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Exclusive: Chris Ilitch talks Tigers, Wings rebuilds; being judged against his father


Detroit — As life and career changes go, the timing was tough. Five years ago, Chris Ilitch took over as chairman and CEO of the Tigers — as well as the Red Wings — shortly after his father, Mike, died. The teams’ concurrent runs of playoff contention were over. Major decisions beckoned.

Chris Ilitch, now 56, assumed control quietly, but not apprehensively. He spent 40 years around his family as the Ilitch empire grew, from Little Caesars to the Red Wings, and then with the purchase of the Tigers in 1992. A graduate of Michigan’s business school, Chris navigated the corporate halls while his parents, Mike and Marian, became the prominent faces of Detroit development and sports.

In 2017, the aging Tigers needed to be rebuilt. The aging Wings needed to be rebuilt. The aging city was being rebuilt. And here came Chris Ilitch who thought like his dad, loved baseball and hockey like his dad, but didn’t necessarily talk like his dad. No one knew if he would act or spend like his dad, whose free-wheeling competitiveness was legendary.

Chris heard the concerns, framed by comparisons to his father, and he didn’t waver. It has been an arduous, painful rebuild, and with the Tigers seemingly on the verge of a significant breakthrough, Ilitch is more comfortable in his role, bolder in his actions. GM Al Avila has drafted wisely and the club has a top manager in AJ Hinch, a batch of promising young players and an influx of free agents with contracts approaching $240 million, highlighted by star shortstop Javier Báez.

As a highly anticipated Opening Day approached, Chris Ilitch sat in the Champions Club inside Comerica Park this week for an hour-long discussion about his vision for the team. Some naturally wondered if he would be as committed as his parents, and one of his answers underlined it.

Did you ever consider selling either team?

“Absolutely not,” he said. “My parents love these sports and have built a legacy. I’m focused on continuing that legacy and adding to it.”

He’s reserved by nature but an Ilitch by birth, and that thrusts him to the forefront, ready or not. Candidly and confidently, he believes he’s never been readier. (Portions of the interview were edited for length and clarity).

Wojo: You’ve been in charge of the Tigers for almost five years, and it’s been a rough stretch. But the team improved to 77-85 last season and now you’ve added Javy Báez, Tucker Barnhart, Eduardo Rodriguez, Andrew Chafin and Michael Pineda, and the other day, traded for Austin Meadows. Is the rebuild over?

Ilitch: One hundred percent, yes. We’re at the stage now where we need to keep building and building. Are we gonna be in the playoffs? I hope so. I don’t know. And if we are, outstanding. And if we’re not, then we’re gonna get right back after it and be aggressive.

Q: With some pieces in place, a sellout crowd for Opening Day, what stage are the Tigers in now?

A: It’s an exciting stage, a fun stage. I’m so fired up about this team, so optimistic. We laid out a strategy very early in the process — build the infrastructure, starting with analytics, better scouting, better drafting, identify good young players, better player development. Once we had that great young talent — (Casey) Mize, (Matt) Manning, (Tarik) Skubal, (Akil) Baddoo, (Riley) Greene, (Spencer) Torkelson — we said we’re gonna fill in through free agency.

We’ve all endured a lot through the pandemic. Tigers fans have endured not only the pandemic but this rebuild. The thing I would say to fans is, thank you for your patience and your passion.

Q: You spent upwards of $240 million this offseason, fourth-most in baseball. (Tigers payroll rose from about 24th to 18th in the majors). Is this just the start of it?

A: We’ve still got another whole wave of young players coming. But in the meantime, we have a window, and they’re here. So we have to capitalize on our time and be aggressive and build a team that can compete for a World Series championship. We’re executing our plan, but there are always temptations to get off the plan. You might want to sign that player, but it’s 3-4 more years than we think is wise. So we have to be careful because we want to be good on a long-term sustainable basis.

Q: The major debate centered on two big-time shortstops. Al Avila got Báez for $140 million over six years. Reports said, Carlos Correa turned down the Tigers’ offer of $275 million over 10 years. Did you have to draw a line?

A: I placed no restrictions on Al when it came to filling out the needs of our roster. I give him a ton of credit, he was so aggressive at the beginning of the offseason before the work stoppage. Had he not done what he did, it would’ve been more difficult. (Correa waited until after the lockout and signed with the Twins essentially for one year at $35 million).

To your question, I feel very good that we were aggressive in making high-end offers to the free agents on the market. But it takes two to consummate an agreement. I would echo what AJ Hinch says — those that want to be with our organization, that’s great, we’re happy to have you. Those that don’t, we’re gonna compete against you. And as AJ says, we’re gonna beat you.

Q: You don’t seem angry often, at least not publicly, but when the story came out you were one of four owners that voted against raising the Competitive Balance Tax, you wanted to set the record straight. What happened there?

