Tigers owner Ilitch passes away at 87

February 10th, 2017

DETROIT -- The man behind the Tigers' turnaround from American League also-ran to two-time AL champion has passed. Mike Ilitch, the longtime team owner whose investment of financial might into the team 13 years ago spearheaded his quest for a World Series title, died Friday at age 87.

The son of Macedonian immigrants, a former Tigers Minor League player-turned-businessman, owner and arguably franchise savior, Ilitch lived an incredible rise, all in the city of Detroit. 

:: Mike Ilitch: 1929-2017 ::

"Heartbroken hearing of Mr I's passing," said in a tweet. "He was a family man. A self-made man. A giving man. An icon for our city and nation."

Ilitch's company, Ilitch Holdings Inc., confirmed the passing in a statement. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred also shared his condolences:

"Mike Ilitch was far more than a model owner of the Tigers franchise, the team he loved all his life and played for as a Minor Leaguer. He was also a fierce believer in his home city of Detroit, and the role that the Tigers and sports played in contributing to civic pride and renewal.

"Mr. Ilitch led a decorated life of service to his country, accomplishment in business and philanthropy in all of his endeavors. He was also extremely supportive of me both personally and professionally. On behalf of all of Major League Baseball and Mr. Ilitch's countless friends and admirers throughout the game, I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Marian and their entire family, the Tigers organization, their fans and his fellow citizens of Detroit."

The Tigers also issued a statement on Friday night.

"My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family," said Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. "He made such a positive impact in the world of sports, in business and in the community, and we will remember him for his unwavering commitment to his employees, his passion for Detroit, his generosity to others and his devotion to his family and friends.

"Together my family and the company celebrate the tremendous man he was, and we will continue to work hard to uphold his remarkable legacy. I'm honored to have had the opportunity to work with him to nurture and grow our businesses, but mostly, I'm grateful to have called him my Dad, and I know my siblings feel the same."

The Ilitch family will hold a private funeral service, according to a statement, but on Sunday announced a public visitation in the grand lobby of the Fox Theatre on Wednesday from noon to 8 p.m. ET.

A temporary public memorial will also be set up beginning Monday at 1 p.m. outside Comerica Park near the "Big Tiger" statue, where fans are invited to share memories and messages of condolence.

"To everyone who has so graciously remembered Mike Ilitch, we extend a heartfelt thank you," the family said in a statement. "The volume of condolences and kind wishes overwhelms us, and we appreciate it more than words can express. We know that he would've been touched by the outpouring of support, especially from this community that he so loved. We will miss him tremendously, and we are grateful, humbled and comforted to know that his lifetime was filled with well-lived moments."

Ilitch had owned the Tigers since 1992, when he took over a team with which he once signed as a Minor League player in the 1950s. However, he'll likely best be remembered in Tigers circles for his contributions over the last dozen years, when he followed up Detroit's AL record-setting 119-loss season in 2003 with an investment in free agents, player development and coaching that eventually helped turn a wayward franchise into a perennial contender and rekindled passion for the team in a historic baseball town.

"I've never seen a man more dedicated to this community and to baseball than Mr. I," Tigers executive vice president and general manager Al Avila said. "What he has done for this franchise, and for Detroit, is immeasurable. He was always there to give us whatever we needed because he wanted greatness and happiness for all of us -- especially the fans. Mr. I was truly one of the great ones. He was a friend and an inspiration and he will be deeply missed."

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus issued his own statement as well:

"I worked for Mr. I as both a player and as a manager. I can honestly say it was an honor to work for a man who made winning the priority. Baseball is a business, but Mr. I was a baseball player who became a businessman. He loved baseball, and my memories will always be centered around the passion with which he talked about it."

Ilitch's dedication to fielding a winner never did bring the owner his ultimate goal, a World Series trophy to add to the Stanley Cup titles he won as the longtime owner of the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings. It did, however, make the Tigers relevant in baseball circles once more.

"I think this team in general has an amazing amount of respect for Mr. Ilitch and what he's done, not only for this ballclub but also for the city," Verlander said after the Tigers reached the World Series in 2012. "If he didn't put this ballclub together, this wouldn't be happening, and it wouldn't be this way for the city right now.

"He's the best owner in baseball. He has spared no expense in putting together this team. He wants to win."

It took more than a decade for Ilitch to find that winning formula. In his first 10 years running the club, he became known for two major deeds. First, upon purchasing the club in 1992, Ilitch brought back Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, with whom the previous regime had unceremoniously parted ways a year earlier. Second, Ilitch put together a plan for a new ballpark, moving the team in 2000 from Tiger Stadium into Comerica Park behind more than 60 percent private financing.

From a civic standpoint, the new park became a major step behind downtown redevelopment, which soon after included the National Football League's Detroit Lions moving across the street into Ford Field. From a baseball perspective, the open outfield and less hitter-friendly dimensions were an adjustment for fans. In the standings, the Tigers continued to flounder, even in the first couple of years after Ilitch reached an agreement with Dave Dombrowski, previously of the Marlins, to run the team as president, CEO and eventually general manager.

