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Niyo: Bond evident as Ilitch recommits to Martinez

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — They joked about it back in early September. The Tigers were gathered for their annual team photo at Comerica Park, and when Mike Ilitch was greeted by Victor Martinez on the field, the owner couldn’t resist needling one of his favorite players.

“He said, ‘Geez, you’re having such a great year, I don’t even know if we’ll be able to afford you!’ ” Tigers president Dave Dombrowski recalled Friday, after a news conference to announce a new four-year, $68 million contract for Martinez. “They laughed. And then Victor kind of threw his hat down (in mock anger) and they joked about it.”

Friday, it was Ilitch cracking a joke of his own about money, though, when asked if this costly deal for Martinez simply reaffirmed this franchise’s win-now mantra. The 85-year-old owner paused and pretended to check his wallet, before looking up and bellowing, “Yeah, I’m OK. I’ve got some 20s in here.”

The crowd gathered inside the Tiger Club laughed. Martinez did, too. And while it’s too soon to say whether the Tigers — and Ilitch — really are going for broke in 2015 chasing that elusive World Series crown, there’s little doubt the owner still cares enough to try.

Especially when it’s a player like Martinez, one that Dombrowski calls a “true winner” and one that Ilitch has cherished ever since he first signed with Detroit prior to the 2011 season.

Not coincidentally, at least in the owner’s mind, that’s when this team started winning division titles and contending for more. And from the Tigers’ perspective, there really was no getting around what losing Martinez — the best hitter on the market in free agency, and the unquestioned leader in the Tigers clubhouse — would’ve done to this team.

Ilitch says he watches Martinez “like a hawk,” and, like most folks, he says marvels at Martinez’s approach to hitting, whether it’s belting home runs or beating two-strike counts and infield shifts, all while protecting Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the order. Beyond that, it’s his steely demeanor — calm under pressure, reliable in the clutch — that really draws the owner’s admiration.

“I know he gets angry, but he never shows it, you know what I mean?” Ilitch said. “I’m saying, ‘When is this guy gonna get teed off?’

“He’s just a special guy. To see him perform the way he does, and he comes in and is just cool as a cucumber, and his teammates think the world of him, he’s a special person.”

And when Martinez talks about a “great opportunity” in Detroit to “make my dream complete” with a World Series title, well, they certainly have that in common, too.

But when I joked with Dombrowski that he had no choice but to re-sign Martinez, especially given the owner’s personal feelings about him, he laughed, too.

“I’m glad he likes him,” Dombrowski said. “Because he’s the guy that steps up and gets it done when it comes down to it.”

He was talking about Ilitch there. But he might as well have been referring to Martinez, who was runner-up in this week’s American League MVP voting after a career year — a .335/.409/.565 slash line with 32 homers, 103 RBIs and just 42 strikeouts. And given the other available options, bringing Martinez back wasn’t just a priority, it was a necessity.

Sure, Ilitch is enamored with star players, and at times it has cost him even as it rewarded him at the box office. And yes, Ilitch’s public appearances have become increasingly rare in recent years, so it was notable that he showed up Friday, using a walker to get to and from the dais.

But it’s also worth noting that the last time he spoke to the media like this was when the Tigers signed Torii Hunter two years ago. And hours before Friday’s news conference, Dombrowski phoned Hunter — another of Ilitch’s charismatic favorites — to let him know the Tigers aren’t going to bring him back as a free agent.

Bond growing

Martinez, though, was another story. He had made it clear months ago that this is where he wanted to stay, even pulling Dombrowski aside in the clubhouse one afternoon this summer to tell him as much.

“He says, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before, and maybe I’m not supposed to do this because my agents may not like this,’ ” Dombrowski said Friday. “ ‘I don’t want to go anywhere after this contract. This is like my home, like my family, and my family feels the same way, and I want to be a Detroit Tiger.’ ”

Ilitch, likewise, said he put his arm around Martinez as the two sat in the manager’s office in the Tigers clubhouse after the team clinched the AL Central title on the final day of the regular season. And the owner told him, “I’m gonna take care of you next year.”

And the year after that. And two more years after that, as it turned out. Martinez is now the highest-paid designated hitter in major league history, scheduled to earn $14 million in 2015 and $18 million in 2018 when he’s 39.

Dombrowski acknowledged the inherent risk there, especially alongside the Tigers’ other onerous contracts. But he was quick to remind everyone the Red Sox just re-upped with slugger David Ortiz, another designated hitter who turns 39 next week and will make $16 million next season.

“He is one of the best hitters in the game,” Dombrowski said of Martinez. “And we think he’ll continue to do that.”

Patience is a virtue

He’ll have to, if the Tigers are going to continue to contend, with a top-heavy payroll and farm system that’s yielding little in homegrown help. He’ll have to, if Ilitch is going to get what he desperately wants.

But as the owner raved about Martinez Friday, he also talked about other players’ impulsiveness getting the best of them at the plate, aggressively swinging at pitches out of the zone.

“He doesn’t do that,” Ilitch said. “He hangs in there and waits. He has a lot of patience.”

So maybe he’s taking his cue from Martinez now, playing it cool even as the fire burns inside. Because when Ilitch was asked how he’d handled another playoff disappointment this fall, he paused before answering.

“You know, I’m not gonna say anything,” Ilitch said. “I’m just gonna be quiet and, you know, just do some things that I should do. And let the chips fall where they may.

“That’s how I feel now,” he added, smiling. “I’ve loosened up a little more.”