On Karma and Mike Ilitch

(Before I begin, it’s important to point out that I worked for the Ilitch family for five years.  None of what I write below has anything to do with my employment with the organization.  I left of my own free will.  This observation is based solely on my sports fandom and interest in the city as a whole.)

Sports Illustrated recently ran a story about spring training in 1995.  Included in that story was a tale about Sparky Anderson taking a stand and essentially ending his managerial career.  In his autobiography he called it his proudest moment.  In taking that stand he began to expose a little-known fact about one of the most beloved individuals in Detroit sports.

Mike Ilitch is kind of a dick.

Let’s start with a little history lesson.

In 1994, MLB owners decided that the finances of the game didn’t work for them.  Less than four years after being assessed damages of $280 million for colluding against free agents, the owners unilaterally decided that they would implement a salary cap.  The players balked – naturally, because salary caps are stupid – so the owners responded by refusing to pay a required $7.8 million to the players’ pension and benefit plan.  The players responded by going on strike, eventually leading to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

Early in 1995 the owners abandoned their salary cap plans; announced they would use replacement players (more on that shortly); abolished salary arbitration; centralized player negotiations with the commissioner’s office – which is bothersome on a number of levels that we won’t get into here; and ended an agreement not to collude on salaries.  The players filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.  Future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotmayor issued an injunction against the owners, the old agreement was put back in place, and the players returned to work.  An agreement was eventually reached in November 1996 and baseball hasn’t seen a work stoppage since.

Now back to those replacement players…

The owners announced in January that they would use replacement players for the 1995 season.  Apparently they were dumb enough to think fans were just as willing to pay to watch Kevin Millar, Pete Rose Jr. and a 48-year-old Pedro Borbon play as they were to watch Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Greg Maddux.  There were a few interesting side notes to the replacement player ordeal.  The Baltimore Orioles decided they wouldn’t use replacement players.  Depending on whom you ask, this was because Peter Angelos made the bulk of his money representing Baltimore labor unions and their members.  Realistically, however, it was probably because the use of replacement players would end Cal Ripken Jr.’s run at Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak and cost the team a significant chunk of money in ticket sales and merchandising.

The Toronto Blue Jays announced they would play their home games at their spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, because Canadian law prohibited companies from using replacement workers during a strike or lockout.  That they were willing to play their games at a minor league stadium probably says something about their expected attendance numbers with the replacement players.

And Sparky Anderson decided he wouldn’t manage the scabs.

Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch was livid, placing Sparky on unpaid leave.  To be fair, this was a somewhat charitable move by the team considering Ilitch wanted to fire Sparky on the spot.  After the season Sparky left the team, never to manage in the Majors again, despite the fact that he was still interested in managing and was only 61 years old.

In 2000 Sparky was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  When deciding what hat to wear on his plaque, he chose the Cincinnati Reds, a team he had managed half as long as he had managed the Tigers and also a team that had fired him (say whatever you want about the Tigers, they never officially fired him).  People in Detroit were not happy.  The Tigers held a “Sparky Anderson Day” in 2000, though they didn’t retire his number (no one ever wore #11 after Sparky).

In 2009, the Tigers held a 25th anniversary of their last World Series championship.  Sparky appeared frail; it would be his last appearance in Detroit.  If the Tigers were going to retire his number, it would’ve been the perfect time.  They didn’t.

Sparky died in November 2010.  The Tigers retired his number in 2011.  I find it to be no small coincidence that Sparky’s number wasn’t retired until after he passed away.

And for that I blame Mike Ilitch.

I don’t think Sparky should’ve had his number retired.  But if they were going to retire his number, there was absolutely no reason not to do it when he was still alive.

I’ll explain.

