He was always more crust than sauce, a hardworking pizza magnate with a showman’s instincts and a shortstop’s energy, all tucked beneath a layer of shyness and wonder. No matter how rich he got, Mike Ilitch approached each new challenge like a kid spying a baseball field for the first time. A few years back, when he was 82, I asked him how he viewed his mortality.
“’Mortality,’” he said, a smile cracking his face, “that’s a big word.”
And the only big thing he couldn’t tame.
Say good-bye to Mr. I. No one outskates the clock in this life, and Ilitch’s time came to an end Friday, at 87, after several years of shaky health. Although his billionaire empire — two major sports teams, a massive food business, theaters, stadiums, entertainment venues and a stream of charities — was enormous, Ilitch himself seemed to wither toward the end, battling health issues, his face gaunter, his suits hanging looser, as if the air were slowly escaping from his joyous balloon.
Still, if anyone defined Rudyard Kipling’s famous suggestion to “fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run,” it was one Michael Ilitch, the son of Macedonian immigrants and the father to a Detroit legacy. It speaks volumes that a man who never hit a ball or stopped a puck professionally is being mourned today like the biggest sports hero in the city.
Say good-bye to Mr. I. The irony of his nickname is that there was rarely a team owner less about ego. He didn’t get into sports to make himself famous, to roam the sidelines or hang in the locker room. Heck, Ilitch didn’t even like sitting next to anyone at playoff games, preferring to clench his water bottle alone, his heart racing like the fan he’d always been.
Now that seat will forever be empty.
Not like other owners
Where do you start to describe his influence? You could dive in a lot of places: his business world (a single pizza franchise to a multinational chain), his charity world (from mobile kitchens to youth hockey), his deep investment in Detroit real estate (from blocks to buildings, when such investment seemed foolish).
Still, if you spun the dial and it landed on “sports” I’d say you begin not with his four Stanley Cups or two World Series appearances, not with his arenas and stadiums, but with how much he put into building his teams — and how little he put into annoying them. Many owners are caricatures, rich men needing headlines to validate their success. They find the mike. They pound their fists.
Ilitch ruled two franchises with less than half the ego of men who run one.
“Back in the 1990s, there was an owner in hockey that was giving me a hard time,” he once told me. “And we were gonna play his team that night. So I go into the locker room and I told the guys, ‘If there’s ever a game I want you to win it’s tonight. … I want you guys to go out and (teach) him a lesson.'”
The Wings won big. They “skated their asses off,” Ilitch recalled. But it wasn’t satisfying. He felt sheepish and small.
After that, he said, he changed his attitude. No more locker rooms. No more acting like a coach. His instincts told him “stop.” And believe me, getting an owner to stop interfering is a hundred times harder than getting him to start.
An imprint on the city
About that instinct. It was his North Star, his sailor’s compass. Ilitch’s face might have been more distinctive, but his gut was his most important feature. He followed it like Dorothy’s red shoes, even if the road was, at times, more bumpy stones than yellow brick.
Pizza was not a “smart” investment when he got into it in the late 1950s. But something told him to keep digging deeper. The Red Wings were not a smart investment in 1982 (be honest: They were the laughingstock of the NHL), but something told Ilitch there was a treasure under that ice, and his paltry $8-million investment has escalated to a team worth more than $1 billion.
Certainly, refurbishing the Fox was not a prudent move, not in the 1980s. He did it anyhow, to create a jewel that became a maypole of the surging Woodward Corridor.
And let’s never forget. For a while, Mike Ilitch kept the lights on in our city. These days it’s vogue to invest in Detroit. Ilitch did it when it was not. He did it when it was crazy. There were years when it felt as if Ilitch were lighting candles in a graveyard.
Not anymore. There’s Comerica Park. There’s Little Caesars’ headquarters and Olympia Entertainment. There’s Hockeytown Café and the City Theatre. And even as you read this, cranes and heavy equipment surround the rising of Ilitch’s final palace, Little Caesars Arena, something he dreamed of years ago, knowing full well, as he told me, “I don’t know if I’ll see it get built, but it’s gonna get done.”
There should be something named in his honor at that arena. Because later this year, when they open the doors, there’s gonna be an invisible hole smack in the heart of it.
