11/27/10 10:00 AM EST
Ilitch sets out to get Tigers to roar again
Owner spending the money to give struggling city a winner
By Peter Gammons / MLB.com
We all realize what happened to Detroit when the automobile companies began moving from downtown. We all listened to John Lee Hooker's "Motor City is Burning," penned up in Tiger Stadium after the 1984 World Series.
So anyone and everyone who cares about Detroit gave thanks Thursday for the tiny light that is the beginning of the rebirth of General Motors and Ford. And anyone who ever watched Al Kaline's dignified greatness or remembers Mickey Lolich's three wins against the Cardinals in 1968 or saw Alan Trammell's perfect throws from shortstop gave thanks for Mike Ilitch.
Ilitch is unique among owners, a man who isn't in baseball for the resale value of his franchise or the ego gratification. He is a Detroiter who loves his city and tries to give his neighbors something to shout about, such as the Red Wings and Tigers. He owns a family business that he views not as a business, per se, not like a casino or a pizza operation but as a philanthropic institution whose purpose is to restore the self-esteem and hopes of a downtrodden population.
So after the Dave Dombrowski/Jim Leyland revival, by which a moribund franchise got to the World Series in 2006 and averaged more than 38,000 a game in 2007 and 2008, but then finished .500 and dropped to fewer than 31,000 a game in 2010, Ilitch gave the green light to spend to return to the high life. They gave middle reliever Joaquin Benoit -- who was brilliant in Tampa Bay after joining them as a non-roster invitee, an arm operation and four seasons with ERAs above 5.00 -- $16.5 million for three years.
Does this impact the industry? Of course. If you're Jesse Crain, Scott Downs, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier or any of a number of other free-agent relievers, you have every reason to believe that is the market, that you are going to let everyone wait until the market arrives at your doorstep.
Then they gave Victor Martinez $50 million for four years, more than the $48 million over four offered by the Orioles to catch twice a week, play first and DH; or Boston's four years at $42 million to split time with Jarod Saltalamacchia for a season before taking the DH spot full-time; or offers made by the Rangers or White Sox.
And they will pay good money to a left-handed reliever, and maybe another player or two, and have no problem with a $130 million-plus payroll, not after the astute Dombrowski deals that brought them Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth.
Playing in a division in which the Twins are a top-eight revenue franchise and will have a payroll over $100 million, and the White Sox are always a nine-figure team, Ilitch is willing to do whatever it takes, which means the Tigers can do what the Indians and Royals -- who play in two of the game's three cities that are not in the nation's top 40 markets -- cannot do.
Make no mistake, the Tigers will be contenders, especially, in Leyland's view, if Guillen can play 100-something games at second base. Leyland figures that Austin Jackson -- whose .345 on-base percentage was a major development step from the second half of the 2009 International League season -- and Guillen in front of Martinez and the remarkable Cabrera will work as the manager pieces together Brandon Inge, Brennan Boesch, Ryan Raburn and Jhonny Peralta. But do not discount any further market activity.
Justin Verlander is the front man of the staff, with Scherzer, Porcello, Coke and Galarraga or Andy Oliver in the rotation, and Valverde, Benoit, Ryan Perry, Schlereth and another left-hander in the bullpen.
"The key is Porcello," says Leyland. "He can get his breaking ball much more consistent, and if he does, he can be pretty good."
Yes, Porcello allowed more than 220 baserunners in 162 2/3 innings, but had he not signed out of high school he would have been a college junior last spring.
Even in a down economic and winning-percentage year, the only AL Central team that outdrew the Tigers were the Twins in their new ballpark. The Royals were 25th at 20,191. The Indians were last, at fewer than 18,000 a game.
The reality is that Kansas City and Cleveland are the smallest cities in the American League. Yeah, yeah, yeah -- if the Indians had held their 2007 team together, they'd have played 2010 with a $130 million payroll, with Grady Sizemore and Carlos Santana hurt. The reality is that Cleveland has been losing population and no one has found a way to attract businesses and jobs to Northeast Ohio. So, when looking at a Guerrier, Crain or Jason Frasor, the price before the end of January will be Benoit money, which is an Escalade to teams like the Rays, Royals and Indians, who may have to settle on a Kia.
No one can find fault with Ilitch for his philanthropic ownership, no matter how much more difficult it may be to fill out other competitive rosters, no matter if the de-facto Tigers payroll is greater than that of the Mets or Dodgers.
If you're a Tigers fan, you have a lot to be thankful for. Cabrera is as good a player as there is in the American League, and he's 27 years old. Leyland is a Hall of Fame manager. Verlander can beat the Yankees in Game 7 of an ALCS.
All because Mike Ilitch appreciates that Trucks started the 1945 pennant-clincher on 2 1/2 years rest, that Kaline was Olivier, that Jack Morris and Trammell and Gibson were the core of the best team of the '80s, and that there are a lot of people in Detroit who believe GM and Ford are coming back and want to turn to the Tigers back into what their parents knew in '45 and '84, and give everyone that feeling of hope.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.