On Jan. 26, 2012, the largesse of Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch seemed limitless. So did the potential of his franchise to win the World Series. That was the day the team announced it had signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract.
The dais at Comerica Park was crowded that afternoon: Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras; Fielder; Fielder’s son, Jadyn; Ilitch; Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski; and manager Jim Leyland. It was the latest in a long succession of Detroit business trips for Boras, who had direct dialogue with Ilitch when clients Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers signed with the team during the previous decade.
The three stars played pivotal roles as the Tigers won the 2006 American League pennant. Now Fielder was going to deliver the World Series ring that Ilitch so desperately desired.
"As far as Scott Boras, I want to tell you something: He knows this team better than I do," Ilitch gushed during the press conference. "I mean, he knows every player — what their averages are, where they’re from, what they did during their career, who leads the team . . . I was flabbergasted.
"He went through a big discussion and pointed out to me some of the things he thought were necessary to win a World Series. He explained to me why. There’s great salesmanship involved in that . . . but . . . I put the sales aside and listened to the commonsense approach he has and the knowledge he has about the game. He’s extremely knowledgeable."
After the Tigers’ most recent dealings with Boras, Ilitch made no such remarks.
In a statement Sunday morning, the team said Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer — a Boras client — had rejected "a substantial, long-term contract extension offer . . . that would have placed him among the highest paid pitchers in baseball." (Subsequently, a source told FOX Sports 1 the proposal was for $144 million over six years.) The team said it would not negotiate with Scherzer until after the regular season, at which point he will be a free agent.
With that press release, the Tigers confirmed something that had become increasingly clear in recent weeks and months: The franchise’s old way of doing business — including a cozy relationship with Boras — is no more.
There are a number of possible explanations, and they begin with Ilitch, the 84-year-old billionaire who also owns the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. While Ilitch remains informed on major issues involving his teams, he is less of a daily presence around the clubs than on the day he spoke so glowingly of Boras.
Fielder’s arrival to Detroit was a classic illustration of the Old Way: Victor Martinez, the reliable run producer who protected Miguel Cabrera, went down with a season-ending knee injury in preseason workouts. The Tigers scrambled for a replacement one month before spring training.
As Dombrowski has told the story, he presented the list of alternatives to Ilitch and said only one — Fielder — would be a difference-maker.
"Well," Ilitch replied, "why don’t we try to get him?"
The response was the essence of Ilitch: He has been the ultimate hey-why-not owner, marrying a fan’s emotion with a net worth of $3.5 billion, according to Forbes.
At least, that’s the way it was.
Consider how a younger Ilitch might have reacted to the Tigers’ present circumstances:
* Sunday could have been the day of a happy press conference to announce Scherzer’s new contract — at the figures Boras wanted.
* The Tigers would have signed Stephen Drew (a Boras client) on a one-year, $14 million contract to replace Jose Iglesias (another Boras client) as the everyday shortstop. Instead they traded for Andrew Romine, a reserve throughout his brief major league career.
* Fielder and steady starting pitcher Doug Fister might have remained with the team, rather than depart in offseason trades that saved money.
To be clear, none of that is a criticism. With three straight ALCS appearances and one World Series berth, Ilitch and Dombrowski have proved they know how to operate a winning franchise. The Tigers will establish a new team payroll record this year, and they spend far more on players than any of their competitors in the AL Central. But it’s also true that, in several recent instances, the Tigers have decided against making investments that would have ensured a more talented roster in the present and/or future.
And in contrast to the Fielder talks, sources say Boras did not have direct dialogue with Ilitch during the Scherzer negotiations.
Those are the facts. The question is why.
Is it Ilitch’s health? He recently acknowledged having a "medical procedure" during the past year, without releasing specifics.
Is it that family members, friends and/or advisers have counseled him to slow the rate of the Tigers’ payroll increase, particularly with Ilitch Holdings, Inc., focused on a new downtown hockey arena?
Is Ilitch simply tired of the perception that he always caves to Boras?
