Anthony Castrovince

Ilitch's honor inspiring for Tigers of all stripes

Beloved in Detroit, late owner feted with ceremony before home opener

Ilitch's honor inspiring for Tigers of all stripes

DETROIT -- That flag flapping in the wind above Comerica Park. That logo painted on the grass in front of the Tigers' dugout. That patch on the home white sleeves. Those buttons handed out to every attendee. And most noticeably, that special 150-by-66-foot cut in the center-field grass.

"Mr. I" -- the affectionate appellation those in this organization used to describe dearly departed owner Mike Ilitch -- was everywhere when the Tigers staged their 2017 home opener Friday. Ilitch himself had passed away exactly eight weeks earlier, but, even beyond the thoughtful measures the Tigers took to properly honor such a beloved figure before their wild 6-5 victory over the Red Sox, his spirit is still inescapable in downtown Detroit.

Tigers honor Mike Ilitch

It's here at Comerica Park. It is across the street at the refurbished Fox Theatre. And it is just a short walk up Woodward, where Wayne State University's Mike Ilitch School of Business is being constructed adjacent to the arena that will house his Red Wings and bear the name of his Little Caesar's pizza empire.

"Everybody knows it's been talked about, written about and discussed -- what he's done for the Tigers organization," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "But I think what he's done for this city is a lot more important. He's been integral."

And so Ilitch's legacy will live on long past the point when the grass grows back or the patches are removed or the Miguel Cabrera contract expires.

Mike Ilitch's widow, Marian (second from right), takes in Friday's ceremony with five of her children. (Getty)

But in Detroit's clubhouse, there is not only an appreciation for all Ilitch did to put a lavish roster together but also a deep, deep appreciation for the fact that is still together, despite plenty of offseason rumors to the contrary.

Organizational depth is an issue, injury is a threat and the bullpen, well … it's a bullpen the Tigers have seen before, as Friday's performance showed. But Detroit is inspired to make a run in Ilitch's honor.

"I don't want it to be the rally cry," ace Justin Verlander said in the video tribute the Tigers showed on the scoreboard. "But, man, wouldn't it be great if this could be the year, with him looking down on us?"

The Tigers can play the what-if game with their 2016 result. Maybe a healthy Jordan Zimmermann, for instance, would have been able to bridge the 2 1/2-game gap that existed between Detroit and an American League Wild Card spot. Missed opportunities like that loom especially large in these parts, because there's no denying -- with the currently injured J.D. Martinez a pending free agent and the luxury tax taming the free-spending ways of Ilitch's final years -- that this could be the last earnest run for a while.

"I think we understand this could be our last opportunity to show what this club can do," Kinsler said. "But this is the same club last year that they predicted to push the Indians for the Central Division. This year, there's no such rumblings just because … I don't know why. I can't figure it out. It's the same team, with a couple of additions that make us younger."

It is the fragility of an awesome-but-aging core that shapes the skepticism, yet, to Kinsler's point, upside exists in the arms of Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd and, of course, reigning AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Michael Fulmer, whose six scoreless innings on Friday were an early indicator that he can build off his 2016 brilliance.

The Tigers paid tribute to Mike Ilitch with a "Mr. I" outline in the Comerica Park outfield grass. (AP)

But this is obviously still a team centered around stars like Verlander, Cabrera, Kinsler, Victor Martinez and Justin Upton. They are the remnants of Ilitch's fantastic fandom, his spare-no-expense approach to building a ballclub. It was fitting that Friday's ceremonial first pitch was thrown by pending Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, because it was Pudge's 2004 arrival, on the heels of a 119-loss season, that signaled a new era financed by Ilitch's late-life aggression.

"Mr. Ilitch and [then-general manager] Dave Dombrowski received me warmly," Rodriguez said. "They said, 'We're going to put the team together and bring some great players for you.' And that's exactly what they did. Placido Polanco, Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, Verlander came up from Triple-A. From one year to another, we became a winning team."

Ilitch's generosity was evident in big contracts and small gestures. Catcher Alex Avila remembers the time the Tigers were instructed to be prompt for the team photo or else face a fine, because Mr. I was going to be there for the shoot and nobody wanted to disappoint him.

"He ended up showing up a little bit late," Avila recalled with a laugh, "and everyone was kind of getting on him."

So Ilitch was actually the one who paid the fine. He gave every guy a thousand bucks.

Ilitch's largesse is what led to the Tigers' AL pennants in 2006 and '12. But they never won the big one. It's a fact that ate at Ilitch, and it's a fact that still fuels the superstar-laden squad he left behind.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.