A: Since this (labor negotiation) process started back in December, there’s only ever been one vote. And it was 30-0 in favor of it. So it’s very clear how I voted and what I voted for. Anything contrary is simply noise created by those with an agenda.

Q: You got unusually riled up, huh?

A: I addressed it, I moved on. I don’t worry about it, because at the end of the day, I know what I’m doing. I’m fighting for the Tigers, fighting for Tigers fans. When you look at what we did in the offseason spending a lot on free agents, it just doesn’t sync up with that narrative at all. So I’ll leave it at that.

Q: What move made you start to feel confident you could turn this franchise in a positive direction?

A: When we brought in (last year) who we think is the best field manager in all of baseball in AJ Hinch. Not only is he very smart, very driven, he’s an excellent communicator, an excellent leader of men. The thing I’ve been most impressed with is his ability to change the culture and the mindset to a winning culture.

Q: That was a trademark of your father’s successful teams. Strong leaders at the top, continuity.

A: Yes, and we’ve got the right leaders. Al Avila is excellent. In many ways, he reminds me of Jimmy D (Devellano, longtime Wings executive). He has a keen eye for talent, he’s very humble, very low ego, a great baseball man.

What I’m doing, what we’re doing, is no different than what my parents did with the Red Wings in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and what my father did with the Tigers in 2006. Went out and got very, very bright people, then found the talent — the Yzermans, Fedorovs, Lidstroms, Konstantinovs. Then you bring in free agents to fill out the roster, and we rattled off four Stanley Cup championships.

And with the Tigers in ‘06, the same. We had (Justin) Verlander, (Joel) Zumaya, (Curtis) Granderson and our young core, and we added in a mix of free agents — Pudge (Rodriguez), Magglio (Ordonez), Kenny Rogers, on and on. And off we went to win pennants in ’06 and ’12. A key moment in both of those was the addition of Scotty Bowman at the right time, a Hall of Fame coach, and the addition of Jim Leyland, an incredible manager. When you look at the addition of AJ Hinch, it’s very analogous to what we’ve done in the past.

Q: There has been speculation — nothing ever confirmed — that Hinch could opt out of his contract at some point. Do you worry about hanging onto a manager so highly respected?

A: No. I believe AJ is very happy in his role, but I don’t want to speak for him. I’m checking in with him all the time. I was down at spring training and spent some time with him, and I said, "AJ, how you doing, you happy?" He said, "Oh yeah, I’m happy, I like our ballclub, I like the chemistry." I said, "AJ, you’re happy, I’m happy." … My hope is the Detroit Tigers are going to be a great place for AJ to pursue everything he wants to accomplish in his career.

Q: I detect a formula here, one that worked for your father and mother, in business and sports.

A: If you want to know who I am, I’m a product of the environment I grew up in and what I’ve seen. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to work with my parents for 30 years. We’re a family company. They were my mentors, and the values they espoused are the values I live by in business and life. I’ve had a front-row seat to all of that. I think in many respects, it’s our blueprint for success. I call them the secrets to the sauce.

Q: Not pizza sauce, but the sauce for running two professional sports teams. And for 22 years, you’ve run all other aspects of the Ilitch empire. Ingredients?

A: First and foremost, it’s thinking big and setting ambitious goals. My parents always have been big thinkers, whether it’s starting a pizza chain, growing it around the world, buying a hockey team, buying a baseball team, starting a casino, I could go on and on. No. 2 is creativity and innovation. Whether it’s 'Pizza Pizza,' 'Hot-N-Ready,' the Russian Five (with the Wings), these are very unique things that were done throughout the history of the company.

You can think big, but if you’re not willing to take a risk, it’s not gonna amount to anything. For my parents, it was plowing their life savings into a thing called pizza — it was unestablished then, I think there were only two places in all of Detroit in the ‘50s. It took a lot of courage.

Q: Sports and business don’t follow linear progressions. Teams don’t naturally get better each year, sometimes they get worse. How do you handle the lows?

A: I’ve been around pro sports for 40 years — my parents bought the Red Wings when I was 17 — and one thing I do guarantee in life is, there are gonna be bumps in the road. I think the ‘03 Tigers (who lost 119 games) were probably the greatest illustration of perseverance I’ve ever seen. The pundits were calling for my father to sell the team, throw in the towel. He did just the opposite, dug his heels in, doubled down. He was determined, tweaks here and there and a lot of hard work, and next thing you know, three years later, we were in the World Series.

Q: A question about the Red Wings. Steve Yzerman’s rebuild somewhat mirrors the Tigers’. They have a young core but have slid late in the season. Are you satisfied with the progress?

A: I love the course there, very analogous to what we’re doing with the Tigers and what we’ve done in history. Steve is building a young core and filling in with free agents. Now is not the time to go all out because he doesn’t have that full young core. He’s got parts, but we need more. I think this season illustrated that we don’t have the depth we need.

