The Parking Lot King: Chris Ilitch's Falling Legacy

Legacies are fickle things.

When Mike Ilitch died in 2017, he was eulogized as a generous and determined owner who spared no expense while chasing a title for the Detroit Tigers.

Justin Verlander is back in town this week and wasted no time telling the media scrum how the biggest regret of his Tigers career was not winning a title for Mike Ilitch.

Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski made similar statements on their way out the door.

While any athlete or executive who comes up short is likely to regret the disappointment, it is rare for a professional’s primary focus to be how they failed the owner of their organization.

Mike Ilitch engendered those feelings in his employees. Even the $30 million a year ones.

Nobody was more devastated when Ilitch shuffled off this mortal coil than MLB super-agent Scott Boras, who could reliably make payments on his yacht from commissions earned by leveraging Ilitch’s desperation to cement his legacy.

Whenever January rolled around and a high-priced Boras client remained on the market, Boras would call upon the human golden parachute in Detroit to bail him out. And Ilitch was happy to oblige.

In the context of the Tigers, this is how we remember Mike Ilitch. Flawed in some ways, sure. (Max Scherzer negotiations, anyone?) But he was a determined owner who did everything in his power to deliver a title.

Of course, none of this was the case in the first half of Ilitch’s tenure as owner. From his acquisition of the team in 1992 until 2004, Ilitch was regularly crushed by fans and talking heads alike. He was perceived as cheap, disinterested, and biased toward his wildly successful NHL franchise down the street.

If you need any proof of the disdain people had for Ilitch, I can’t think of a better example than the “Pizza Man” parody song that was a huge hit on the WDFN airwaves circa 2000. Check out a sampling of these savage lyrics:

Who can take free agency?

Not make any bids…

And when the team hits bottom,

He just hands them to the kids!

The Pizza Man can,

Because greed’s behind his plan,

And now our team’s no good!

(Click HERE if you want to listen to the whole song)

Safe to say, Tigers fans were not pleading with the team to “Win one for Mr. I” in the early 2000s…

You cannot blame Tigers fans for being jaded and feeling their baseball team was a distant 2nd in the heart of the owner.

In June of 2002, the star-studded Detroit Red Wings vanquished the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Finals. It was the coronation of what is generally considered the greatest team in history. No team has ever had more Hall of Famers (NINE!!!!).

Just 15 months later, in September 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost their 119th game to set the American League record for futility. There weren’t any Hall of Famers on that team. But don’t worry, Dmitri Young made the All-Star team to fulfill Bud Selig’s “Every team gets a representative!” edict. (Selig’s charity wasn’t enough to get Dmitri off the bench during the ‘03 Midsummer Classic).

In those days, Mike Ilitch was a bizarre figure in town. It was impossible to hate him if you cared even a little about the Red Wings. But you could never really embrace him, either. Not with Mike Maroth and his 5.73 ERA starting on Opening Day.

It all changed when Ilitch suddenly got tired of losing and brought Pudge Rodriguez to Detroit in 2004. The turnaround took two years to really pop, with several other key pieces joining the fray. But something changed in the Tigers owner in 2004. For some reason, after more than a decade of futility, he said “enough is enough”. No one has ever been able to explain why. I can’t recall another example of an owner being perceived as aloof and cheap for over a decade, then suddenly becoming a beloved figure with a reputation for wild spending.

Mike Ilitch rehabilitated his image. He never got the title, but he certainly went for it. For the record, I agree with Verlander’s comments this week. The Tigers were victims of their own success in 2006 and 2012. Their ALCS sweeps in those postseasons (and the subsequent week-off) completely ruined them. But I digress.

Fast forward to present day, and we find Ilitch’s successor heading down a troubling path. His son, Chris Ilitch, is rising up the All-Time Detroit Villain charts.

It started with the Detroit Tigers gutting their roster and launching a prolonged era of doing everything on the cheap. While I have written in this space of my support of a long rebuild, I have also advocated for expediting the rebuild through strategic free agent signings. Go out and sign guys with the sole intention of trading them for future assets at the deadline.

The Tigers have done this to some degree, but how inspired were the Tyson Ross (stinks) & Matt Moore (deceased) additions?

If you say the payroll slashing isn’t about the money and is entirely based on bolstering your chances in the future, why haven’t the Tigers made an offer to Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel? Would those guys accept a one-year pact at big money? Perhaps not, or I suspect they would be signed already. But the Tigers never made a bid on either. At least we’ve been hearing for months about the Yankees, Braves, and others trying to get a deal done with these overqualified free agents.

Even if you made a 2-year offer, the opportunity is ripe to flip the player in 3 months. Justin Verlander (1.5 years of service time remaining) yielded a highly regarded haul in 2017. A year earlier, Aroldis Chapman was rented to the Cubs for 2.5 months and brought budding superstar Gleyber Torres to the Bronx.

Sure, the Tigers have had disappointing returns before (Hello, JD Martinez trade!). But at least we could point to it as a good faith effort. I am not saying it would work. But it would be a substantive sign that this rebuild is about something other than saving Chris Ilitch money.

The coupon-clipping Tigers are frustrating, but they aren’t the greatest threat to Commodus Ilitch’s standing in this town.

Far more troubling is the calamity known as “The District Detroit”. If you have not read the terrific piece in Crain’s, I highly recommend it. (Read it HERE.)

It is difficult to become a beloved billionaire. People are naturally skeptical of the super-rich, particularly when they are inaccessible and rarely give interviews. When you factor in $330 million of public funds forked over to fund projects that haven’t even broken ground years later, public trust becomes tenuous.

Chris Ilitch is quickly developing a reputation that mirrors that of his late father and predecessor during that first decade running the Tigers. Unlike his father, Chris Ilitch does not have the historically successful Red Wings to off-set any public scorn. Perhaps Steve Yzerman might help to that end, but there is no distracting from the failed District Detroit. Not anytime soon.

We are in the early stages of the Ilitch Experience, Version 2.0. We saw how quickly Mike Ilitch changed the narrative, a shift that occurred suddenly when the man was 74-years-old. There is still time for Chris Ilitch to change the tide. But if he values his reputation and legacy, he’d better act fast.

Steve Yzerman is now running the Red Wings. The Tigers are assembling the greatest minor league rotation of all-time down in AA, and we can pray it translates to the Majors.

But until the Ilitch family breaks ground on something other than their arena and its surrounding parking lots, Chris Ilitch will be held in disdain by the majority of this town. And it is a fair standing.

We were promised neighborhoods, restaurants, shops, walkable parks, and a downtown experience unrivaled in the Midwest. You could practically hear Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan singing, “The Merry Old Land of Oz” during the press conference announcing the project.

This dog and pony show was required to secure the $330 million of public funding. They would have never gotten this level of public support without those sparkling artist renderings of a bejeweled Little Caesars Arena surrounded by chic restaurants and pretentious storefronts.

I think we got Lyle Lanley’d, folks. I don’t think this thing is ever getting built. Certainly not to the extent we were told.

The Ilitches say they are ahead of schedule. That we are merely a few hurdles away from the dream becoming reality. Any day, they will break ground on The District Detroit and preside over a triumph of architectural vision.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Until then…

All hail, the King of the Parking Lots!

You can follow Justin Spiro on Twitter, @DarkoStateNews

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