Tigers pay tribute to Ilitch before spring game

Tigers pay tribute to Ilitch before spring game

LAKELAND, Fla. -- On the day the Tigers officially opened their new-look Spring Training ballpark, they bid farewell to the beacon who guided the franchise to such lofty heights.

After ceremonies honoring Mike Ilitch in Detroit, Friday was the Tigers' turn to pay tribute to their longtime owner, who passed away two weeks ago at age 87. Virtually everyone on the team Ilitch brought together helped play a part in a touching ceremony prior to the 2-0 loss to the Orioles at renovated Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

As Tigers players, coaches and staff walked in a procession down the right-field line and around the infield, key figures during Ilitch's tenure took part in a prerecorded video tribute that played on the left-field scoreboard. General manager Al Avila, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Nick Castellanos, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez, Jose Iglesias and Jordan Zimmermann all spoke in the piece.

As son Christopher Ilitch looked on, Victor Martinez, Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Upton and Kinsler unveiled an insignia honoring Mike Ilitch, the same "Mr. I" design that adorns a patch on the Tigers' uniform sleeves this spring. Atop the left-field berm, Verlander, Cabrera, manager Brad Ausmus, Avila and former manager Jim Leyland raised a flag with a similar design under the American flag.

"I thought it was fantastic," Verlander said. "It's special to be able to be a part of it, especially with as long as I've been in this organization and what Mr. I has done for me, to pay my respects. I was pretty disappointed I couldn't be in Detroit, and I thought that was a great thing that Chris did and the organization did, to allow us to pay our respects in our own way down here."

The ceremony, concluding with a moment of silence, lasted about 20 minutes. It was a fitting tribute to an owner who set the direction of so many aspects of the team.

"I thought it was very nice," Ausmus said. "It was well done."

Christopher Ilitch, who was in Detroit for a celebration of his father's life Wednesday and a public visitation at Fox Theatre last week, called Friday's ceremony incredible. Friday was his first chance to talk with players, many of whom sent messages of condolence following Mike Ilitch's passing.

"I actually had a chance to talk to the players this morning," Christopher Ilitch said. "The kind remarks they've had for my father, the condolences, it has been remarkable. The outpouring from the fans and the general public, amazing. Amid what is a very difficult period for me and for my brothers and sisters, and certainly my mother, it's heartwarming to see that type of support, that outpouring of love. And to hear all the amazing stories about my father, he certainly modeled the way for all of us. I'm very, very fortunate to have had a father like that, and we're going to miss him dearly."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.