GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Detroit Tigers are synonymous with baseball in Michigan. For more than a century, the Motor City Kitties have held the state’s attention, giving kids and adults alike heroes to admire, cheer for and claim as their own.
The team and the game have changed a lot over the years, but so many traditions have stayed the same.
Gone are the days of the tripleheader and the pitcher who threw 400 innings. The American and National Leagues, once stark rivals with their own sets of rules, are now separated in name only.
But the heart of the game is still there. The thrill of a close play at the plate, the traditions that make each ballpark special, the hot dogs and peanuts. And though the design has changed over the years, the “Old English D” represents just one team and one city.
Friday marked 30 years since Mike and Marian Ilitch officially bought the Detroit Tigers, ushering in a new era of baseball in the Motor City.
In that 30-year run, Michigan’s baseball team made a lot of headlines, won a lot of games and approached the precipice of the baseball world, but ultimately fell short of a World Series title.
INTRODUCING THE ILITCHES
It was almost fate for Mike Ilitch to own the Detroit Tigers. Long before he built his business empire and launched one of the world’s most popular pizza chains, Ilitch was a Tiger.
The son of Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch grew up in Detroit and graduated from Cooley High School before joining the Marine Corps. After four years of serving his country, Ilitch returned to Detroit. That’s when the Tigers came calling.
The club offered him a $3,000 signing bonus to join the club as an infielder. Ilitch was assigned to the minor leagues and bounced around with the Tigers, Yankees and Washington Senators before retiring after four seasons. He never made it to the big leagues (as a player).
With baseball in his rear-view mirror, Ilitch worked to start his own business, founding Little Caesars in 1959 and developing it into a popular nationwide chain. At one point, Little Caesars was the third-largest pizza chain in the world, operating in all 50 states and 27 countries or territories.
As a world-class entrepreneur, Ilitch purchased the Detroit Red Wings in 1982. That same year, he tried to buy the Tigers but was outbid by fellow pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, who founded Domino’s. Ten years later, Monaghan was ready to sell, and Ilitch was ready to buy.
The deal was made official on Aug. 26, 1992. Ilitch bought the franchise for $85 million.
When the deal was first announced earlier in the month, Monaghan said Tigers fans could trust Ilitch to pour his energy — and his money — into the team.
“Selling the Tigers to Mike Ilitch is in the best interest of Detroit, given his dedication to the city, his experience in operating the Detroit Red Wings and his commitment to carrying on the Tigers’ tradition,” Monaghan said in 1992. “The future of the Tigers organization is now in the good hands of the Ilitches. I wish them well.”
In 1992, the Tigers hadn’t made the playoffs in five years, bouncing up and down the AL East standings. Tigers fans hoped Ilitch’s ingenuity that helped lift the Red Wings out of the doldrums of the National Hockey League would rub off on the baseball club, too.
The Tigers were one of the best teams in baseball in the mid-80s, with names like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, Chet Lemon and Lance Parrish leading the team to the 1984 World Series title. But they only mustered two playoff appearances in a stacked AL East. After losing to the Minnesota Twins in the 1987 AL Championship Series, the team started to fall apart.
With Gibson off to the Dodgers, the Tigers fell one game short of the division title in 1988, and in 1989, the wheels came off the wagon.
Trammell missed 41 games and the offense sputtered. Designated Hitter Keith Moreland — remember him? — led the team with a .299 batting average.
The Tigers scored only 617 runs and allowed 816 for a -199 run differential — worst in the majors that year, ending the 1989 season with a 59-103 record and a last-place finish in the AL East.
Things ebbed and flowed for the Tigers in the 90s. New names like Travis Fryman and Tony Phillips quickly became fan favorites and Cecil Fielder wowed crowds with his booming home runs, but the Tigers never made a serious push for the playoffs.
Detroit finished tied for second place in the AL East in 1991 — seven games back of the division champion Yankees — and never finished higher than third in the division for the rest of the decade.
By the end of the 1995 season, Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson had had enough and retired. And thus started the spinning carousel of Tigers managers.
Buddy Bell lasted nearly three seasons before being let go in August of 1998, with 25 games left in another last-place season. Larry Parrish took over as the interim manager and was kept on for the following season after mustering a 13-12 record down the stretch of the 1998 season. But after another season well below .500, the Tigers pushed him out for a new manager, Phil Garner.
Garner led the team to its best finish in three years with a 79-83 record in 2000, but it was all downhill from there. After a 66-96 finish in 2001 and an 0-6 start to the 2002 campaign, Garner was let go and replaced with Luis Pujols.
The Tigers turned to one of their greats to try and turn the ship around, and in a way, he did.
Alan Trammell was hired to lead the Tigers heading into the 2003 season, but the team, bereft of any prime talent, languished all year. Detroit was on pace to set the record for most losses in a season in the modern era. They won five of their last six games to avoid that dishonorable title, finishing 43-119.
Trammell lasted only three seasons but worked with the team’s young talent to put them on the right track. After two fourth-place finishes in the AL Central, Trammell was let go and former World Series winner Jim Leyland was brought in to give the team a new edge.
THE MAGIC OF 2006
To retool his club, Ilitch turned to Florida, hiring former Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski as his general manager and eventually recruiting Leyland to Detroit.
While Leyland was the face of the Tigers’ resurgence, Dombrowski deserves plenty of credit, as well. He played a key role in convincing top-level players to come to Detroit and build a winner, starting with Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez in 2003 and eventually All-Stars Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen.
By 2006, the Tigers had a core of talented players and several promising prospects ready to make the jump to the big leagues.
Speedster Curtis Granderson took over centerfield and provided another reliable bat in the lineup. Justin Verlander joined Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson in the starter’s rotation, while flame-thrower Joel Zumaya added a new element to the Tigers bullpen.
It all added up to an unexpected, magical season. But it nearly fell apart.
After a rocky couple of weeks in April, the Tigers turned it on, pushing to the front of the AL Central. By mid-May, they took the lead in the division thanks to a seven-game winning streak. At the All-Star Break, the red-hot Tigers were 59-29 with a 2.5-game lead in the division.
The team stayed hot through July but struggled down the backstretch of the regular season. On Aug. 7, they held a commanding 10-game lead in the AL Central. By Sept. 26, with five games left to play, the lead was down to one game. They went 0-5 and coughed up the division title on the last day of the season, falling to second place for the first time since May.
Thankfully, the Tigers found their footing in the postseason.
Despite losing the division title, the Tigers still made the playoffs as the American League’s wild-card team. But the wild card berth pitted them against the heavily favored New York Yankees – the American League’s top team stacked with stars and plenty of playoff experience.
After Detroit dropped Game 1, Verlander impressed on the national stage, holding his own against future Hall of Famer Mike Mussina and helping the Tigers eke out a 4-3 win.
In Game 3, trusted vet and former Yankee Kenny Rogers twirled a gem, throwing 7.2 shutout innings in a 6-0 win. Bonderman was perfect through five innings and Ordonez, Rodriguez and Craig Monroe each drove in two runs to lead the Tigers to an 8-3 win and a series victory.
Up next, a trip out west to face the Oakland A’s for a chance to play in the World Series. The Tigers stayed hot, dispatching Oakland in four games.
Brandon Inge and Rodriguez each homered and Granderson drove in two runs in a 5-1 win in Game 1. Backup outfielder Alexis Gomez had a career night with 4 RBI in an 8-5 win in Game 2. For Game 3 Rogers stayed hot, giving up only two hits and two walks in 7.1 shutout innings.
Game 4 belonged to Maggs.
On that night Ordonez, the six-time All-Star who terrorized Detroit for several years playing with the Chicago White Sox etched his name in Tigers lore. With the game tied 3-3, two outs and two runners on in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ordonez strode up to the plate.
In an MLB documentary, Monroe, who was on second base, said he could tell by the way Ordonez looked in the batter’s box that the hitter was “locked in.”
“I knew he was seeing the ball well. And I said, ‘Man, there couldn’t be a better guy to have at the plate right now,” Monroe said.
Ordonez entered the at-bat 0 for 2 against Oakland’s Huston Street. One swing later, he was 1 for 3.
The slugger launched the ball over the left-field fence, clearing the bullpen, and sending Comerica Park into hysterics. After 13 losing seasons, Mike Ilitch took the field to accept his first trophy as a Detroit Tiger.
After an 18-year playoff drought and a season full of teases and scares, the Tigers were heading to the World Series. Unfortunately, that’s where the magic ended.
While the National League Championship Series stretched to seven games, the Tigers got some rare time off — six days between Game 4 of the ALCS and Game 1 of the World Series. Whether they were rusty or not, the St. Louis Cardinals took care of business, winning the series in five games.
