot of bad contracts out there, all around baseball, so it's a tough decision to make. I think Verlander might have picked up a tip or two from (former Tigers pitcher) Jack Morris. Because he stated many times, you don't have to try to strike out everybody at 100 miles per hour. And fortunately, Justin's been gifted with the ability to develop pitches.

It drives me crazy, but I don't understand why pitchers can't learn how to throw a curveball, or a slider. I'd be working on it like crazy, until I got blisters on my hand. But Verlander is very flexible, and it was no challenge to him.

Q. Your pitching staff really came together when Dombrowski traded for Doug Fister. He was a little under the radar, but he's 8-1 for you guys.

A. And that was a bit of a kitchen-sink deal; we threw a lot of players in there. Nobody realized his athletic ability and his sound makeup. What a quality person.

Q. I don't think you're a hang-around-the-clubhouse guy, but yet you get to know your team. How?

A. I'll give you an example. (Tuesday), I went down and grabbed our clubhouse guy and I said, "Come on, follow me. Take me to all the new guys, I got to meet them." I feel if you build a strong relationship with the core, and the core's gonna be around, that shows them what the owner is like. Players believe other players, and they say if you're a bum or a good person.

Q. Let me ask you about Cabrera. You must be gratified by the tremendous season he's had, considering how it started with his drunken-driving arrest before spring training. How concerned were you? Did that shake you a bit?

A. Yeah, it did. But I come from a big family, he comes from a big family, and he had a lot of pressure put on him by a lot of people. He had just spent 27 days in Venezuela, and I don't think that was the best visit. I think that played a role in triggering it.

Q. Did you think he'd turn it around like he has, even winning the batting title?

A. Oh, yeah, he's probably the steadiest player we have, personality-wise. I don't remember one day where he's been down. I think it's because he loves being around people, and he loves playing baseball. I haven't seen much ego, and he's such a smart player.

Q. Cabrera deserves to be praised now. But back in the spring, it was really delicate, and you guys stood behind him and got him help. Why did you have the confidence he'd be OK?

A. Well, I think it's because he's such a good person, and I figured he can beat it. Life is long, of course, but I just figured he had pressure on him.

And the other time, I think he got tricked by the White Sox. (Late in the 2009 season, Cabrera was drinking late with visiting White Sox players and got into an altercation with his wife when he arrived home). That team is loaded with guys he knows, and they came to Birmingham and buddied up to him.

Q. Your team was up and down this season, and then all of a sudden it turned. How and when did it turn?

A. Well, there was a big victory one night (June 11, the Tigers beat the Mariners to tie for first place), and I think it was just a coincidence, but I got real excited, which I generally don't do. And I went down to the locker room and was high-fiving everybody, screaming and yelling, and I think they were shocked. I don't know if it was a turning point, but it turned me on. (Laughs).

'Imagine another big bat in our lineup?'

Q. Your payroll is in better shape with some big contracts going away. You feel good about the direction of the Tigers?

A. Yeah, but I'm challenged to keep it there like the Yankees and the Red Sox. I haven't totally zeroed in on our payroll yet. What I'm still trying to figure out is what we need for next year. I want to be in a position to make one or two additions, and generally, they're pretty big additions.

Q. So you could add a couple of big-time players?

A. Yes. I'm already thinking about that. Can you imagine another big bat in our lineup?

Q. You bought the Tigers in 1992. Looking back on 19 years of ownership, is there one move you wish you had made, and one you wish you hadn't?

A. I think the thing I did that wasn't good is, I should've been more aggressive in getting to know all the owners, and been more involved with the league. If you build strong relationships, you can get advice from them. I didn't do enough of that because I got spoiled with the Red Wings, where we won a lot. I kind of came in with that attitude, and it took me a while to wake up.

Q. It was rough early on. The Tigers had a losing record your first 13 seasons. What happened there?

A. When you're new in a sport and you know you got the wrong administration, and it takes a while to realize you got the wrong administration, and then it takes a little longer to change it, the years go by and it eats you up. You get off to a slow start with a bad team, it's one heckuva building process.

