On Friday, Detroit lost a piece of itself with the passing of native son, entrepreneur, businessman, philanthropist and legendary Tigers and Red Wings owner, Mike Ilitch.
However, heaven gained a Detroit booster.
After losing a record 119 games in 2003, the Tigers were in the dumps.
As the Chief Marketing Officer for a major Detroit-area company, Mr. Ilitch invited me, along with other corporate sponsors, down to Lakeland, Florida for spring training to hear his vision for the city’s beloved yet, struggling, legendary franchise.
We were fortunate to fly from Detroit to Florida on the Red Wings team plane. In fact, the Wings had just flown back to Metro airport from Arizona at 4am, and by 6am, the plane was cleaned and impeccable as all of us boarded. The staff was outstanding and everyone was treated with the utmost in class during our journey to Lakeland.
Upon landing airport in Florida, there were whispers that “Mr. I” would be greeting us.
And did he ever!
Not at the gate, but as we deplaned with the Florida sun beating down on winter-weary Michiganders, he was there, in his Tigers’ jacket, with a handshake, smile, a pat on the shoulder and a “thank you for coming message” to everyone. I couldn’t resist asking if I could see the Red Wings championship ring he was wearing. Amazed at the size of it and embarrassed by my youthful request, he obliged.
While there, I had the opportunity to spend time with Tiger legends, Al Kaline (aka, Mr. Tiger) and Willie Horton, et al. Imagine a kid from the west side of Detroit spending time with his childhood heroes. I was in heaven because, not only did I grow up watching them play at Tiger Stadium, I was fortunate enough to attend a game during the 1968 World Series where the Tigers beat the Cardinals in seven games.
However, what I truly remember most about the trip was Mr. I sharing his vision for the Tigers and Detroit. He, and his leadership team, talked about his unwavering resolve to bring his hometown a baseball championship, as he did with the Red Wings beginning in 1997.
While the Tigers fell short of winning the Series, the team had an incredible run from 2006-2014. In fact, the Old English D returned to its glory days and the vision laid out after the 2003 season came to fruition in a remarkable and timely fashion. Only three years removed, the Tigers were back in the World Series and there was a buzz across the city and this region which had been missing.
He also spent time talking about his love, not only for the Tigers, but Detroit. He desired to see the rebirth of his legendary hometown.
Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch started as entrepreneurs and watched Little Caesars grow from a single Garden City storefront, in 1959, to a global force. All of this happened while maintaining Detroit-area roots.
At a time businesses were leaving the city, the decision was made to move the company’s suburban corporate headquarters to the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit.
Truly a trailblazer.
As his businesses, teams and fortunes flourished, so did his commitment to Detroit.
As you walk around and see the continued development that’s now taking place downtown and beyond, pause, reflect and thank a visionary and true business and community leader.
Thank you Mr. I.
This city, region and state will be forever grateful. Condolences to the entire Ilitch family, including your beloved wife, Marian.
Rest In Peace.