Years back, very early in my love affair with baseball, I heard a tale that the Tigers did not retire numbers for the majority of their history because Ty Cobb was their best player, and he didn’t wear a number that could be retired.  That lasted until 1980, when Al Kaline’s #6 was retired shortly after his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.  In 1983, Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg had their numbers retired, with Hal Newhouser following in 1997.  Up until that time, the only Tigers who had had their numbers retired were not only Hall of Famers, but they went into the Hall of Fame as Tigers.

Willie Horton’s number was retired in 2000.  Bluntly, it was an affirmative action retirement.  It was believed that a city with a population that was over 80% black and a history of race issues should have a black player with his number retired.  Horton was a bad choice – among black players in Tigers’ history Lou Whitaker would’ve been the better choice – but he was a good enough player, he was a key member of the 1968 world champions, he was from Detroit and he supposedly walked through the Detroit riots in 1967 in his uniform trying to quell the violence.

(Incidentally, Ilitch once “unretired” the number of Larry Aurie with the Red Wings.  Save for a short time when Aurie’s cousin wore his #6 with the Wings in the 1950’s, no one has worn the number again, but Aurie is not honored with a banner in the rafters as the other Red Wings’ retired numbers are.)

Still, I’ve always lived with the notion that in order to have your number retired by the Tigers you had to go into the Hall of Fame as a Tiger.  This is likely another myth I was told by some random stranger when I was a child at Tigers games, because I can’t dig anything up to support that either.  But if you ignore Willie Horton’s number (and you should), the myth stood.  And because of that myth, and because Sparky Anderson went into the Hall of Fame as a Red, his number shouldn’t have been retired.

But retire it they did.  And they did it horribly.  And they did it because Mike Ilitch is a dick.

Sparky Anderson refused to manage replacement players when the owners were so devious in their negotiations that an unfair labor practice complaint was upheld, and Ilitch hated him for it.  I imagine deep within the recesses of the Ilitch organization, there was a decree that Anderson’s number would be retired only after he was dead.

Larry Aurie?  The Ilitches have never addressed it.  His family has repeatedly requested an answer, and the Ilitches have given them nothing.  The best explanation came from Wings’ vice president Jimmy Devellano, who said in a 1997 article that Aurie’s number wasn’t in the rafters because he wasn’t in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  If it’s really that simple, there’s no reason it should’ve taken 15 years – from the time Ilitch bought the team until Devellano gave his answer – for the family to get an explanation.  And there’s no reason it couldn’t come from someone in the family.

The Ilitch family is looked at as one of Detroit’s saviors.  To an extent they are.  They moved their corporate headquarters from the Detroit suburbs to a restored Fox Theatre in 1989.  They built a new ballpark for the Tigers downtown and encouraged the Lions to do the same.  They’re currently building a new arena for the Wings and headquarters for Little Caesars in their Foxtown district.  They have contributed a great deal of money to the Detroit economy.

They’ve also taken a great deal from it.

That ballpark was partially financed – to the tune of $115 million – by public funds, including Indian casino revenue.  Interestingly, Marian Ilitch – Mike’s wife – owns Motor City Casino in Detroit, a casino that is very much not Indian.  The new arena and downtown headquarters?  $285 million of the $650 million cost of that project will come from public financing.  That financing was requested from and approved by a lame duck state legislature at the same time Detroit was in the middle of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

They received 39 vacant parcels of land from the city for $1.  They paid $50 million buying out private owners in the area.

They refused to sign a community benefits agreement that would ensure a certain percentage of permanent, non-construction jobs at the arena went to Detroiters.

The Ilitches are reportedly worth $4.8 billion.

I understand this is business as usual in the sports world.  It doesn’t make it right.

The Ilitches have been working on a new arena for the Red Wings for some time now.  One of the worst kept secrets in the city was exactly where that arena would be built.  Hell, in 2000 the Ilitches opened Hockeytown Café in the Foxtown district, across the street from Comerica Park.  Hockeytown is a mile away from Joe Louis Arena.  It will be 2 blocks from the new arena.