Say good-bye to Mr. I.
A man for his players
Players. Let’s talk about his players. Any rich man can sign star athletes. They smile when you hand them the check and let the door hit you when they split for greener pastures.
Not with Ilitch. When Steve Yzerman, for example, decided to break out on his own, he felt compelled to first visit the Ilitches at their home and explain himself. It was so emotional, Ilitch told me, that his wife, Marian, couldn’t come out of a back room because she’d start to cry.
Over the years, so many coaches and players have checked in with Mr. I, both coming and going, you’d have thought he was running Passport Control. But it’s a mark of respect, and they all had it for him, just as Ilitch had it for so many of them, never making athletes feel like puppets because he signed their checks.
Don’t misunderstand. He could feel slighted. Loyalty mattered to Ilitch only marginally less than it mattered in “The Godfather.” The departures of Dave Dombrowski and Prince Fielder carried overtones of Ilitch disappointment. And he once told me that he felt like a fool trying to counsel the oft-troubled Bob Probert and Petr Klima, only to catch them smirking once when he turned his back.
“I finally woke up and said it takes a heck of a lot more than (me) to keep these guys in line.”
Pursuit in two sports
I’ll make this observation. Ilitch loved owning a hockey team, but he wasn’t crazy about being in baseball. It was too big, too inflated, too transitory, too egotistical. He didn’t care for some of the other owners, that was my impression, and while he signed some huge contracts (Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Fielder, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmermann) he was, as he once told me, “always prepared for a bust.”
So why did he do it? Because while hockey became his passion, baseball was his obsession. “I was swinging a bat before I learned my ABC’s,” he recalled.
And when you have enough money, and your childhood team becomes available … well, you know how that goes. Ilitch, the onetime Tigers minor league infielder, has been a good steward of the storied franchise. And while it took more than a decade to get the engines going, they’ve been revving nicely in recent years, and there’s nary a Tigers player today who isn’t feeling like a ship just sailed and they forgot to put something on it.
“That’s the thing that hurts so much,” Jim Leyland, the former manager, told me Friday. “The fact that we didn’t get it for Mike. We knew how bad he wanted it. … Everybody, to a man or woman in that organization, wanted it for him.”
All for the fans
For what it’s worth, I considered Mr. Ilitch a professional friend. Having known him for 30 years, I think he came to trust me, and I visited his home several times, and we’d sit at a long table and talk about many things, life, family, health. He was incredibly unassuming, often saying “Wow” and shaking his head and looking down.
Yes, he was shrewd. No, he didn’t brook dissent. Yes, casino money helped fuel his fortune (his wife being listed as owner of the MotorCity Casino is mainly to avoid conflict with Major League Baseball) and, yes, he took advantage of tax breaks and a willing city partner and grew wealthier as downtown Detroit resurged.
But nearly every major thing he built, his family still owns. That’s the difference between speculating and investing. Between dipping your beak, or making your nest. Mike Ilitch was all portions Detroit. And for a long time, Detroit is going to be a large portion Mike Ilitch.
You know the only thing I ever heard him complain about? The word “recluse.” He’d heard it said about him, and he didn’t like it. This was no Howard Hughes. The very idea of a hermit’s life would repel him.
This was a regular guy who happened to get really rich, a guy who was all about family — one wife, seven kids — who didn’t hunger for headlines, didn’t collect expensive toys, and never strayed far from his roots (“I don’t have six houses around the world…” he once told me, “Holy cripes. I couldn’t handle it!”), a man who sometimes felt unworthy of things but never felt above them.
Perhaps that’s why he funded so many huge charity efforts and an equal number of quiet, small ones, like paying Rosa Parks’ rent for years, or helping to launch Bright Beginnings, a day care center for infants of mothers going through treatment or homelessness.
More crust than sauce. Mike Ilitch left the spicy stuff to other billionaires. And perhaps because he made his first fortune in pizza, he never forgot that people — especially the customers — mattered.
I asked him once, before he purchased the Tigers, what his priorities would be if he ever got them. He rattled them off, one, two, three. You know what No. 1 was?
“I have to please them,” he said. “I have to excite them. And I have to earn their respect.”
Say good-bye to Mr. I. He died having checked off all three.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.