Q. Sounds like you regret sticking with (former GM) Randy Smith so long?

A. Way too long.

Q. Now you're in the playoffs and the stadium is often packed. When it was rough, did you ever wonder what you got yourself into, and how do you get out of it?

A. Uh, not really. It was painful as heck, though. I was kind of talking to myself, ashamed of myself. I'm looking this way and I'm looking that way (he turns his head side to side), and I'm all alone. With the NHL, I was on the Board of Governors for 20-some years. I was wired in. I should've worked toward that type of relationship in baseball.

Q. If that was your biggest mistake, what was the best move you made?

A. Cabrera. I followed him since he was 20 because I go to Florida a lot and I follow the Marlins. I kept my eye on him, and when I heard they might be thinking about trading him (in 2007), I told Dave, we gotta go get this guy.

I'm mad at myself that it took me a while to put the two sports together. What's the public want? The public wants stars! (He pounds the table.) You gotta have stars on your team! We had (Gordie) Howe, we had (Steve) Yzerman, we have (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg. I learned it in hockey, and I didn't follow that theory in baseball.

Q. With the Red Wings and Tigers, you're loyal to a lot of your best players, but it's a business, too. With older guys like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, how do you separate likeability and loyalty from business?

A. It's hard, it's hard. You kind of gotta be prepared if a person doesn't go on a certain career path. But on some of them, I make up my mind I'm gonna hire them. They've been so loyal to me, and I've been loyal to them, so I buy that and bring them in as a scout or something.

Like Yzerman, he spent three years training here, and he turned out to be a hawk. He was in Kenny's (Holland) back pocket, learning everything. And boy, did he ever.

Q. You're 82, and when we talked a month or two ago, you quipped that you want to win badly because you're not a spring chicken. As you get older, do you feel that?

A. Oh, yeah, I cherish every day. I figure, I don't know if I'll get another shot next year. I mean, things happen to young people, unfortunately. What happens to old-timers is, they go like that (he snaps his fingers). You wake up one day and you got this and you got that. The odds are strongly against you.

Q. You mentioned the Tigers are kind of the city's team. You have that deep passion for it. Have you thought about what happens down the line? Will your family have the passion to keep it?

A. Well, I've thought about it, and there are two ways to look at it: Do you want to punish them, or do you want it to continue on? You can't open up too much, or I'll offend my own family. So I gotta be real careful how I handle that.

There's been some owners that wouldn't allow his family to take over. They don't want to expose them to that. It's not fair, in some cases, to turn it over to them.

Q. Would you want the team to stay in the family?

A. I'd want it to stay in the family. I'd love it if it went on. But in the next breath, you try to cover every base. It's hard. It's something I haven't finalized. I think everybody expects, and I think the family expects to be part of it.

'I feel great, but I don't take it for granted'

Q. Since you mentioned it, do you mind if I ask how you are, health-wise?

A. I feel great, but I don't take it for granted. I'm very, very conscious of my age.

Q. So, do you eat cheeseburgers?

A. Noooooo.

Q. Hot dogs?

A. Oh, I love hot dogs. When you get older, you really gotta watch what you eat. What, you turning into my doctor now?

Q. I was just checking. People always wonder.

A. I know. I would wonder too.

'We're a sports city, nobody can deny that'

Q. I know you're not just about the teams; you're about Detroit and the Fox Theatre and revitalization. As much as you've done, does it pain you that Detroit still struggles?

A. Well, there's not gonna be much pain very long. We got a lot of great people now; Compuware (Peter Karmanos), the guy that bought all the buildings, Dan Gilbert, Blue Cross-Blue Shield. There's a whole group that's gonna come together, like it or not. It's just kind of forming, like osmosis, but it's gonna happen.

Q. So you have a positive feeling going forward?

A. Very positive. And now we're gonna be getting national attention with the Lions. You know, we catch heck when you mention where you're from, but people are gonna recognize we can change that. The start of it will be the teams. We've got the best sports fans; we're a sports city, nobody can deny that.

Then the business thing is gonna follow it nicely. What I'd like one day — and I won't be around for it — is that they can eat their words about what they said about Detroit. Because Detroit's gonna come back.