He is behind everything – or maybe it just feels that way.
The Tigers. The Red Wings. The Fox. Downtown development.
But at 82, Mike Ilitch remains focused on a few dreams he has not yet achieved – including a World Series crown. A self-made man from Detroit, he says he keeps his feet on the ground by limiting his “sins” to a condo in Florida and an airplane. And it’s true, many less wealthy businessmen have more toys than he does.
But few people – even the ultra rich – give out nine-year, $214-million contracts like the one he gave Prince Fielder, and then admit “I’m always prepared for a bust.”
In a nearly two-hour conversation earlier this week, Ilitch patiently and cheerfully discussed everything from his hopes for a World Series title to his thoughts on mortality. Here are excerpts from that interview:
ON FIELDER, CABRERA, CONTRACTS AND BUSTS
Question: Do you ever get sticker shock with player contracts – like the one you just gave Prince Fielder?
Answer: It’s big numbers. Initially, they’re unrealistic numbers. But if you want stars, you gotta pay the price…. And fans want to see stars. They come out to see stars.
Does the gamble still make you nervous?
Well, there’s the business side and there’s the instinct side. The business side tells me (Fielder’s contract) might be a bit lengthy – he’ll be 36 at the end of it – but my instincts tell me, “Go ahead, Mike.” And I follow my instincts.
Do your instincts come more from a business sense or a baseball sense?
Well, that’s a good question. A combination of both, but I think it’s leaning more on the baseball.
Does Fielder have more attraction because of his dad and his history?
Yeah, and I understood him as a little kid. And I followed him very closely. We missed him by one pick (in the 2002 amateur draft). Milwaukee got him.
Would you have taken him then?
Oh, yeah. (Note: The Tigers instead took high school shortstop Scott Moore, who was included in a trade for pitcher Kyle Farnsworth before reaching the majors.)
When you’re dealing with a guy who’s gonna cost you so much money, do you insist on meeting privately and getting to know him before you make an offer?
Talking to Joe Dumars, he does that, he’s very thorough that way. But to be honest, like with Miguel Cabrera, I just followed him when he came into the league because I have a condo down there in Florida. I kept reading about him in the newspaper and was just totally impressed with this 20-year-old coming into the league and hitting over .300, hitting a bunch of home runs. So I pegged him. I told myself, “If that guy’s ever free, I’m gonna get him.”
You mean if he had played in Arizona or someplace where you didn’t have a condo and didn’t read about him, you might not have gone after him?
Nope. Not at all.
Wow. Did you talk to Cabrera before you offered him his contract (eight years, $152.3 million)?
Well, I have my people do that – scouts, general manager.
But you didn’t meet Cabrera before you’d acquired him?
Did you meet Fielder before?
So you’re basically meeting them at the press conferences?
Isn’t that a little strange, they’re gonna be with you for eight or nine years, all that money, and you’re just meeting them for the first time?
Yeah. That’s the risk. I’m thrilled to be getting (players) with such outstanding records. But … I’m always prepared for a bust. If I couldn’t handle it, I wouldn’t dive in.
Of all the players in both sports that you’ve signed, is there one that was the biggest bust?
(Pause.) Nobody jumps to mind.
How about Juan Gonzalez?
Oh, that was a farce. That was an embarrassment…. That was by far the worst one I was ever involved with.
ON AGE, ATTITUDE AND THE WORLD SERIES
Some say that, because of your age, you’re pulling out all the stops to win a World Series now – and that’s partly behind moves like Fielder’s contract.
Yeah, there’s truth to that. I want to do everything in my power to get the best shot, because time is running out. No use kidding myself.
How do you approach your own mortality?
Mortality. That’s a big word. I don’t think you should be in it (the business) if your mind’s not sharp. And when you get up in years, you might forget this or that, but if you’re in love with the sport, you remain very effective. And that’s how I judge myself. My mind is just like it was when I started in this business.
Have you contemplated when, if ever, you would turn the reins of your teams over?
Yeah. If I’m just sitting around, not playing a role. If I don’t have the energy.
Would you turn them over to one of your children?
Well, it can go a lot of different ways. I really don’t want to get into that. But I know it’s close by.
But for now, you feel as good as ever?
Yeah. The only difference is I don’t run into the locker room full fire, I don’t grab people and get really excited with them. I’m laid back in that area.
You used to do that more?
I’ll give you an example. Back in the ’90s, there was an owner in hockey that was giving me a hard time. And we were gonna play his team that night. So I go in the locker room, and I told the guys, “If there’s ever a game I want you to win, it’s tonight. This guy is not a good guy. He doesn’t think much of me or our team. So I want you guys to go out and give him a lesson.”
They went out and skated their asses off. We won. Big.
Did you thank them afterward?
This was just a regular-season game?
Yeah. Regular season. But you know… after that incident, I kind of changed. I told myself I’m not gonna pop off. I’m not gonna challenge anybody. I’m not (to) get into it with other teams. You know. Just be quiet. I had one of those instincts that if you don’t do that, you’re not gonna be successful.
Do you ever find yourself biting your tongue with how you’re portrayed in the media?