Is there pressure in baseball for the Tigers to gradually bring their payroll more in line with their market size, rather than behave like a large-market team?
Or is this the way Dombrowski would have wanted to run the team all along, if it hadn’t been for Ilitch’s aggressiveness in courting the likes of Rodriguez and Ordonez?
Whatever the reason, the Tigers’ apparent shift could have far-reaching ramifications.
Beginning with the Rodriguez signing a decade ago, Ilitch built a reputation in baseball circles as an owner willing to overpay for star players in free agency and contract extensions. His generosity resulted in long-term deals that didn’t work out (Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, Carlos Guillen) and others that did (Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Rodriguez, Ordonez, Rogers and Martinez). He transformed Detroit from a place players avoided — because of the losing, the weather, and the perceived undesirability of the city — into a destination for championship-minded stars.
Boras played a role in that evolution. Lest that be overlooked, he offered the following reminder at the Fielder press conference: "Mike really let me know in 2003 what he wanted to do for his community, what he wanted to do for his family, and what he wanted to do for his team. Once I understood the passion, we started with Pudge, then Magglio, Kenny Rogers. Three years later, we had a team from 119 losses [in 2003] in a World Series."
"That type of success, that type of commitment, is something that travels in the player community," Boras said that day. "You can tell players when they’re young that you can look at the Detroit Tigers as a candidate when you’re a free agent. Players look at that. And they look at Detroit differently."
But that perception is not guaranteed to last. Detroit isn’t L.A. and never will be. The Tigers can’t sell a beachfront location or jet-setting lifestyle. Detroit will remain a baseball hot spot only as long as (a) the Tigers win and (b) Ilitch and his eventual successors hand out massive contracts to star players. Obviously, those two factors are interrelated.
For now, curiosity is rippling through the industry over the Tigers’ current approach. Players — including those in the Detroit clubhouse — aren’t used to seeing a talented and popular peer, such as Scherzer, walk away from a negotiation with Ilitch and not get what he wants. Maybe this is an isolated instance involving one player near the top of the marketplace. Then again, maybe it’s not. If the Scherzer case has created any doubts about the Tigers’ long-term direction, that could become clear through player behavior in next winter’s free-agent market.
Perhaps that is why the Tigers felt compelled to release a statement, declaring to the baseball world that they presented Scherzer with such a large offer. They have a brand to uphold. Dombrowski, in particular, may be sensitive to fallout from the Fister deal (panned by many in the industry) and criticism that he’s taking the cheap route in replacing Iglesias.
Over eight years as a Michigan-based baseball reporter, I can’t recall the Tigers issuing a similar statement after not signing a player. When I asked why it was necessary here, Dombrowski responded by asking which players I was referring to. After thinking about it, I realized he was right: Over the past decade, the Tigers haven’t lost a single star player they truly wanted to keep. The reason: Ilitch has written the big check when it mattered most.
The biggest test yet is coming up: The Tigers have started preliminary talks with Cabrera on a long-term deal, as I reported Sunday. He is two years from free agency — which sounds far away, until you realize that’s the point at which Verlander (represented by the same agency, Relativity Baseball) signed his most recent contract.
The younger Ilitch would have viewed Cabrera — two-time defending AL MVP — as the ultimate blank-check player. He would have looked at Albert Pujols’ 10-year, $240 million contract, adjusted for industry revenue growth, and scheduled the press conference. But I can’t say that will happen anymore. Ilitch rarely grants interviews, so we don’t know how he feels. Maybe he sees Cabrera as a justifiable exception to — or, indeed, the reason for — his austerity in other areas.
Then again, what does Cabrera want? Will he look at the departure of his buddy Fielder, and the lack of a deal for Scherzer, and wonder if Detroit is where he wants to be for the end of a Hall of Fame career? Might Cabrera look back at the 2012 season — Fielder’s first in Detroit — and conclude that the stunningly brief World Series against San Francisco really was the best chance Ilitch had to win it all?
Cabrera will have the chance to answer a number of questions like that at the time his next contract is announced . . . whenever — and wherever –that happens.