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Tigers hope to make title dreams come true for beloved owner Ilitch


SAN FRANCISCO -- He is an old man now. He has been an old man for a while. And so it is easy to see Mike Ilitch only as an old man, as the 83-year-old owner of the Detroit Tigers, as the guy with a slow walk and sunken eyes who looks like he might be overwhelmed at any moment, by anything. It would be easy and wrong. When Justin Verlander throws the first pitch of the World Series tonight, Mike Ilitch will be a young man again.

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With every game the Tigers win in this series, you will hear one phrase a little bit more. It will come from players and manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski and everybody in between. The phrase is short and loaded with meaning: for Mr. Ilitch.

"It's pretty unique," Tigers starter Max Scherzer said Tuesday. "You do have a sense you want to win one for him."

Why? This is hard to explain. Ilitch does not spend a ton of time around the players like some owners do. Scherzer said he sees him a few times a year.

People talk about Ilitch's commitment to Detroit. He built Comerica Park downtown, he revitalized the Fox Theater down the street, he opened the Hockeytown Café near the Fox. These decisions wouldn't mean much in other cities but were enormous in Detroit, where the traffic all seemed to be one-way: to the suburbs. But that does not quite explain why everybody wants to win for him.

They will say he is a great owner who has won a lot but just hasn't finished the job. This is ... well, it's complicated. Ilitch has been a great owner for the Red Wings for three decades. But he bought the Tigers in 1992, as a 63-year-old pizza magnate, and for the next 14 years, he failed.

He failed in a variety of ways. He tried to spend: He boosted the payroll to the highest in the majors, and the Tigers didn't win. He tried to be patient: he hired a young general manager, Randy Smith, and gave him free rein and a ton of time, and that didn't work either.

Catcher Gerald Laird said Tuesday that Detroit is "a baseball town. It's a Tiger town." But for a long time under Ilitch, Detroit wasn't a baseball town at all. The Tigers seemed like another beloved Detroit institution that left and wasn't coming back -- even though, in this case, the Tigers were still physically there. They were the baseball version of an abandoned building.

This seems silly now, but there were a lot of whispers in Detroit at the time that Ilitch didn't really care about the Tigers, that he just cared about the Red Wings. It was nonsense, but it added to the sense that owning the Tigers was no fun at all for Ilitch. The team kept losing games and money. Fans kept complaining about the owner.

It seemed pretty clear that people close to Ilitch, including some family members, would have been happy if he just sold the team. Get rid of the big headache. Be done with the whole thing.

He never considered it. Instead ... well, as Scherzer said: "He wants to win at all costs. If we're able to win this thing, it's all because of him. You don't find an owner who really wants to win as bad as he does."

When the Tigers lost 119 games in 2003, he paid Pudge Rodriguez far more than anybody else would. The next year he paid Magglio Ordoñez far more than anybody else would. A pattern of spending was set, and it has defined this era for the Tigers.

Dombrowski has done a terrific job assembling this team, but Ilitch's signature is all over the diamond. The Tigers were able to draft top prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller because Ilitch was willing to pay a lot more than other teams; Dombrowski packaged Maybin and Miller in a trade for Cabrera. Money does not buy success in sports. But money and smarts sure do.

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This past winter, Ilitch did something patently ridiculous. When designated hitter Victor Martinez got hurt, the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214-million contract to replace him. It was absurd on several levels. Fielder is their third-best player, behind Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. These contracts rarely work out well, especially for men who have eaten as many cheeseburgers as Fielder has. He is a star but not an all-time great like Albert Pujols or Cabrera.

The contract will surely cost the Tigers dearly down the road. When Fielder turns 33 in May 2017, the Tigers will still owe him almost $100 million. The contract makes it almost impossible to sign both Verlander and Cabrera to extensions when the time comes -- the Tigers may have to choose one.

We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, spent for one reason and one reason only: to win now. Nothing else seems to matter. That is why everybody wants to win for Mr. Ilitch. They know how much it means to him.

And the Tigers look like they are finally ready to win now, right now, in October. I don't think the Tigers are the best team in baseball. I don't know if they are better than the Giants. But they are hot at the right time, especially their starting pitchers. They should be favorites in the World Series.

Now, what was I talking about?

Oh, right.

Mike Ilitch, young man.

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Ilitch's official biography on the Ilitch Holdings website is 14 paragraphs. But to understand the 2012 Tigers, you only need to read two sentences.

His link to the Tigers dates back to his youth when he was scouted by the Tigers while playing baseball at Detroit Cooley High School. After serving four years in the U.S. Marines, Ilitch signed with the Tigers and played in their farm system for three years until a knee injury ended his hopes of making it to the big league.

Is this really the story? Did the knee injury keep him from the big leagues? Or was he like 99 percent of the kids signed in the 1950s: Simply not good enough?

I have thought about that occasionally over the years, and I have decided it probably does not matter. This is not a work of journalism. It is an official biography. It is how Mike Ilitch sees himself.

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Sometimes, in press boxes or clubhouses or hotel bars, other writers and I will start talking about Someday. You never know when Someday will come up, or why. But it does. And then somebody among us will say that Someday, he wants to get the hell out of this business. He doesn't want to be the oldest guy in the business, hanging around the sports world, hoping much younger men will give him a decent quote or a bit of insight.

This is easy for any of us to say. We are in our prime, and what we're really saying is that we would rather be in our 30s than our 70s. But we don't know how we will really feel Someday, when we are much closer to the end of life than the beginning, and many of our closest friends have died, and our body feels OK on certain days and lousy on most others. Maybe then, sports will keep us young. Maybe we will feel invigorated by chasing what we chased as kids. I think that's how it is for Mr. Ilitch.