Mike Ilitch, the former minor-league baseball player and U.S. Marine turned billionaire businessman and owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, died Friday at the age of 87.
The legacy Ilitch leaves behind is extraordinary in measure. He rose from humble beginnings on Detroit’s westside to iconic status in the food, entertainment and sports industries. But despite those successes he never achieved the goal many believe he coveted most: bringing a World Series winner to Detroit.
Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992, exactly 10 years after he purchased the Red Wings. But unlike the Stanley Cup trophy, which Ilitch’s Wings won four times during his tenure, the World Series trophy managed to elude him. The Tigers got painfully close twice, earning World Series bids in 2006 and 2012, but the fell short both times, leaving a baseball championship as the one dream he failed to realize.
Ilitch earned his fortune as the co-founder of Little Caesars pizza, along with wife Marian Ilitch. What started as a $10,000 startup in 1959 has since grown into a business empire, with annual revenues reaching $3.3 billion. Ilitch invested much of his money back into his community, building new stadiums for both of his franchises and even helping to restore the city’s iconic Fox Theatre.
He was also more than willing to open his checkbook to make sure the Tigers had the best roster possible. There were definitely some lean times along the way, which included having to rebuild from a disastrous 43-119 record in 2003. But Ilitch saw it through, helping to build and maintain a perennial contender that made the playoffs five times between 2006 and 2014.
Now, the Tigers are routinely among baseball’s highest-spending teams despite coming from a mid-sized market. That was all born from Ilitch’s commitment to his players — which includes franchise cornerstones Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander — and the fans. The goal was always to win a World Series, and the sadness that’s being felt right now is in some part fueled by the collective disappointment that he never attained it.
Jim Leyland, who managed the Tigers from 2006-2013, expressed that exact sentiment after learning the news on Friday.
Jim Leyland: "Everyone wanted that World Championship for one reason and that was to give it to Mike Ilitch."
— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) February 11, 2017
"That's the one thing we were always brokenhearted about," Leyland said about Ilitch. "That we didn't get that World Series for him."
— anthony fenech (@anthonyfenech) February 11, 2017
Leyland, like many others, formed a special bond with Ilitch that began with a business deal, but extended well beyond that as time passed. You don’t always find sports owners or billionaire businessmen willing to connect and invest on that level, but Ilitch never hid behind his fortune or allowed it to define him.
Instead, he used it to build relationships and help restore the fabric of his hometown. In that regard, Ilitch truly was a winner. He may not have lived to see a Tigers championship parade, but the day it happens will be just as much a celebration of his contributions to Detroit as the success of the Tigers.
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