He gets the glove back now. Thirty-eight years after he put it in the closet and decided that playing baseball was not going to pay the rent and maybe he should try this pizza thing — 38 years later — Mike Ilitch is finally back in the game. Better. He’s in the big leagues. Thank you, fate. We owe you one. It was a good day for baseball around here Tuesday, the day the ownership committee recommended Ilitch to be the new boss of the Tigers. Now maybe we can think about this franchise without throwing up. Ilitch, a one-time minor-league ballplayer who now owns the Red Wings, Little Caesars and the Fox Theatre, has proven himself a low-key, thoughtful, sometimes even visionary man. He will be many things as Tigers owner — most of them good, I believe — but one thing he won’t be is Tom Monaghan. Not in pizza. Not in sauce. Not in style.
So you like him already.
Although Ilitch, shy by nature, was reluctant to talk like an owner until he gets the final approval — attention, baseball: I had to twist his arm for this interview, so he respects you, believe me — we did speak about his reasons for this purchase, his thoughts on the state of the game, Cecil Fielder, what really went on with this Bo Schembechler-Jim Campbell deal, and his hopes for the future of the Tigers.
Here is some of that conversation, in his words. Because, as the guy who finally gets the glove back, I think he says it best.
Q: Why are you buying this team?
A: I’m doing it because I was swinging a bat before I learned my ABC’s. Baseball was something I did for the first half of my life, something I wanted to do always, my only real desire and goal in life.
Q: Do you feel you’re completing something you started as a player?
A: Well, when I didn’t succeed at the major league level, that’s something that stays with you the rest of your life. To have the opportunity to come back and perhaps restore the aura of what I consider one of the best franchises in the country, that’s something, yes.
Q: Let’s straighten out the Bo Schembechler-Jim Campbell situation. What happened with all that — and was any of it your doing?
A: Oh, no. Right from the start, Tom’s lawyers and people told us, “Bo Schembechler is going to leave and Jim Campbell is going to retire.” It was never something I asked for.
I was kind of surprised, to be honest. My first reaction was, “I guess those guys don’t want any part of this new administration.”
Q: Are you saying you actually felt rejected by their leaving?
A: Maybe, a little bit. But I just reorganized my thinking.
Q: Some people thought you might be happy that Campbell was leaving because he was instrumental in helping Monaghan — and not you — buy the team in 1983.
A: That is so false. At the time, I only had one discussion with Jim. . . .
We always got along. I got invitations to the Tigers party every year. We never had a harsh word.
Q: Did you think of asking Campbell to stay around, maybe as an adviser?
A: I never got the chance to do that. I was told right from the start he was retiring, so I began laying groundwork for a new approach.
Q: Did this deal with Monaghan ever come close to collapsing?
A: Oh, it was off and on three or four times. They weren’t gonna budge, then we said forget it, then they said forget it.
Q: What were you disagreeing over?
A: Price. Mostly it was about price.
Q: Did you ever deal with Monaghan face-to-face?
A: No. We never talked face-to-face.
Q: Even the actual signing of papers?
A: That’s being done with messengers back and forth.
Q: What type of owner do you think you’ll be?
A: The other owners asked me about that. I told them I was gonna be very active, very involved, highly focused, really on top of it. I’ll be running this team, period.
Q: Paying baseball players isn’t like paying hockey players. Wayne Gretzky is the highest-paid hockey player, and he makes only an average pitcher’s income in baseball. Do you have enough money to handle all this — and the Red Wings?
A: (Embarrassed laugh.) I wouldn’t have gotten into the big leagues if I couldn’t play in the big leagues, let’s put it that way. I’m not gonna say I’ll go nuts and buy three or four free agents right away, but in the next breath I’ll say I don’t want to just be competitive.
Q: How about Cecil Fielder? Would re-signing him be a priority?
A: I think that’s pretty obvious. I think anyone in their right mind would tell you that.
Q: Sparky Anderson?
A: I haven’t had any thoughts on Sparky yet. If I get the team, I’m gonna sit down and make some judgments.
Q: Are you looking to move the Tigers?
A: No. My goal is to keep them in Detroit.
Q: How about Tiger Stadium? You told me once before you were basing your purchase on the team playing at Tiger Stadium.
A: That’s right. My purchase is not predicated on a new stadium. That wouldn’t be smart. I mean, even if they started to build one right now, it wouldn’t be ready for several years. So I had to make my decision to buy strictly on that stadium right there — in case nothing else happens.
Q: What about a new stadium?
A: Well, the way I’m answering that is I can’t say, until I make an analysis of every situation that’s brought to my attention. I have to look at all the plans that have been done, the Cochrane plan, the Fox site; I’ve heard the governor talking about an Eight Mile Road site. So I don’t know. It’s not fair to ask me now, because this thing isn’t even final yet.
Q: Assuming you are approved by, say, mid-September, will you bring in your own baseball people this year?
A: Yes. I’d move right in and start to do some of the basic things I’ve got to do, some of the foundation planning, and I’ll bring somebody, my baseball people, in this year.
But you know, I gotta find out from baseball yet what I can do. This still is not a done deal, I have to emphasize that, until they all vote on me.
Q: What would be your top priorities as a new owner?
A: I’ve got a lot of ideas in my head. Basically I see three categories. 1) The fans. 2) The team. 3) The facilities and the future.
My immediate task right now would be to deal with the fans. First, I have to please them. Second, I have to excite them. Third, I have to earn their respect.
Q: How do you do that?
A: I have to make the place fun; I mean, really fun. They have to look forward to wanting to come to the games. They have to feel excited to see the event, excited to see the facility and the surrounding area. I want them to come down next year and say, “Oh, look at this, look at that, this has been changed, that’s been changed, this is brighter,” you know, things like that.
I want them to be prouder, I guess.
Q: When you purchased the Red Wings, you called your family together and celebrated with a little toast. Have you done anything like that with the Tigers purchase?
A: No, not yet. Maybe when it’s finally approved.
Q: And if — and when — it is?
A: I’m fired up. I’m ready to go.