Wojo: Ilitch still feisty, driven to deliver Tigers Series title

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit – If there was any doubt, Mike Ilitch just squashed it. He's still in charge, still spending, still chasing. And no matter how you analyze it, that's still a good thing for baseball fans around here.

The Tigers made their latest big-money gambit Monday, signing free-agent pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year, $110-million contract. It was expensive for a 29-year-old former All-Star coming off a so-so season in Washington, but appropriate given the yet-to-be-set market.

Zimmermann certainly will bolster the Tigers' shaky rotation, just as Francisco Rodriguez upgraded the bullpen when acquired two weeks ago. Offseason dealing is just starting and the Tigers already have made two significant leaps — and two significant points.

First, if there was a concern new general manager Al Avila couldn't match Dave Dombrowski's deal-making, that's fading. And any suggestion the 86-year-old owner might dial it back after a last-place finish, well, he answered with his trademark feistiness.

World Series or bust? That remains the mantra, and I suspect it will as long as Ilitch owns the team.

"That's something I really want, and I want it bad," Ilitch said. "We're doing everything we can to make sure we get as many good ballplayers that are out there. I might sound silly, but it's true. I think I've proved that over the years. I don't care about spending money; I've never reneged on signing a big player, ever."

Dombrowski didn't win

Ilitch doesn't talk much publicly, but when he does, it's a lively mix of candor and humor. Health issues in the past led to quiet speculation that family members — perhaps wife Marian or son Christopher — would take more active roles. But there was Ilitch Monday, energy percolating. In the space of about 10 minutes, he explained why he let Dombrowski leave, why he was irked by Max Scherzer and why he's still driven.

Dombrowski was in the final year of his contract, and according to Ilitch, it was understood they'd part ways. That was the perception at the time, but it was still a bit of a shock when the long-time president and GM was let go shortly after the July 31 trade deadline.

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"As far as I'm concerned, Dave's contract was running out, and that's really the extent of it," Ilitch said. "People said I fired him. I didn't fire him. He knew he wasn't going to be with us the following year, so I looked at it as a very easy way to handle it."

Sure enough, Dombrowski signed fairly quickly with the Red Sox. So, Ilitch had no desire to retain him?

"No, not at all," Ilitch said. "I didn't win with him. We were close, he's a great guy, but there's times you gotta change. You're not winning, you gotta change. So I made up my mind, and I called him and told him like a gentleman."

Bitter over Scherzer

There wasn't animosity in Ilitch's tone, and he said he respected Dombrowski's professionalism at the deadline. He turned slightly darker when asked about Scherzer, who rejected the Tigers' $144-million, six-year offer and later signed with the Nationals for $210 million over seven years.

It was smart business by Scherzer but Ilitch was personally wounded, which explains the pithy statement the Tigers released at the time.

"We made him an offer and it looked like he was gonna take it," Ilitch said. "And all of sudden he wanted a little bit more. It irked me a little bit. I figured, how much you want? I just asked you what you want, and he tells me, and then he wants more. Forgot about him."

Scherzer's departure stung badly and he remains a dominant pitcher, throwing two no-hitters last season. Top free-agents David Price and Yoenis Cespedes also left (although neither has signed yet). So while Ilitch spends admirably, there is a limit. The luxury-tax threshold is $189 million, and the Tigers were pushing it with a $173-million payroll last season.

Yet they still need another starter, two or three relievers and an outfielder.

"I'm supposed to be a good boy and not go over (the threshold)," Ilitch said. "If I'm going to get certain players that can help us a lot, I'll go over it. Oops, I shouldn't have said that."

Zimmermann and Avila smiled, and the new GM must be especially heartened Ilitch isn't letting one poor season diminish four division titles and two World Series appearances. They've won a lot but not enough, and it won't be enough unless the Tigers add even more pitching.

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"We got our man," Avila said of Zimmermann. "Right now everything is fitting right in line with our plan. We still plan to go out and get another starting pitcher. Obviously, we're still looking for at least one, maybe two more relievers. Pitching is still a priority."

Ilitch blurted out precisely that in a comic-relief moment during the news conference. This is what he loves, to stir the competitive juices, to keep hunting for something Detroit hasn't won since 1984.

"We've been in the World Series, what, three times (actually two)?" Ilitch said. "That gets old. You want to win. That's all I think about. My wife's got to put me in bed and tell me, 'It'll be OK Mike, it'll be OK.' This year, I like the way Al and our manager (Brad Ausmus) are going after everything."

Ilitch is going after it with the same apparent vigor, no time to hesitate or ruminate. It's the only way he knows, and it's too late to change. He's still fixated, and there's still a deep purpose to the pursuit.