When the Tigers open their season this week, fans will look to centerfield at Comerica Park and see the greenery, the flagpoles and the giant fountain. And, as usual, every time there’s a Detroit home run, those fountains will erupt.
That spot, in the stadium business, is what they call prime real estate. Companies pay big money to have their logo smack dab in the middle, so that every time fans gaze out there, the brand is what they see.
For the last few years, General Motors has sponsored that fountain, and paid a substantial fee to do so. This season, with all that has happened in the auto business, GM’s folks called the Tigers and said, regretfully, they could no longer afford it. Given the layoffs, the bailouts, the threat of bankruptcy, well, owning centerfield was too great a luxury.
GM had to step aside.
Which is when Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ owner, stepped in.
There were other bidders. Other offers. Who wouldn’t want that real estate? A deal of three years worth between $1.5 million and $2 million was on the table.
Ilitch said no thanks.
He was going to give it away.
Or maybe “give it back” is a better way of putting it. Chalk up an outfield assist
“It just seems strange to have the car companies in trouble,” he told me this past week. “The Big Three, where would this city be without them? I mean, my father came from the old country and got a job at Ford’s. It put food on our table.
“It’s scary to think that any of those carmakers could go away.”
So Ilitch told his people to thank the potential paying customers, but to say that the centerfield fountain this year was spoken for. It would be the feature site for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
Not one penny.
“It’s just a small opportunity to respond to what’s happening,” Ilitch said, embarrassed by the attention.
There’s nothing small about it.
Every business has been affected by the collapsing economy; baseball teams are no exception. Walking away from a couple million dollars is not considered a wise financial move. Who turns away paying customers?
In this case, Ilitch did.
Because sometimes it’s about the where and the who, not just the how much. A message from the ballclub
“I thought for a few weeks before deciding,” Ilitch admitted. “I didn’t want to offend anybody. I didn’t want to put off the foreign carmakers. And I didn’t want people to think we couldn’t sell the fountain. As a businessman, you do worry about those things.
“But I finally said, ‘The heck with it.’ I want to do something to help.”
So starting with the home opener this Friday afternoon, the Chrysler, General Motors and Ford logos will be on an equal plane above the fountain. And beneath those logos will be a few new words:
“The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”
It may be as close to a social statement as centerfield has ever made.
Visitors in Detroit for this weekend’s Final Four may think our small, thriving downtown looks a lot like other cities’ downtowns. But there is something different beneath the surface.
Here, we construct in the face of adversity. We build on hope. Pure investors will tell you a city with rampant unemployment, enormous budget shortfalls, a troubled school system and a laughable city council is not a place to put your money. We do it anyhow.
We do it because we love our past and we believe in our future. We do it because the alternative would be to close shop altogether. We do it because last week there were stories about the gleaming new Yankee Stadium, which cost $1.5 billion and has seats as high as $2,625 a game – and here is Ilitch giving away his fountain for free.
Detroit may be the new home of the bumpy ride, but as the Three Musketeers once discovered, it’s a little smoother when you grab hands with others. Think about that the next time a home run sends that fountain shooting up to those logos. Sometimes it really is all for one and one for all.
“I didn’t want to offend anybody. I didn’t want to put off the foreign carmakers. And I didn’t want people to think we couldn’t sell the fountain. … You do worry about those things.”MIKE ILITCH, Tigers owner since 1992
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).