Oh, yeah. ‘Cause when somebody knocks you and it’s not true…. But I’ve told a few of my people, don’t push yourself with the media. Because they’re very bright and they’ll size you up quickly as far as your intents.
Are you of the Henry Ford II philosophy, “Never complain, never explain”?
Yeah, I am. It’s worked out good for me. The only negative is when I’m hit with “recluse.”
That bothers you?
Well, I didn’t like the word.
How many Wings and Tigers games do you go to these days?
About 90% of them.
So you’re not a recluse, you’re just not in front of the microphone or cameras?
OFF-FIELD INCIDENTS, PARITY AND CHANGE
Are you disappointed when players have off-field incidents like Cabrera had recently or Bob Probert had years ago?
Yeah, well, I had a lot of experience with people like that Probert and Petr Klima. I’d sit them down like a father and lecture them. You think that, because you own the team, you have a certain amount of respect…. But one of those sessions, I was in my suite with Klima and Probert and I happened to reach back for something and I turned around and they’re smirking. I mean, I’m not even close to getting through to them. And that was quite a session for me. I finally woke up and said it takes a heck of a lot more than you to keep these guys in line.
Is there just too much money and temptation out there?
Yeah. I can’t control people’s bad habits. I can’t control their staying out late.
Did you give up on trying after that incident?
Pretty much. I really did. I learned to use people around me, like Willie Horton. He becomes familiar with anybody we have, he likes people…. He’s been priceless in that area.
So when an incident happens like the one with Cabrera, you’ll rely on someone like Willie Horton because you feel you personally may not make that much of a difference?
Right. Maybe one in five times, you’ll be effective. But the other four times, they’ll look at you like…
Like you’re trying to be their dad?
Is one sport more difficult for you to watch in the playoffs – baseball or hockey?
I think hockey. There’s a little more luck to it. You know, a puck goes off a skate, off a shoulder, off a mask. You never know what’s gonna happen in hockey.
And they’re usually close games.
Especially now. You talk about parity. Mr. Bettman got his parity – deluxe.
Are you happy about that (the NHL’s salary-cap limitations)?
No, I’m not…. I loved going out and getting players. And I don’t like the shoot-out, either. To me, that’s not hockey.
ON THE WINGS, YZERMAN AND INJURIES
How do you feel about the Wings’ playoff chances?
Well, we’ve never had an injury-prone situation as big as this year. It’s just wiped us out. We’re really the Griffins playing out there now.
And the goalie situation isn’t good.
No, it’s not…. But you can’t figure it. Nobody figures goalies out….And what we’ve gone through. I mean, we’re 23 straight wins (at home) and it looks like you’re unbeatable, and then you’re walking on crutches.
You must hate to pick up the phone at this time of year if somebody’s calling and it’s an injury.
You know what? Piet Van Zant is our trainer. I think he almost OD’d on me. (Laughs.) I’m always calling him.
Staying on hockey, with Steve Yzerman’s new career in Tampa, do you ever look back and feel badly that he wasn’t able to stay with the Wings?
Yeah….When he came to tell us he was gonna leave, in that room right there, he said, “Where’s Mrs. Ilitch?” And I said, “She’s in the back. She can’t handle this. She’ll start to cry.” I could see it kind of jolted him, it was that emotional. It was a shock because we all thought he was gonna stay here. But then things changed. He decided he wanted to be a GM.
Did you feel he owed you a little more time here?
Not really. It’s just kind of like your daughter getting married or someone leaving the family. You’re so attached.
Do you think he may end up back with this organization one day?
You never know. He’s such a superstar. I think what amazed me most about Steve Yzerman is how he performed on a body that was broken. He went through all that pain so he could continue his career.
ON DETROIT, A NEW ARENA AND LIFELONG DREAMS
What are your thoughts on what’s happening in the city right now?
Well, I just know the business people. The business people are ready to have a real effect in the city – if they straighten out the government. But for us to interfere with the government – that’s their job. So we have to sit on the sidelines. But from a business standpoint, the city is going to improve.
What about your new hockey arena?
It’s gonna get done…. It’s gonna be downtown. I don’t know if I’ll see it built, but it’ll get done. Definitely in the next few years. We’ve invested a lot of money in it already.
With all the success you’ve had, how do you keep your feet on the ground?
Well, what happened to me was I got into some businesses not knowing a whole lot more than projecting a few years ahead. And then, like some other businesses you read about, you hit a point, you take off, and there’s success that you didn’t contemplate.
Beyond your wildest dreams?
So how do you stay “normal”?
Well, being here (in Detroit). And being regular. And the only sins you got is an airplane and a condo in Florida. Period. I don’t have six houses around the world. Don’t lead that life. I’ve seen people who are not anywhere near as successful as we are and they’ve got all these things I can’t imagine. Holy cripes. I couldn’t handle that. It’s too much.
Can you put into words what a World Series championship would mean to you?
I don’t want to make a big deal of it. But I think, by my actions, it’s pretty obvious.
And seeing as you began as a baseball player, would it be a culmination of a childhood dream?
Oh, yeah. That would be completing a dream. (He smiles.) I would say that’s as high as you can get.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).