Q: Yzerman probably has to make a decision on his coach, Jeff Blashill, who’s finishing out his seventh season. Struggles were expected, but are you concerned about the ugly stretches?

A: That’s a question that really would have to be directed at Steve. I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. I have a ton of respect for Steve Yzerman and a ton of respect for Jeff Blashill. I’m gonna leave it to Steve to decide what he wants to do with the head coach. I’ve hired Al and Steve because I think they’re great at what they do, and now I gotta let them do their thing. It’s very infrequent that I may say to them, no, I don’t want you to do that.

Q: It was tough timing for you to take control of the Tigers and Wings after your father died in 2017. The Red Wings’ 25-year playoff streak was expiring and the Tigers’ push to a pair of World Series was exhausted. You got to inherit two rebuilds, like it or not. There always are rumors. Did you ever consider selling either team?

A: Absolutely not. I don’t guarantee much, but I can pretty well guarantee in my lifetime, we will not sell the Tigers or the Red Wings. We won’t for several reasons. First and foremost, I love both sports. They’re actually the sports that I played my entire life, and I was really good at them.

Secondly, my parents love these sports and have built a legacy. I’m focused on continuing that legacy and adding to it. And third, these teams are part of the fabric of the community. You see it with the Stanley Cup parades down Woodward. You’ve seen it with all the joy when the Tigers won it in ‘84, and even in ’06 and ‘12 winning a pennant. Sports add to the quality of life in our community. I take that very seriously.

Q: To many, the depth of an owner’s seriousness is reflected in the checkbook. I’m sure you heard the narrative — Chris will never spend like his father. What do you think of that?

A: A couple things. First, my father would be absolutely thrilled with where we are as a ballclub and an organization. He would love the foundation that we’ve built. What we’re doing, what I’m doing, is exactly what he would’ve done, and did do in his career. I’m gonna be judged on whether or not I can bring one of those (points to the 1968 and ’84 World Series championship trophies displayed in the Comerica Park Champions Club).

I keep my eye on the prize. I’m really not worried about a lot of chatter along the way. I’m aware of it, I hear it, but I’m very focused and I’m not easily deterred. To build a championship team, payroll is part of it, but there are many other components. If you can’t identify the talent and build a young core, you’re gonna have a tough time trying to go out on that open market and just buy free agents. Very, very difficult to do. Can you do it? Yeah, maybe. Some have done it. But not very many.

Q: Your father loved to land big names, and he was larger than life at times, brash, funny, aggressive. You have a business degree from Michigan and are more buttoned-down with your comments. Behind the scenes, how much are you like your father?

A: (Laughs). I’ve been told I’m like a really good mix of my mother and my father. My father was very, very competitive. I’m very, very competitive. He would wear his competitiveness outward more. My mother (now 89), she’s a planner, she’s meticulous, attention to detail. I’m a product of my parents, not only physically, but also in their best skills and attributes. I feel I have those. I think it’s a big part of why I’m in the role I’m in.

Q: Your parents have been huge proponents of Detroit’s growth and development. You’ve served on many committees and spearheaded the District Detroit project. Progress has been slow at times and projects delayed around Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park. Where do you stand now on that?

A: I’m very bullish and excited on where we’re headed. Certainly, the pandemic has changed things. For example, I laid out a vision what we wanted to do in the District Detroit and a couple partnerships didn’t work out like we had planned and hoped. That set us back. But what are you gonna do? You gonna throw in the towel? No. I told you my makeup. We’re committed, we’re gonna persevere and we’re gonna come out the other end even better than what we were planning before.

Q: So you still strongly believe in the overall scope of the project?

A: We have great momentum in our city coming out of the pandemic. The NFL Draft is coming. The Detroit Center for Innovation, partnering with Stephen Ross and UM, is a very big, exciting project. We’ve had a number of projects we completed through the pandemic, including our Little Caesars world headquarters.

I believe we’re gonna have an incredible downtown, in particular, the sports and entertainment district. Development is very complex, it involves a lot of different stakeholders and it takes time.

Q: I don’t know how to ask you this, but I’ll try. It had to be a blessing to have a father like yours, but is there a shadow it creates that you can’t escape? That you’re forever judged against his legacy?

A: I hear that, but it really doesn’t faze me. Because I had an unbelievable relationship with my father, and an equally unbelievable relationship with my mother still today. I’m trying to continue and honor the legacy that Mike and Marian Ilitch have created. When people say Mike Ilitch would’ve done this, or Mike Ilitch would’ve done that, I say, you know what, I can tell you exactly what he would’ve done. When you work with people for 30 years, you get to the point where you can finish their sentences.

I feel really confident in how we’re going about building the Tigers. I stay aware, I stay connected. I’m very methodical, I just create a plan and get after it. I know who I am, I know who my father was and who my mother is. I know exactly how they would’ve approached things. It’s a challenge, and it’s one I feel I’ve been equipped for my entire life.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski