White Knight Gives Tigers A Ray of Hope

It was like one of those arranged marriages in the old country. The bride wore yellow balloons and offered fresh fruits and cakes. The groom arrived in a fine blue suit and brought his family. He complimented the lady on her grace in years. He listened to her sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” through her aging loudspeakers. For a moment, he appeared to blush, as if overwhelmed by the ceremony. He was really hers? She was really his?

“Talk about a field of dreams,” Mike Ilitch sighed.

I have witnessed many Opening Days at Tiger Stadium. I have never seen one with as fresh a feeling as Wednesday, a balmy afternoon in mid-August. There were white tablecloths on long buffet tables — all set up in rightfield. There were waiters circling home plate with desserts. There were frills and gimmicks — but more than that. There were smiles and sighs of relief. It was some sort of rebirth down at Michigan and Trumbull, like the morning after Noah’s flood. Everything was bright and dewy and ready for rebuilding.

Which is exactly what this baseball team needs, of course. Rebuilding. Rejuicing. Rejuvenating. Mike Ilitch — who began his new era by letting go of several top front-office people — may have worn blue for his first official day as Detroit Tigers owner, but he was the white knight to fans. And the questions from the media reflected that:

“Will you keep Tiger Stadium?”

“Will you sign Cecil Fielder?”

“Will you bring back Ernie Harwell?”

If Ilitch did everything that was asked of him Wednesday, he’d need another lifetime — and maybe a couple of tablets to write his Ten Commandments. Yet he smiled, he answered the questions. He even made jokes, suggesting that he really wanted Fielder to play for his hockey team.

And in simply doing the one thing he does best — handing over the money and making the purchase — Ilitch accomplished a feat that had grown nearly impossible in the old Tigers regime:

He gave this franchise hope.

And isn’t hope the basis of all good marriages?

Immediate dismissals

“I dream of the day when the buses come rolling down here from all across the state,” Ilitch said, sounding like a Kennedy running for office. “I dream of the day when moms and dads take their kids to a game again . . .”

“When you first started with the Red Wings you gave away a free car each night to boost attendance,” a reporter asked. “Would you do that again with the Tigers?”

“Hey, if I have to,” he answered, “I’ll give away free limos.”

Free limos. He made promises like that. He talked of winning and spending money. He talked of signing old stars and going after new ones. He said everything right, everything the old regime, under kooky Tom Monaghan, would never say.

Example: They said no more Tiger Stadium? Ilitch said he’d consider keeping Tiger Stadium.

They said no more Ernie Harwell? Ilitch said he might bring Harwell back.

They said, “We’ll move if we don’t get our way?” Ilitch said, “I will never take this team out of Detroit, never.”

The white knight.

Now, normally, a fellow like this comes along, and the media slice him apart, as if he were a kid wearing a new suit to reform school. And yet you won’t find any cynicism in this column. And you may not find it elsewhere this morning. Here is why: Mike Ilitch is a rare bird.

He actually means what he says.

And because of that, this was a fine day in Tigers history. Maybe now we can blow away that stale, crusty air that always hung over this team and bring it into the 1990s. Maybe now we can look forward to going to the ballpark — if Ilitch delivers on his promise to “make it an exciting place, for kids especially.”

It is true, only hours after Ilitch’s introduction party, several front-office people, including Joe McDonald, who oversaw player development; Jeff Odenwald, the top marketing guy; Mike Wilson, the controller; and Ralph Snyder, the stadium operations man, were let go (or not offered new employment, to be technical). But hey. You wanted change? You got change. I see nothing surprising here. Ilitch’s own people have long been specialists at marketing, accounting and arena operations, which explains the good-bye to Odenwald, Wilson and Snyder. And McDonald was no doubt cleared out to make room for whomever takes over the day-to-day baseball operations, most probably Bill Lajoie.

Anyhow, these changes are small pebbles compared to the biggest change: the philosophy of the owner. Tom Monaghan once said he bought the Tigers to make up for the fact that he was cut from his eighth-grade baseball team. The poor kid turned rich, ready to get back at all his enemies.

Ilitch harbors no such vindictive thoughts. He is not trying to prove his macho by buying a team he could never dream of making. On the contrary, the Tigers are a team that Ilitch once came very close to making, as a minor league player in their farm system. So he is not so much buying a new dream as picking up an old one, a dream he interrupted for the rigors of real life and one he now returns to, at age 63, with the same boyish enthusiasm he once showed running the bases. His former coach at the minor league level remembers him as “a guy with as much hustle as Pete Rose. A guy who loved the game.”

Wednesday, Ilitch talked about love, too.

“You can do a lot on love,” he said, explaining how he will balance this new burden with Little Caesars, the Red Wings, the Detroit Drive and all the other things he owns. “Every hour that I put in here will be out of love. It won’t feel like work. This whole thing is a labor of love.”

A game in disarray

Now. We can only hope that Ilitch doesn’t get his parade rained on by the realities of 1992 baseball. Many a new owner has sniffed the stadium grass and stood on the pitcher’s mound and proclaimed, “Wow, this is the greatest!” — and a few years later, he is holding his head and moaning, “Why did I ever get into this business?”

It could happen — even to Ilitch. The greed of the players, the egos of the owners, the expense of a stadium, the fickle nature of fans, all could conspire to wipe the smile off an owner’s face. Admit this is true. But there was no removing that smile Wednesday afternoon. Not from that chiseled, curly- haired face that now owns 100 percent of the major sports teams that play in this city.

“I’m not a savior of anything,” Ilitch warned. “All the things I’ve done, if you broke them down, you’d see a lot of it was the people behind me . . .

“But I’m excited. I want to bring baseball back to where it once was with this franchise. I’ll probably spend every spare minute I have here. This is the game I love.”

While he spoke, a waiter moved through the crowd holding a silver tray, with slices of dessert. “Piece of cake?” the waiter asked. “Piece of cake?”

Not really. It only felt that way.

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