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Ilitch's passion apparent in Tigers' upgrades

MLB.com Columnist

If you're an uncommitted fan, and if you're looking for somebody to hug this season, why not Mike Ilitch of the Tigers?

Between selling pizza and running the Detroit Red Wings, Ilitch has owned the Tigers since 1992. He's now 86, and he remains wonderfully obsessed with grabbing a fifth World Series championship for the Tigers and their first in 32 years.

If you're an uncommitted fan, and if you're looking for somebody to hug this season, why not Mike Ilitch of the Tigers?

Between selling pizza and running the Detroit Red Wings, Ilitch has owned the Tigers since 1992. He's now 86, and he remains wonderfully obsessed with grabbing a fifth World Series championship for the Tigers and their first in 32 years.

Gene Autry's Angels never won the ultimate prize, but they kept trying, and they came close a couple of times during the 1980s. Through it all, much of the nation pulled in vain for The Singing Cowboy to ride into the sunset with a World Series ring on his finger. Then there was 2009, when the Yankees sought to win one for The Boss, and they did. With even some pinstripe bashers wiping away tears, the Yankees gave George Steinbrenner a seventh World Series championship under his ownership before he died nine months later.

Ilitch, while serving as owner, has four Stanley Cup championships with the Red Wings compared to four American League Central titles, two AL pennants and zero World Series championships with the Tigers. He wants the latter to change to at least one sooner rather than later, and given his commitment to the Tigers, the city of Detroit and baseball, he deserves it.

So where should we start listing the reasons for promoting an unofficial Mike Ilitch fan club? Actually, this will do: Justin Upton. As guardian of the deadliest bat for a free agent this offseason, he had his pick of landing spots for next season and beyond. Among those who desperately wanted Upton's considerable skills were the Nationals, especially since they are moving from championship contender toward something even better.

Detroit is also in that category. Which meant this was basically a tossup for Upton: Tigers or Nationals? Since he spent his nine years in the Major Leagues in the National League with the D-backs, Braves and Padres, logic would say he'd lean more toward the Nats.

It's just that logic doesn't involve feelings. As soon as Upton huddled in his Arizona home last week with the elite of the Tigers' decision-making team, his mouth joined his gut to say he was bound for Michigan.

"I think what sold me mostly is Mr. Ilitch is a guy who wants to win ballgames, wants to win a championship," said Upton on Wednesday in Detroit during his introductory news conference.

There was similar praise for Ilitch from Al Avila, when the Tigers' general manager discussed with reporters the essence of Upton's six-year deal worth nearly $133 million.

"I want to thank the guy that made all of this happen, Mr. Ilitch," Avila said. "Mr. I was the driving force here, and a big, big thanks to him for putting this team back in championship-caliber competition."

To translate, Ilitch is doing whatever it takes these days to spend late October and early November watching folks throughout his hometown of Detroit live the words of that old Motown hit song -- you know, "Dancing in the Streets." He said during a recent gathering of reporters that he told Avila, manager Brad Ausmus and the rest of his lieutenants, "I don't care about the money. I want the best players, and that's all."

Ilitch is serious. For the first time, the Tigers will pay baseball's luxury tax, and it wasn't just because of the Upton signing. In November, they added their first $100 million man of the offseason when they grabbed starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann as a free agent. He'll strengthen a Detroit rotation led by Justin Verlander, a former AL Cy Young Award winner with six trips to the All-Star Game and a charter membership in the Mike Ilitch fan club.

Just this week, Verlander tweeted, "I hope everyone appreciates what a great owner Mr. Ilitch is!! This is the year! #tigers #2016."

Tweet from @JustinVerlander: I hope everyone appreciates what a great owner Mr. Illitch is!! This is the year! #tigers #2016

If this is the Year of the Tigers, it's not because Ilitch just started his World Series-championship push. He provided the resources and the mindset long ago to build one of baseball's most ferocious batting lineups. They have the incomparable Miguel Cabrera in the middle of it all, and he can hit for power and average with consistency. Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez are accomplished sluggers. Elsewhere, Ian Kinsler isn't an afterthought at the plate (.296 batting average last year with 11 home runs and 73 RBIs), and Cameron Maybin was traded from Atlanta to Detroit after his 2015 season produced 23 stolen bases and career highs in homers (10) and RBIs (59).

Now the Tigers have added Upton, with his 190 career home runs at 28 and his ability to produce an average of 84 RBIs per season.

That's splendid, but as is the case with most teams, pitching will determine much of the Tigers' fate. In addition to Zimmermann, they signed Mike Pelfrey to join holdovers Anibal Sanchez, Daniel Norris and Verlander in the rotation. Their historically troubled bullpen also is improved after ranking 27th last season with a 4.38 ERA. Detroit acquired new setup men Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson, and new closer Francisco Rodriguez, who has led the AL in saves three times and has won the award for the league's top reliever twice.

Still, Ilitch wanted something else to help the Tigers' chances of winning the last game of the upcoming baseball season.

"[Ilitch] called me several times and said, 'I'm worried about the offense,'" Avila said during the Upton news conference, recalling multiple conversations with his boss from just before Christmas through the new year. "I said, 'Well, Mr. Ilitch, I'm trying to tweak it.' He said, 'Well, I appreciate you trying to tweak it, but I want more than a tweak.'"

By now, you know what Ilitch wants.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Detroit Tigers