To the outsider, Mike Ilitch and Detroit were the weary couple walking a lonely block at the end of the night, the air stale, the only sounds their shuffling feet and the juke joints closing up as they passed.
That is, you couldn’t ever be sure which was holding up the other.
Detroit was the moody old place just getting through the day, sometimes maybe surprised to see the next morning, not sure to be happy or sad it did. Ilitch was the guy who made breakfast and shoveled the walk.
They were good together. Better together.
Mike Ilitch died Friday. He was 87. Born on Detroit’s west side in 1929, he is survived by his family, along with generations of Detroit sports fans. He’d owned the NHL’s Red Wings since 1982 and Major League Baseball’s Tigers since 1992, won four Stanley Cup championships and went to two World Series. He won neither of those, but never stopped trying, only last winter telling the Detroit Free Press after signing another free agent, “It might sound silly, but I don’t care about spending money.”
He was the minor-league shortstop who’d turned a day job washing used cars into a pizza empire, who grew rich and stayed, who stayed and tried to make the place more livable, who put winning teams in new buildings, and so perhaps brought a little pride into another place that could use it.
They called him Mr. I. And while it could be mildly uncomfortable when Tigers players and managers spoke of winning one for Mr. I before, you know, the sentiment came from a good place. What was good for Mr. I seemed good for Detroit. The reverse, too.
At a time when team owners are viewed at best suspiciously, Mr. I would sign that catcher, would sign that slugger, would pay his best players to stay, even if a high-end payroll in a town such as Detroit made little business sense. Even if it did, it wasn’t necessary, but Mr. I loved the game like they did — like the players and the fans did — and that went a long way in places like Anchor Bar and Hockeytown Café, along with Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena. His pursuit of championships, his loyalty to the city and therefore to them, bore their loyalty to him.
“I’m crushed right now,” former Tigers manager Jim Leyland told the Free Press on Friday night. “He did so much for me. … That’s the one thing we were always broken-hearted about, that we didn’t get that World Series for him.”
The love affair would play in any town, probably, but it seemed more fitting in Detroit. The Tigers could be great or they could be terrible, and then Mike Ilitch would stand in and without a gripe take another shot.
To the eye of an outsider, he was good that way. He was a decent man who also cared about winning ballgames. He saw what that might do for a place, for the spirit of a place, especially one that hadn’t all the usual advantages, and he seemed to decide that that’s what you take with you.
He tried. He won some. He lost too. It was dignified and it was honest. And so they were better for each other.
As for which was holding up the other all these years?
They took turns, probably.
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