DETROIT — You might call Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and Torii Hunter an odd couple, but the two are bound by something very powerful: An overwhelming desire to win a championship.
That desire was so strong and Hunter’s belief in the Tigers so great that he had already decided that if the Los Angeles Angels didn’t offer him a contract, he wanted to come to Detroit.
Hunter was the one who arranged to visit Detroit with his wife, Katrina, this past Tuesday. When he met Ilitch for the first time, he recognized a kindred spirit.
“This guy has a lot of fire,” Hunter said. “He just greeted me with a big smile. He said, ‘You came here, you played against us with a fire and that’s what we need, fire.’
“Just looking at him and talking to him, I could tell that he really wants to win that World Series. I’ve been playing Major League Baseball for 14 seasons and I see that same fire. I could look at him and I feel it because I’m searching for the same thing.
“I really want to win a World Series and he’s given me that great opportunity to win a World Series with the Detroit Tigers in 2013. I want to say thank you to Mr. I.”
Ilitch and Hunter also realize time is not on their side. At 84, Ilitch knows he doesn’t have forever to win. At 37, Hunter knows his career is closer to the end than the beginning.
Ilitch has won four Stanley Cups with his Detroit Red Wings. He’s built an incredibly successful business in Little Caesars Pizza, among other enterprises. But there’s still something missing.
Hunter has been an All-Star four times, has won nine Gold Gloves and made the playoffs. But there’s still something missing.
“That’s definitely the hole,” Hunter said. “You could say the Gold Gloves, the All-Stars, whatever it may be, but it’s not complete. Nothing’s going to be more gratifying and satisfying until I win that World Series.
“All that stuff, I don’t feel complete. So I know what’s going to make me complete is winning a World Series, and I think the Tigers give me a better chance of winning a World Series.”
As much as Hunter wants to win a championship, that’s not all there is to him, which made Ilitch appreciate his new outfielder even more.
“Torii had a reputation of being an upscale player, lots of enthusiasm,” Ilitch said. “But the thing that impressed me in the time we spent together is that he cares about everybody. He cares about poor people. The first thing I talked to him about was the conditions in Detroit, and he wants to help.”
Ilitch said meeting Hunter was like being with someone he’s known 20 years. Even during the press conference, Hunter bantered easily with his new owner and got it right back.
“I’ll pay you later for what you just said,” Hunter said to Ilitch after hearing the compliments.
“I said it the way you wanted me to,” Ilitch responded, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Later, when Hunter tried to respond to a question that was directed at Ilitch, the owner smiled and said, “Is it OK, boss,” to Hunter before answering.
“I found that this baseball player had other concerns, about other people in the world and in life,” Ilitch said. “That made me feel real good … I got a solid individual here, a solid human being.”
Hunter had similar things to say about Ilitch.
“Mr. I, you guys have something special here,” Hunter said. “I heard about him for so many years, and I got a chance to really meet him and sit down and talk to him. He has a great personality, good character man, and he’s very down to earth. I like that about him.”
Ilitch already has done a lot for the people of Detroit, and Hunter hopes to join him in some of those charitable endeavors.
Each knows that one of the best ways to bring joy to the city and Tigers fans is winning it all.
“It’s just a perfect marriage, a perfect fit, and I really think I can win my World Series here in 2013,” Hunter said. “And ’14.”