What happens next?
That question, understandably, is on the minds of every Detroit sports fan following the death of Mike Ilitch.
An era has passed. We all knew this day was coming. We had heard the rumors that Mr. Ilitch was in failing health. Recent pictures of him showed a man nearing the end.
Still, his death sent a rumble across the city’s landscape that will be heard for quite a while. The business titan who transformed the Red Wings and the Tigers, and who rejuvenated a swath of downtown, is worthy of all the praise he will be receiving in the coming days.
Unfortunately, he never lived to see his baseball team reach the pinnacle. Nor will he thrill to the opening of his spectacular sports arena, the final piece to the puzzle that brings all four Detroit teams within walking distance of each other. When the puck drops for that first Red Wings game, or when the first basket is scored for the Pistons, it will be a moment of jubilation tinged with sadness.
And now the Tigers and the Wings enter uncharted waters. To be sure, Christopher Ilitch was taking over more and more responsibilities the past few years, but now he will be the man in charge.
What kind of owner will he be? Will he call Al Avila in the middle of the night, urging him to sign the latest free agent slugger, no matter what the cost? Not likely. In fact, the Tigers, fiscally speaking, are heading in the opposite direction. A tightening of purse strings is inevitable, and the organization is going to have to learn how to thrive through astute analytics and player development.
That is the direction that baseball teams are heading. Anybody who questions that approach only needs to look at what a certain baseball team on the north side of Chicago did recently. Teams desire athleticism. They want players who can do many things well on a baseball field. They no longer want to shell out huge money for plodding, one-dimensional sluggers who hit .230 and are a burden on payroll.
As for the Red Wings, they are an organization that is sputtering, and has been for a while. Twenty-five consecutive years of making the playoffs is quite an accomplishment, but the only thing that counts in the National Hockey League is a Stanley Cup championship, and right now the Wings are nowhere close to that ultimate goal. The team’s last Cup, back in 2008, seems like ancient history. Mr. Ilitch was a free spender in the glory days, but the economic rules of the game have changed, and the Wings have had a difficult time adjusting to that new reality.
Christopher Ilitch may discover that he has his father’s tenacity and win-at-all-costs mentality as an owner. Tigers and Red Wings fans are hoping he is as passionate about victory as “Mr. I” was.
As far as the arena, it would be the ultimate tribute if it could be renamed Ilitch Arena. That is not going to happen. The address is listed as 66 Sibley Street; why not change the street name to Ilitch Place?
Ilitch Holdings is a family-run business, and family-run sports teams are increasingly rare. Who knows, Christopher Ilitch may wake up one day and decide that he does not want to own two franchises. He may wind up selling one or the other, or both. Let us hope that the Ilitch family continues to invest in both teams, continues to strive for excellence, and gives Detroit two franchises they can be proud of.