"I remember he's told me all along, if there's one thing he really would love to have, it would be that World Series ring," Dombrowski said in 2012. "I remember we had that conversation 11 years ago when I joined the franchise."

That goal seemed farther away than ever in 2003. After that, Ilitch's commitment to rebuilding not only included his money, but his time. He became a personal recruiter for free agents, selling players on the promise that his team was going to win.

Ivan Rodriguez was one of the first players to hear about Ilitch's desire to win. He was a free-agent catcher coming off a World Series championship with the Marlins, lingering on the market late in the offseason, and he was listening to a pitch from an owner whose team was coming off 119 losses.

The image of the Tigers at the time was of a team going nowhere. At that point, the club's biggest move of Ilitch's tenure as owner was the ill-fated Juan Gonzalez trade, which set the Tigers farther back than it would move them forward.

"Before Pudge signed, he called me," agent Scott Boras said of Ilitch. "And he said, 'Look, we're going to have a new philosophy with this team. I want to talk to you about it. I want to let you know. I know you represent a lot of players. I want to talk to you about what my intentions are.' Because in the player community, Detroit was not on the map for the top players I represent."

Rodriguez's four-year, $40 million contract shocked baseball, but it put the Tigers on the map. In the decade since, with the Tigers' fortunes, it has become an example other struggling teams have tried to follow, and was brought up the winter after the 2013 season, when the Mariners signed .

"You realize a lot of people may have vision for things they do, but Mike truly had a vision for his passion, and it's obvious his passion was baseball," Boras said on Friday night. "I don't think I've ever seen an owner more excited about a player as he was when we brought 'Pudge' to Detroit, because he knew it was the start."

Rodriguez was the first of several signings for the Tigers, who used big money with their top Draft pick the next summer, the second pick overall, to draft a hard-throwing college pitcher named Verlander. Another top free agent and Boras client, Magglio Ordonez, signed the next winter, again with heavy recruitment from Ilitch. Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones signed a year after that.

"Mike took a lot of heat for those signings," Boras said.

In 2006, it paid off. Not only did the Tigers end a run of 12 consecutive losing seasons and 18 years without a postseason appearance, they made it to the World Series for the first time since 1984. Detroit went from owning the worst record in AL history to the top of the AL in just three seasons.

"We went from a team that was a bottom dweller and everybody laughed at to a serious contender every year," Verlander said a few years ago. "Even that year, everybody was writing us off at the halfway point: 'Ah, Detroit can't sustain this.' We did, and we went all the way to the World Series. Obviously, I think that put us on the map and made people want to come to Detroit. They saw us playing on TV, and they saw us in the postseason.

"Guys want to come play here now, and that has a lot to do with building a winning franchise. You have to have guys that want to come here. A lot of credit goes to Dave and Mr. Ilitch and all the front office, because they've done a heck of a job bringing the right pieces in here. You can't just bring in anybody."

The formula started with what worked for Ilitch with the Red Wings. He loved superstar players, and he knew fans loved to come see stars. That explains why, just over a year after celebrating an AL pennant, Ilitch pushed to acquire , leading Dombrowski to trade six prospects to the Marlins. Ilitch signed Cabrera a few months later to an eight-year, $153 million contract, one of the largest in the game at the time.

"The intellect here was ahead of the curve of Major League Baseball," Boras said. "Why? Because they traded [former first-round picks Cameron] Maybin and [Andrew] Miller for Miguel Cabrera. And then you get Miguel Cabrera here and you don't have to deal with him in the free-agent market. You keep him here."

Others followed. Ilitch authorized two lucrative extensions to keep Verlander, including a new contract a few years ago, and did the same with Cabrera with an eight-year, $240 million extension that raised the bar in the industry. When sustained a season-ending knee injury in winter workouts before the 2012 season, Ilitch authorized Dombrowski to sign to a nine-year, $214 million contract, putting a deal together in just a week.

The results didn't always work out as hoped, and the ultimate goal never came to fruition. The intentions, however, were clear. Though Ilitch had been less visible in recent years, he still held influence over his club, spearheading Avila's free-agent foray a year ago to sign outfielder and bolster the offense.

Even without a World Series, Ilitch leaves behind a legacy that includes four consecutive division titles for the Tigers for the first time in franchise history, as well as three consecutive AL Most Valuable Player Awards and two AL Cy Young Awards in three years. In the bigger picture, the Tigers are part of a downtown legacy Ilitch leaves in Detroit.

"He was a proud man," former manager Jim Leyland said, "and he was so proud of Detroit, and I think that's what sticks out in my mind. That was his baby, and he was bound and determined to make it a better place."

Ilitch also leaves behind an empire, from his pizza business to the Fox Theatre to the Red Wings and Tigers. For now, the day-to-day ownership responsibilities are expected to fall to his son, Chris, who has played an increasing role in the Tigers' operations in recent years and was identified as a successor by the family last year.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made to the Detroit Tigers Foundation, Ilitch Charities or the Detroit Red Wings Foundation.