I’m writing you on this Valentine’s Day with a heart full of joy.
And why wouldn’t it be? The Luke Cage soundtrack is pumping through my speakers. Our friend Marcia Eastland committed to writing next week’s dose about the 100-0 UCONN Huskies, and my best gal is the best gal in the whole world. BTW, she is my only gal.
However, none of that — or the strawberry shortcake and cookie cake in my office — has my heart as giddy as Justin Verlander and the rest of the Tigers pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training on Tuesday.
Miguel Cabrera and the offense will join him in Lakeland, Fla., soon, which means baseball is finally here.
Spring Training always spurs me to look ahead. But this week I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a step back and pay respect to the man who kept JV and Miggy in Detroit and made “The D” Hockeytown. I’m talking about former Tigers and Redwings owner Mike Ilitch, who passed away last week at the age of 88. When everyone else was bailing on the Motor City, Mr. Ilitch stuck around and gave all Michiganders teams they could be proud of.
Trying to properly capture Mr. Ilitch’s importance to Michigan sports fans has frozen my mind like the ice at Joe Lewis Arena where the Red Wings play or the Wings’ future home, Little Caesars Arena, which is named after the pizza joint Ilitch and his wife founded in 1959 when Mike was a shortstop in the Tigers farm system.
Back then, Detroit was known as the “Paris of the Midwest.” In the ’80s and ’90s, Detroit was known as “the murder capital of the world.”
The moniker made Detroit the butt of many jokes. It also tarnished the entire state and its residents because Michigan has always been inextricably tied to its largest city and especially its sports teams.
Growing up on the other side of “The Mitten,” the quickest way to get popped in the eye was to say something bad about Tigers manager Sparky Anderson or Redwings superstar Steve Yzerman, who was known simply as “The Captain.” Bad mouthing Lions running back Barry Sanders could get you bloody, too.
And the more the city crumbled under poor governance, unemployment and blight, the more we grasped onto our Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons (sort of) and Lions. However, the Lions’ ineptness mirrored the city’s and reminded Michiganders of how bad things were.
When the city of Detroit was at its worst, Lions owner William Clay Ford put together the worst team in NFL history.
Mr. Ilitch’s teams, however, reminded us of what we were and more importantly, what we could be.
When Stevie Y and the Redwings were winning Stanley Cups in ’97, ’98, ‘02 and ’08, Detroit wasn’t the murder capital of the world. It was Hockeytown, and its residents weren’t victims. We were winners!
Then there’s the Tigers. The little old man with the jet-black man perm kept his money in Detroit and served as the engine that kept the Motor City Kitties purring among the big boys in baseball. In spite of Detroit being the 21st largest city in the U.S. and its dwindling population (Detroit’s population has dropped nearly 5 percent since 2010), Mr. Ilitch has kept the Tigers payroll among the tops in all of baseball. The Tigers currently have the second largest payroll in the league.
He’s kept Verlander, Cabrera and Victor Martinez on the payroll. He’s also added top free agents like Ian Kinsler and Jordan Zimmermann. And because of that, the Tigers have remained a playoff contender for more than a decade.
It’s true; the Wings are waning (They are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990). and the Tigers’ success hasn’t resulted in a championship. But that’s not what matter when discussing Mr. Ilitch’s legacy.
When Detroit and Michiganders were told for decades how things were so bad, Mr. Ilitch ensured we all had at least a few things that were so good.
If you have comments on this or anything to do with sports, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or hit me up on Twitter @CTJibber.