DESPERATE FOR A TITLE
Ilitch wasn’t shy about his ambitions. He wanted to win. Ilitch lifted the Stanley Cup four times in his run with the Red Wings, and he wanted that World Series title to go along with it.
In a 2015 interview with ESPN, he was blunt about his ambitions.
“It’s all I think about,” Ilitch said. “I don’t care about the money. I want the best players.”
He was willing to spend money and invest in his club to field a winner. According to Statista, the Tigers’ payroll in 2003 was $70 million, the franchise’s worst season ever. By 2006, the payroll had risen to $98 million, and Ilitch had instructed Dombrowski to build him a winner.
After missing the playoffs in 2007, Dombrowski made a splash — arguably the biggest trade in Detroit history — landing young phenom Miguel Cabrera and ace Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins in exchange for a cadre of top prospects.
Dombrowski was essentially selling the farm — trading away Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, the team’s top picks in the 2005 and 2006 draft, along with catcher Mike Rabelo and three other players.
While Willis’ career flamed out in Detroit, Cabrera more than made up for it, serving as the centerpiece of a team primed to make another World Series run.
By 2011, the Tigers were retooled and back in the playoffs. Cabrera and savvy hitter Victor Martinez provided the power in the middle of the lineup, while newcomers like Brennan Boesch, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta added even more punch.
The Tigers also developed a lethal pitching staff, with future Cy Young Award winners Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello joining Verlander in the rotation.
The 2011 season marked the first division title for the Tigers since 1987. With Cabrera and Verlander leading the way, the Tigers won the AL Central for four straight seasons, but they never captured that elusive World Series title.
In 2011, they fell in the ALCS to the Texas Rangers. The Tigers managed to make the World Series in 2012 but were swept by the San Francisco Giants and the team’s stellar pitching staff. After falling short in 2013 and 2014, the team fell back to the pack and out of the postseason.
Before the 2015 season, Scherzer signed with the Washington Nationals as a free agent, and Porcello was traded to Boston. While new general manager Al Avila continued to stock the roster and blow past the luxury cap, the team fell short of the playoffs. And ultimately, Mr. I never got that World Series ring.
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Mike Ilitch passed away on Feb. 10, 2017, days before the Tigers were set to start spring training. He was 87 years old.
Ilitch was widely praised for his investments and dedication to helping the city of Detroit, making a point of basing his companies in the city instead of the suburbs. Outside of the sports world, he made many investments in the city, including restoring the iconic Fox Theater.
For years, Ilitch’s teams were the only pro teams in downtown Detroit. The Lions played in the Pontiac Silverdome and the Pistons moved out to The Palace of Auburn Hills. While Tiger Stadium was on its last legs, Ilitch could’ve moved to the suburbs, as well. But he stayed.
After building Comerica Park downtown, the Lions made the move back to Detroit with Ford Field and the Pistons joined the Red Wings at the new Little Caesars Arena.
The succession plan was already in place. Ilitch’s son, Chris, took over CEO duties at Ilitch Holdings, which included the Red Wings, the Tigers, Little Caesars and Olympia Entertainment.
Both fans and analysts alike pondered what life would be like for the Tigers with a new owner in charge. Would Chris Ilitch continue his father’s free-wheeling spending in search of that elusive title? Or would he put a bigger emphasis on profits? The numbers clearly say the latter.
According to Statista, the Tigers’ team payroll in 2016 was $216 million dollars. The next season, the payroll had dropped to $148 million and trended all the way to $115 million by 2021.
Since Mike Ilitch’s passing, the team has been in a rebuilding phase. Just months after his death, the team was destined for a last-place finish in the Central. Chris Ilitch and Avila made the decision to trade Verlander to Houston for a package of players, marking a new phase of Tigers baseball.
The rebuild was on. And the rebuild continues.
Since Chris Ilitch took over the club, the team has finished third in the Central twice and is on pace for its fourth last-place finish in six years.
Cabrera is still wowing fans at Comerica Park, collecting accolades to pad his Hall of Fame stat line. Last season he hit his 500th home run, and this spring he collected his 3,000th career hit, making him one of only seven players in the history of Major League Baseball to accomplish both feats.
Verlander remains with the Astros, where he has won a World Series title and another Cy Young Award and is on pace for his third this season.