ILITCH AND TIGERS: CLOSE TO DONE DEAL

I’m back. And I have good news. The Tigers will soon have a new owner: Mike Ilitch. He will buy the team. The deal will be in cash, the $80-85 million range. Ilitch is the man. No partners involved. The money is in escrow, and Tom Monaghan is mulling over the offer. Maybe he has even given his OK by now. If not, I know a lot of people willing to camp outside his window chanting, “SIGN IT, TOM! SIGN IT!”

Anyhow, this is good news, because Ilitch truly cares about Detroit. He has experience owning a pro sports team — even though hockey players never felt anything as heavy as a baseball player’s wallet — and besides, Ilitch doesn’t blow his money on cars and antique chairs. If things go the way he’d like, Ilitch would get the thumbs-up from baseball by early September.

And he might even leave the Tigers at Tiger Stadium — at least for a while.

“It’s pretty involved,” Ilitch told me. “I don’t want to talk like an owner because the deal isn’t finalized. But I’m optimistic.”

We should be, too. For one thing, Ilitch does not make many foolish business decisions. He turned Little Caesars into a gold mine. He turned the Fox Theatre from dust to dollars. He turned the Red Wings into the most valuable franchise in the NHL. If he thinks the Tigers can float, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. Wouldn’t you?

And by the way, the deal is not contingent on a new stadium. When I asked him point blank, Ilitch said his offer “was based on Michigan and Trumbull,” not some Never-Never Land stadium.

“You can’t assume people would vote for a new stadium anyhow, given today’s

economic environment,” he said. “To base my offer on that would have been a bad business decision.”

And like I said, the man doesn’t make many of those.

Sure, he’d like new stadium

Of course, Ilitch would prefer a new stadium, most likely by his beloved theater district. And his Joe Louis Arena business staff is already buzzing about what they would do with a baseball team.

“I expect we would oversee marketing, facilities, tickets and TV/radio elements,” said Jim Lites, executive vice- president of the Red Wings.

But leave that for the future.

Buying the team is difficult enough.

This has been a crazy process, with more bad rumors than an Elvis sighting. Forget that meeting with the governor or Joel Ferguson in Lansing. Here were the real holdups:

First, the price tag. It’s not cheap. It proved too steep for Edsel Ford, and he has more money than everyone I know put together — except, obviously, Ilitch.

Second, the issue of who’s going to run the club until the egocentric baseball owners get around to approving the new guy — which could take months. As part of the deal, Ilitch’s people wanted their own man in Tiger Stadium, to keep an eye on things until their boss was approved. Understandable. You drop $80 million on a new house, you want to make sure the old tenants don’t trash the place before you move in. And Monaghan was ready to let an Ilitch camper set up shop — right next to Bo Schembechler’s office.

But Schembechler is not a man who breaks the rules. He pointed out that baseball would not allow an employee from a prospective buyer to work in the front office unless his boss already owned the team. Hey. What if the deal fell through? The guy could have copied all your papers!

Bo was right.

Which makes Ilitch even more eager to get this thing done quickly. The owners are scheduled to meet Sept. 9, and after that, Dec. 9. If Ilitch can’t get himself approved by the September meeting, he’d be looking at sitting on the sidelines through October and November, while players become free agents, teams make trades, and other clubs pass him by. If you know Ilitch, you know that’s not his style.

So what to do? Ilitch is hoping Monaghan says OK in a matter of days — maybe hours — and that the ownership committee (a group of eight) recommends him to the ownership at large in a matter of weeks.

He might be disappointed. Baseball moves at its own pace — the word snail comes to mind — and the owners could drag their feet until December. Then what?

Monaghan could try and smooth things for Ilitch by putting an Ilitch guy on his payroll to oversee things. But what would he do with Schembechler, the president? He could fire him — and I wouldn’t put it past Monaghan. But he’d have to, because Bo — as much as he has become disillusioned with his situation — will never quit. He is not a quitter. He’ll work with new owners, guard their interests, but he will not roll over for a bogus substitute.

And if they try to fire him, I don’t want to be in the room. Best thing for the Tigers

So they have to work all this out. My sources say Ilitch feels they will. He is not worried about owning two sports teams in one town: it’s allowed. As for the financial strain, I asked Ilitch, as bluntly as I could, if he had the money for all this?

“Yeah, I’m OK,” he said, sheepishly. Which means he does.

For the sake of the Tigers, you have to be relieved. Lord knows they need help. Mostly, they need an owner who makes them a top priority — and Monaghan hasn’t been that in a long time. I have never been in a city — except New York — where the owner has so turned off the fans that they they actually don’t go to games because they can’t stomach the idea of giving him money.

Thankfully, that should disappear with Ilitch, who is well- liked for his dedication to Detroit and his reputation for hiring good people and leaving them to run things. Because he is a nice man, I am not sure I would wish a baseball team on him — I am not sure I would wish a baseball team on my worst enemy — but hey. If he wants to take a stab, why not?

And he will. Could be today, tomorrow, next week, but this bird is cooked. It would take a roof collapse by Monaghan to kill it now.

So that’s the news. A new boss for the Tigers. Watch the papers for details. And if Monaghan drags his feet on this thing, remember . . .

You can always go chant outside his window.

SLICE OF LIFE

* WHO: Mike Ilitch.
* AGE: Turns 63 on Monday.
* BACKGROUND: Born to Macedonian immigrants and raised on Detroit’s west side.

Graduated from Cooley High. Spent four years in Marines.
* PERSONAL: Wife Marian, seven grown children.
* ATHLETICS: Played shortstop in Tigers’ farm system, 1952-54.
* BUSINESS: Opened Little Ceasars Pizza restaurant in Garden City in 1959. Opened another two years later. Now nearly 4,000 outlets in all 50 states, Canada, England and Puerto Rico. Other businesses include Fox Theatre and management of Joe Louis and Cobo arenas.
* SPORTS: Purchased Red Wings from Bruce Norris on June 22, 1982. Owns Adirondack Red Wings, the Wings’ top farm team, and Detroit Drive of Arena Football League.
* CHARITY: 10,000 youngsters participate annually in Ilitch- sponsored hockey, softball, baseball and soccer leagues, camps and special events. Two restaurants on wheels have fed 700,000 homeless and hungry across U.S.
* AWARDS: Business Statesman Award from Harvard Business School Club of Detroit for leadership and performance. Joe Louis Award from Sports Illustrated and DIA for community work. March of Dimes Humanitarian of the Year. National Preservation Award for restoring Fox Theatre.

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