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01/27/12 7:52 AM EST

Prince deal shows Ilitch's desire to win

Tigers owner thinks big to try to bring Detroit a championship

DETROIT -- His baseball people were going over the various possibilities available to him in this late stage of the offseason, the assorted lineup scenarios that might exist without designated hitter Victor Martinez.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch sat there and envisioned it all. Guys moving around the diamond, in and out of the DH spot, trying -- futilely, he figured -- to somehow account for the huge hole Martinez and his torn ACL had left behind.

"I got a little dizzy," Ilitch said Thursday.

Now, this is the part where a mid-market team without one of those gargantuan local television contracts and without a three-million attendance average would generally fill the gap as best it could with whatever budget ballplayer could be had. And truth be told, that's pretty much the route club president and general manager Dave Dombrowski planned to take.

But Dombrowski also had made it clear to Ilitch that there was only one difference-maker still available on the open market, and Ilitch, having watched this particular slugger hit upper-deck home runs during batting practice in old Tiger Stadium when he was just 12 years old, didn't really have to be sold on him.

He wanted Prince Fielder, so he got Prince Fielder.

And with all due respect to the Angels' all-in approach on Albert Pujols or the Rangers' international investment in Yu Darvish, this Fielder deal -- nine years, $214 million, and all because Martinez blew out his knee -- was the biggest blockbuster of the Hot Stove season.

"This boggles my mind," manager Jim Leyland said. "About three weeks ago, we were talking about maybe getting an extra bullpen guy, but we didn't know if we had the finances. I don't know what happened in three weeks. Little Caesar's did good, evidently."

That would be the Ilitch-owned Little Caesar's, of course, and between that "pizza pizza" profit and his wife Marian's stake in casinos across the country, the Ilitch family does all right for itself.

But it's the passionate pursuit of a World Series ring -- a memento that Ilitch has acknowledged would mean even more to him than the four Stanley Cups the Detroit Red Wings have won under his watch -- that, as a sports fan, you can't help but admire and appreciate.

Prince Fielder
New Prince of Detroit

The fourth-largest contract in the history of Major League Baseball came together in about four days of talks between the Tigers and agent Scott Boras.

And it came together because of the 82-year-old Ilitch's high-priced hunch.

"I go by my instincts," he said. "My instincts told me this is going to work out fine. I'm not going to worry about it. I'm not nervous. Maybe there's something crazy about me there."

Crazy? That's for him to say. Instead, how about we call him ... competitive.

How does that sound, Mrs. Ilitch?

"You know, Mike's an old ballplayer, from way back," Marian said. "And he knows that when you have an opportunity, you have to take it. It's a big risk, and it takes a lot of guts, but he knows it's the right thing to try to win a championship. He really wants to win one for this city. And it's like that in a lot of business ventures. The competitiveness is you want to win, you always want to win. Does that mean more money? Does that mean a higher status in the community? Whatever it means, you want to come out on top."

The Fielder deal guarantees the Tigers nothing in that regard. Let's face it: Some contracts are risky financial investments built on sound baseball sense. Some are shaky baseball moves based on a bargain. This is neither. It is the rare deal fraught with risk both from the baseball and the banking perspectives.

Unlike the $200 million contracts upon which Pujols and Alex Rodriguez operate, this one doesn't have the backing of a lucrative broadcast rights agreement. Furthermore, it forces the Tigers to move Miguel Cabrera to the hot corner -- a position he last played regularly four years and some 30 or 40 pounds ago.

Let Leyland deal with the latter issue. For his part, he uttered his absolute belief in Cabrera's ability to adapt, and he knows that despite what the Tigers are giving up on the defensive end, they'll have the capability to outweigh it offensively with arguably one of the great all-time power combos in the middle of an order.

All because of Ilitch's investment.

"This just doesn't happen," Leyland said. "I've never seen anybody that wanted to do more for a city than Mr. Ilitch. I mean it. I've talked about Mr. Ilitch in the past, and I think people think I'm being corny. But this is unbelievable. You lose Victor, and you get one of the two premier guys on the free-agent list. I still can't believe it."

A week and a half ago, the Tigers briefly explored the possibility of signing Fielder to a one-year deal. It was a brief exploration because Boras shot it down. The Tigers got the news about Martinez on Tuesday of last week. By Wednesday night, Ilitch was asking Dombrowski to look into Prince. And by Thursday, Ilitch was on the phone with Boras.

Boras didn't really need to sell Fielder to Ilitch, who recalled the many times when Prince's pop, Cecil, would come upstairs to his office after a game and talk on and on about his kid's enormous potential.

Remember, this was back when Prince was a child.

"I thought it was a typical father bragging about his kids," Ilitch said.

In due time, though, Ilitch saw firsthand that Cecil knew what he was talking about. When Ilitch saw those second-deck blasts rocketing off a 12-year-old Prince's bat, he was convinced. He told Cecil, "You don't have to come upstairs anymore."

The Tigers missed Prince, but barely, in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. He went at No. 7 to the Brewers, and the Tigers settled for a high school shortstop named Scott Moore, who has logged all of 80 games in the 10 years since -- none of them with Detroit.

Ilitch, then, felt a sense of unfinished business with Fielder, but he didn't have the incentive to act upon it until Martinez tore that ligament in his knee.

And once that happened -- and once the dizziness wore off -- those competitive instincts kicked in.

"I've worked for good ownership before, believe me," Leyland said. "But I've never seen ownership like this, where it's, 'I want to win, I want this for the city of Detroit, and I'm willing to pay the freight.' It's unbelievable."

Come October, we'll find out if it was worth it.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.