Let me tell you the story of two professional team owners. The first has continually opened his pocketbook. Every time a player has been injured, left via free agency or hasn’t panned out, he’s been replaced by a better specimen.
The result has been one of the most dominant franchises in sports. This particular owner has been rewarded with three championships in less than a decade; he continued to spend money this offseason in hopes of making it four.
Owner No. 2 has proven himself to be the exact opposite.
Rarely spending money to improve his team, it has been forced to pick up cheap, unwanted players.
When he has spent money, it has been ill-timed and poorly placed, throwing money at average athletes when better ones are available for slightly more money.
His prize has been a team that has floundered for a decade at the bottom of the league’s barrel, unable to ever improve over the prior season.
Now for the kicker.
These two owners are actually one person.
Specifically, it is Mike Ilitch, the current owner of both the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers.
I don’t even really need to say anything more – anyone who knows anything about sports is aware of the difference in success recently between the Red Wings and Tigers.
The problem is, and has been for years, the completely different strategies that Ilitch has utilized with his two teams.
In hockey, Ilitch has assembled one of the most impressive lineups in hockey history. Future Hall of Famers Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull and Dominik Hasek have all made their way to Detroit in recent years.
When Hasek retired after the Red Wings’ 2002 Stanley Cup championship, Ilitch slapped $8 million a year in front of Curtis Joseph, the best free agent goalie available.
In the playoffs last year, the Red Wings struggled on defense. The answer? A multi-million dollar contract for superstar blueliner Derian Hatcher. It’s just another move in a long line of decisions to keep the Wings stockpiled with the best talent available.
That attitude couldn’t be further from what has happened at Tiger Stadium/Comerica Park since Ilitch took over the Tigers in the ’90s.
While the Red Wings continue to accept handouts from Ilitch, the Tigers have stumbled through year after year with washed-up talent. Detroit hasn’t seen a winning baseball team since 1993, and last week, the Tigers had to get hot in order to avoid breaking the record for most losses in a season.
The biggest misconception about this entire Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde situation is that Ilitch has never spent money on the Tigers. On the contrary, he put up a large sum of money to help build Comerica Park, and then he tried to slap a $100-million contract on slugger Juan Gonzalez after the Tigers traded for him.
But Gonzalez didn’t sign, and the Tigers one attempt at a big name came and went like so many losing seasons.
And even Comerica has become an excuse. Ilitch has constantly cited the debt he is in from building Comerica as a reason why more big-name baseball free agents aren’t courted to Detroit.
As far as I can tell, Ilitch isn’t the only one to blame – though seeing the Wings with one of the NHL’s highest payrolls and the Tigers with one of MLB’s lowest is quite a conundrum.
Where the Red Wings and Tigers have spent money has gone a long way towards explaining this “Win Some, Lose a Whole Lot” story.
The Wings always sign big-name talent. The Tigers, meanwhile, had outfielder Bobby Higginson make $12 million this year. (Higgy batted under .240 this year), third baseman Dean Palmer made $8.5 million (he’s played 30 games in two years), and pitcher Steve Sparks and utility man Craig Paquette combined for over $7 million (both were released).
So, now, Detroit fans remain in a tough spot. During the winter, they are joyous while watching the Red Wings challenge for the crown. But as soon as the hockey season ends, it’s back to TigerTown, which is like the anti-Disney lately – it’s the Crappiest Place on Earth.
It’s hard to decide what to do. Many Detroit fans want to run Ilitch out of town, except for the fact that he’s brought three titles to Detroit with the Red Wings.
How angry can you get at that?
But the Motor City is starting to run out of patience for its minor league-at-best baseball team.
Maybe Ilitch is finally getting the message. Last week, he told the Detroit News, “I’m going to do what’s necessary to field a good team.”
Sounds great, but it leads one to wonder where he’s been for a decade.
The easy answer seems to be that he’s been too caught up in his hockey team to worry about what the Tigers have been doing.
This offseason might be his last chance to prove that he cares about baseball, too – before the Tigers’ long and distinguished history can no longer be heard over all the laughter about the jokes of the league.