Behind Fox Theatre and a block away from Hockeytown Café lie blocks of unpaved parking lots and abandoned unsightly buildings.

Sorry, that needs to be restated.

Behind Fox Theatre and a block away from Hockeytown Café lie blocks of Ilitch-owned unpaved parking lots and abandoned unsightly buildings.  When the new arena was announced, it was asked of the family why nothing had been done to develop those areas.  Chris Ilitch, Mike’s son and the current president and CEO of the family organization, gave a very simple answer: they couldn’t develop the area because doing so would have driven up the value of the surrounding areas that they were trying to acquire for the arena.

If it doesn’t benefit them, they’re not doing it.

There’s a building – or what’s left of a building – 2 blocks west of Comerica Park on Adams Street in Detroit.  All that’s left is the building’s façade that is supported by scaffolding that hangs over the sidewalk, a sidewalk that is travelled by hundreds of thousands of baseball fans when the Tigers are in town.  The remainder of the building was torn down because the organization would’ve lost a $2 million credit had they not pulled it down when they did.  As for the façade?  Well that’s still there because it’s still eligible for tax incentives for historical buildings.  It looks like shit and there hasn’t been work done on that building in years, but they’re keeping it just in case.

They’ll tear down their crumbling buildings, but they’re not going to pay for it.

I’ll say it again.  The Ilitches are reportedly worth $4.8 billion.

Now I’ll bet some of you are asking, “What does Sparky Anderson not getting his number retired until after he died have to do with the business dealings of the Ilitch family?”  To me, the answer is somewhat simple.

Karma.

I don’t know if karma exists.  You like to think it does, that bad people are going to get what’s coming to them.  But the more you watch the news and see that executives who play a huge rule in destroying their companies, not to mention the lives of the people who work for those companies, getting golden parachutes to leave, you start to wonder.  Personally, the greatest example of karma I’ve seen lately was when the Cowboys were screwed out of what was probably a legit catch that would’ve gone a long way toward winning their playoff game a week after they’d taken advantage of a horrendous call that helped them beat the Lions in the Wild Card game.  That’s about as simple as it gets.  Other people?  You never know.

But I look at Mike Ilitch and his family, and I wonder.

It is well known in Detroit that Mike Ilitch wants to win a title with the Tigers before he dies.  Now, if he hadn’t spent the first 14 years of his ownership basically ignoring the team, save for financing a new park and signing a couple of big name free agents when no one else would, he might have had that title by now.  But nevertheless, he wants to win.  And he spends to win.  And that spending has brought him teams that were legitimate title contenders.  His 2006 Tigers team collapsed in the World Series with a ridiculous comedy of errors and lost to a team with 83 wins.  I still contend the 2007 team was title worthy, but they collapsed in the last month of the season.  The 2009 team was done in by some horrendous decisions and at least one terrible umpire’s call in the infamous “Game 163”.  They had a chance in 2011, but the Rangers were probably better and you never know how they would’ve fared in the World Series against St. Louis.  In 2012 they got shut down in the World Series and scored a total of 6 runs in 4 games.  The 2013 team might’ve had the best chance of them all, but dumb luck, great pitching by the Red Sox and some bad fielding cost them a chance at the World Series.

Since 2006, the Tigers probably should have won at least 1 World Series, and to suggest that they could’ve won as many as 4 is not ridiculous (a bit farfetched perhaps, but not ridiculous).  And yet they have none.

The Tigers are becoming the Buffalo Bills (although in 3 of their 4 Super Bowl losses, the Bills really had no chance at kickoff).

There have been some questionable moves by Detroit management in the past few years.  Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff didn’t work out, but there was no reason to think they wouldn’t, and it’s not like the Tigers gave up much.  They probably shouldn’t have cut Gary Sheffield before the 2009 season considering they were still going to pay him.  The Doug Fister traeidfhjpaetupaousljcmvajouiekjamnvas

Sorry, brief Doug Fister Trade Induced Seizure (it’s a legitimate medical diagnosis here in Detroit).

