Lakeland, Fla. — His office at TigerTown looks out on the expanse of Joker Marchant Stadium and Christopher Ilitch likes to steal away a few minutes and watch his baseball team go through its pregame preparation. He likes to come down the field and stand behind the cage during batting practice, shooting the breeze with general manager Al Avila or with manager Ron Gardenhire or whoever else is around.
He was in the manager’s office Friday morning, playfully, at Gardenhire’s urging, asking Avila if there was a chance he’d see prospect Riley Greene in the game. And, lo and behold, Greene was added to the lineup.
You can forget sometimes, with all his titles and responsibilities — he’s the president and chairman of Ilitch Holdings and chairman and CEO of the Tigers — that Ilitch grew up going to Tigers’ games with his father and now has two baseball-playing sons, as well as a talented tennis-playing daughter.
You forget that beneath the suit and titles, he’s a baseball fan.
So in that light, know that he bled through the 114-loss season last year just like everyone else.
“It is tough,” he said Friday. “I am very competitive. My father (late owner Mike Ilitch) was an exceptionally competitive person. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. I am more inward in my reaction. You really won’t see it, but the fire is burning inside.”
Understand, he wants to bring competitive and championship baseball back to Detroit badly, like, yesterday. But understand also, he wants to create an organization that is successful every year. Sustainable success — that’s the mission.
“I am a competitive person but I am also an exceptionally disciplined person,” he said. “I am very disciplined in how I go about my business and my career. Discipline is important but not always easy. You want to get there as fast as possible.
“But I know we are building this the right way. I know that because I lived it through the Red Wings years and I lived it at the beginning of this century with the Tigers. Now we are trying to do it again and I know we will do it again. We’re going to keep working away. Be patient, be disciplined and we’re going to get there.”
Ilitch, despite his relatively low public profile, isn’t an ivory-tower leader. He doesn’t shield himself from public opinion — positive or negative. He keeps his ear on train tracks, so to speak.
“If there is commentary out there and it is negative commentary, OK, I understand it,” he said. “I am generally aware of it but I don’t dwell on it and I certainly don’t let it distract me. I don’t want to say that I don’t care, I do — especially as it relates to our fans.
“I understand the frustration. I like to say I’m a fan myself. So I feel that, but I stay focused on the task.”
So he hears the talk that he is too frugal and will never spend money on players like his father did and, as he has every time the question is asked, he tries to assure people that he will.
“Al and I talk a lot about short-term and long-term plans,” Ilitch said. “When Al and I feel the time is right, Al is going to have the resources to go out and sign the free agents he needs to add around our home-grown base and core of talent.
“That day will come and we’ll be ready for it. He will have the resources to do that.”
The economic landscape of baseball makes it almost impossible to buy a championship team these days, especially for a mid-market team like the Tigers. You can do it maybe for one year, go all-in, but there would be no way to sustain it.
Instead, Ilitch has invested millions in the organizational infrastructure — in scouting, in analytics, in performance science, in player development. The Tigers have traded for prospects. In June they will have the first overall pick in the amateur draft for the second time in three years, with a fifth overall pick last year (a guy named Greene).
“Those things aren’t apparent to the average fan base because it’s not on the field,” Ilitch said. “You don’t see it in the wins and losses. We’re establishing the foundation. We’re not going through the motions here. We’ve gone through this before as an organization in two sports.
“We are building a solid foundation and we are going to go from there. I am very confident in the trajectory of our ballclub. We are heading in the right direction.”
Tigers legends Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris were in the room as Ilitch spoke to reporters Friday. And he used them as examples of the process.
“We are sitting at the table and there’s a local guy who turned into a star, a first-round pick in Gibby,” Ilitch said. “Look what that did for us back then. We’re talking about the draft, there’s a Hall-of-Famer here that we took in the fifth round (Morris).
“When I talk to our scouts, I tell them don’t give up after 10 (rounds). You never know where your next star is going to come from.”
Two years ago, Ilitch showed up at one of the scouts’ organizational meetings. One of the veteran scouts, who had never seen a member of the ownership group at a scouting meeting, asked him why he was there.
“I told him, ‘Because you guys have the most important job in the entire organization,’” he said. “We don’t want to be good once. We want to be good year after year. We need waves of prospects coming up fighting for positions in the Major Leagues.
“We could be on the cusp of that right now.”
Ten of the club’s 11 top prospects are in camp, including the elite pitching quartet of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo who are expected to start the season at Triple-A Toledo — one step away from the big leagues.
And then there is a player like Greene, who at 19 is showing signs of being what would be the transformational prize of the entire rebuilding effort — a home-grown star.
“Fans want to see a star,” he said. “It’d be good if we can grow our own stars, then at the right time we’ll fill in with free agents and probably add more stars via that avenue – at the right time.”
Ilitch isn’t asking fans to be patient. He gets the frustration. But he asking them to trust the process.
“Tigers fans are the greatest and we are exceptionally grateful for their loyalty and dedication," he said. "They want to see a winning team on the field and they deserve to see a winning team on the field. And I can tell you everybody in the organization is working hard to deliver a winning team.
"I have absolute confidence we are building a Tigers team fans will be proud of, a team that will live up to the tradition of our historic franchise.”