On Tuesday, the Tigers lost their president. Sounds bad, huh?
Well, before you draw any conclusions, answer this simple question: Who was their last president?
No, Bill Clinton is incorrect.
The last president of the Tigers was Mike Ilitch. He is also the owner — and he was then, too. Ilitch handed the reins to John McHale in 1995. McHale left Tuesday to join the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as chief operating officer.
Don’t be shocked if Ilitch takes the reins back.
“It’s possible, I could,” Ilitch admitted in a conversation Tuesday. Does this mean, as some people are suggesting, that the Tigers are difficult to work for
— unless your last name is Ilitch?
Does it mean the Tigers are somehow reeling, dazed and confused, a headless organization?
Once again, before you judge, answer a simple question: What does a Tigers president do?
No. Renting out the Lincoln bedroom is incorrect.
The fact is, president of a baseball team is not a clear-cut job. It means different things in different franchises. In days gone by, when Jim Campbell was Tigers president, the job pretty much meant day-to-day control of the team.
When Bo Schembechler became president of the Tigers — under owner Tom Monaghan — being president meant importing a new attitude and expanding the scouting and player development.
But by the time McHale got the post, the job had changed. Being president was mostly about one thing: getting a new stadium built.
And outta here.
The owner and the GM
“I got a call from Bud Selig asking if John could be interviewed for the Tampa situation,” Ilitch told me Tuesday. “They have a serious problem down there, and John has been fairly involved in not just the Tigers but the whole league. I know Bud thinks a lot of him. So I said it was all right.”
There’s a reason for that. With Comerica Park built, McHale’s primary work here was done. The day-to-day baseball operations are mostly handled now by general manager Randy Smith and Ilitch himself.
That leaves McHale — whose father played for the Tigers and was in the front office for years — with plenty of nostalgia but not much work.
Combine that with the fact that Tampa Bay, a mess of a franchise, remains a critical region for major league baseball (some are wondering now if a franchise can even be supported there) and you understand why McHale, a good baseball soldier, would take the Tampa Bay position when the commissioner wanted him to do so.
So much for McHale. We wish him well.
The larger question in Detroit remains: Is there, as some keep suggesting, a problem working for the Tigers, who under Ilitch can’t seem to win, can’t generate much excitement, and don’t want to dive into the free-spending free-agent markets?
Ilitch balks at the idea.
“It’s funny, you don’t hear a peep about that with the Red Wings,” he said. “I think baseball is a lot tougher, there are more traditions, more expectations, more media — and it’s all a lot harder when you’re not performing.
“But I employ 6,000 people and have eight different corporations. I don’t think there’s any difficulty working for the Ilitches.”
The owner and the fans
It’s worth remembering that Ilitch, a one-time minor-leaguer, bought the Tigers with his heart, not his calculator. He has said many times that if he knew it were going to be like this, he might never have done it.
Combine that with his age, his desire to slow down and his desire to turn the businesses over to his children — who are admittedly learning as they go along — and you have a tinderbox for grumbling and griping whenever things aren’t going well.
“It’s funny,” Ilitch said, “last year I was talking to the guy who owns the Houston Astros, and he said ‘Mike, I’m getting crucified in Houston for being cheap.’ I tried to cheer him up. Offered him a little advice.
“And now here I am, one year later, getting a lot of the same thing.”
Of course, in baseball today, the difference between being cheap and being a fool is one overpriced free-agent pitcher. But know this: McHale’s departure isn’t about money. And the Tigers’ mediocrity isn’t solely due to dollars invested.
“It’s not like we have a chicken feed payroll,” Ilitch said. “We made some moves that didn’t work out. We tried the (Juan) Gonzalez thing. We made some mistakes. But I’m learning here. I know you have to add a free agent or two if you want to stay up there.”
Ilitch and Smith will be contemplating that alone for the near future. No immediate replacement for McHale is on the burner. And when I asked Ilitch if he felt he needed to hire somebody, he chuckled.
“Well, I don’t want to get accused of being too cheap to pay for a president.”
Funny. The people sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom never said that.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.