But the Tigers are not the Lions.  There have been far more good moves than bad.  When they made a bad move (Prince Fielder), they corrected it with a good one (dumping him for Ian Kinsler).  There’s no one calling for a team legend’s head because he used valuable payroll space to sign Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon.

So one wonders why one of these teams hasn’t been holding the trophy at the end of the year.

And I think its karma.  Mike Ilitch wants a title, and karma won’t allow it.

Pillaging the city and the state for public financing when he could’ve finance development with his own money?  Strike one.

Leaving large swaths of land that could’ve been developed dilapidated and rotting because it would’ve driven up your price to acquire other land?  Strike two.

Waiting until after Sparky Anderson died to retire his number?  Strike three.

And I’m not even bringing up the glorious managerial tenures of Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish or Luis Pujols, or the disastrous reign of GM Randy Smith.

I can’t say I don’t wish death on anyone – I have irrational hatreds toward guys like Roger Goodell and an unhealthy number of politicians – but I certainly don’t wish it upon Mike Ilitch or his family.  For as much as I don’t like what they’ve done to acquire land and finance their development, there’s no denying that his investment in the city has been a huge help.  It’s hard to imagine where Detroit would be without him.

But I do wonder if the baseball gods are looking down and seeing what’s gone on with this team and this city and said, “Nope, not while he’s around.”

Sparky Anderson dies.  The Tigers retire his number the following year.

Mike Ilitch dies.  Do the Tigers win his elusive title the following year?

Only time will tell.  I hope it doesn’t take that long.

Note: This post has been corrected to properly reflect the Ilitches’ net worth.  Forbes recently reported that they are currently worth $4.8 billion, not $3.2 billion as originally indicated.

3 thoughts on “On Karma and Mike Ilitch

  1. Well done. Some facetious thoughts:
    – Why wasn’t William Clay Ford more of a dick? If he was, maybe the Lions would’ve won the Super Bowl last month.
    – Devellano’s reason doesn’t hold water. Lidstrom’s number is retired and he’s not in the Hall of Fame (yet, but still).
    – The Tigers just wanted to retire #11 in ’11. Tough luck that Sparky didn’t make it that long.
    – Five minutes before reading your piece, I read that the Ilitches are actually now worth $4.8 billion: http://patch.com/michigan/rochester/how-do-michigans-14-billionaires-rank-among-worlds-richest?utm_source=newsletter-daily&utm_medium=email&utm_term=business&utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_content=article-mostrecent

  2. Here’s a comprehensive article on the Aurie situation: http://kuklaskorner.com/hockey/comments/ilitch_celebrates_yzerman_desecrates_aurie
    Particularly fascinating is this piece:
    “Troubled by the Ilitch family’s cold response toward the Aurie situation, I and a handful of “Friends of Larry Aurie” – including Aurie’s grand niece and other family members – took to Woodward Avenue in Dec. 1999, busily distributing Aurie literature in the freezing cold in front of the Hockeytown Cafe… on a public sidewalk… with police permission.
    Sadly and surprisingly, Ilitch tried to have us arrested, while we were very simply exercising our right to free speech. His security people continuously harassed us, and finally succeeded in convincing the police to ask us to leave.
    The police threatened to arrest the grand niece near the Hockeytown Café’s front door, and she left the scene sobbing, visibly shaken with her spirit all but broken by the surprising and disturbing intimidation exhibited by Ilitch that night.
    One Olympia Entertainment security person confided to me that Ilitch was indeed trying to have us arrested, saying that he felt we were hurting his business and bothering Hockeytown and Fox Theatre patrons.”

  3. Good lord, that’s appalling. I didn’t realize there was such a blatant effort to keep his number down. I wonder why they bother to keep it out of circulation if they’re going to act so disrespectfully.

    And I did see the Forbes number. I was planning on updating the post this evening.

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