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Manfred, Avila mourn Ilitch, foresee smooth transition

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — The Tigers showed off their new spring training digs Thursday to a collection of baseball brass, including Commissioner Rob Manfred, at the annual Governor’s Dinner celebrating Grapefruit League teams at the Tigertown complex.

“Bob Bowman and I walked in today and each of us said what a fantastic job they did on this renovation,” said Manfred, mentioning big-league baseball’s head of advance media, who is a former Michigan state treasurer. “The ballpark looks great.

“There’s something particularly charming about spring training facilities and this is a great example of this charm. It’s great for baseball. It’s great for the local economy.”

The Tigers this spring are toasting a $48-million remodeling of their spring training complex and minor-league headquarters in a town where they first trained in 1934.

Tigers general manager Al Avila, who earlier that day attended the funeral for late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, said the re-done ballpark — now known as Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium — and expanded facilities left him “overwhelmed” even after he had tracked the project and visited Lakeland for updates.

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“This is like the Beverly Hillbillies, going from a shack to Hollywood,” Avila said of the reconstruction, which was funded almost entirely by state, county, and municipal funds. “We went from ancient history to modern times.”

Avila was still dealing Thursday with the loss of a boss, and friend, in Ilitch, whose humor Avila said became a rich part of an owner-GM’s bond. Avila had flown to Florida following Thursday’s funeral (“a wonderful ceremony,” Avila said) and his farewell to the 87-year-old Ilitch, who died Friday.

“He was a tough guy, a competitive guy, who wanted to win,” said Avila, whom Ilitch named Tigers GM 18 months ago following the dismissal of Dave Dombrowski. “But he always brought humor to the conversation.

“And it was never just baseball,” Avila said, mentioning pregame dinners in Ilitch’s suite when the owner arrived for an evening at Comerica Park. “He’d always ask about your kids, your grandkids, or your wife.”

Manfred had similar, more condensed, thoughts about Ilitch as he spoke during a post-tour press conference.

“Mr. Ilitch was the best of baseball in the sense he was a pillar in Detroit,” Manfred said, “who used baseball as a centerpiece for Detroit. His death is a real loss for the game.”

Manfred, as well as Avila, said Thursday that their relationship would continue in steady fashion with Ilitch’s son, Chris, who heads Ilitch Holdings, the family business empire that includes the Tigers and Red Wings.

“Chris has been a positive force — he’s got a great sports background because of hockey,” Manfred said. “The Tigers are in real good shape with him going forward.”

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Avila said Chris Ilitch was “a very intelligent business person” and that he anticipated “no issues” as a family with which he has long been close and the Tigers adjust to the loss of a patriarch, as well as an aggressive, generous team owner.

Avila said he had suggested to Mike Ilitch last autumn that the Tigers might consider trading expensive talent in a bid to get younger and more competitive for the long term.

“He listened,” Avila said, easing into a grin. “He didn’t say no. He said, ‘Fine — but I’ve got the final trigger.’ ”

It was an indication the owner would hold veto power over any trades he viewed as too much to bear.

Baseball’s marketplace, which turned cold in December as teams turned to austerity and payroll discipline, made any such moves moot.

“We never got to that point,” Avila said. “We never needed to have that conversation.”


Twitter.com: @Lynn_Henning