By Jeff Moss
March 16, 2014
Just a week after the passing of longtime Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford, Sr. the DetroitSportsRag.com has learned from several sources close to the Ilitch Family that Mike Ilitch, Sr. — the patriarch of the Little Caesars Empire and owner of the Red Wings and Tigers — has been battling colon cancer for some time now.
It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes or Rustin Cohle to figure out that Ilitch has been very ill in recent months, but various sources have now confirmed to the DSR that the specific issue is cancer of the colon.
Mr. Ilitch has not been seen by the public at a Wings or Tigers event since the press conference announcing the Torii Hunter signing on November 16, 2012. His absence from the Tigers 2013 playoff run, the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium and the the recent Nicklas Lidstrom jersey retirement ceremony finally led the family to issue a press release regarding Ilitch’s health situation.
While Marian and I would love to be there, we won’t be at tomorrow’s jersey retirement for Nick Lidstrom. This past year, I had a medical procedure that has kept me out of the spotlight for a while. I feel much better now, and I’m stronger every day. While we may not attend every event, we never miss a game on TV and are very involved in all our businesses every day from home and the office.
I have been told by several sources that the “medical procedure” took place at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak last year and was related to the cancer diagnosis.
Mr. Ilitch has not given any access to the local media in quite some time, but did recently allow a reporter (Christopher Botta) from the Sports Business Daily into his Boca Raton, Florida home for a 90-minute interview.
In that interview, Ilitch admitted that the day-to-day operations of the pizza business and sports franchises are now being run by his children (more specifically, son Chris Ilitch, who won a power struggle with sister Denise years ago.)
Other sources have informed me that Wings GM Ken Holland has been reporting directly to Chris Ilitch regarding hockey operations and that their relationship is not as cozy as the one Holland enjoyed with Mike Ilitch. Multiple sources have informed me that Holland has been frustrated at times with the younger Ilitch and has had at least one “take this job and shove it” moment.
It is no secret that the Ilitch Family has had a longtime love affair with Steve Yzerman (the current General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning) and rumors persist that the prodigal son will one day replace Holland as team president.
Less is known about the relationship between Chris Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the days of Mr. Ilitch calling the shots are now over.
Over the last few years, Mike Ilitch had pushed for a World Series at almost any cost — the Prince Fielder mega-signing after the offseason Victor Martinez injury being the most obvious example.
But this offseason was the Tigers’ most frugal in years. It all began with the team’s refusal to make a qualifying offer to Jhonny Peralta — a move that has since blown up in their face for multiple reasons — and continued with the Fielder/Ian Kinsler swap and the almost universally-panned Doug Fister trade.
Does trading one of the Top 10 starting pitchers in WAR over the last three seasons for a utility infielder, a lefty relief specialist and a pitching prospect outside the Top 100 of almost all experts’ futures lists (who MIGHT make an impact in 2015) seem like the handiwork of Mike Ilitch?
It has become quite clear that while Mr. Ilitch convalesces, Chris Ilitch has been setting the Tigers’ budget. Also, keep in mind that Tigers — like all teams in MLB — recently received a $26 million check from the national television package; while their payroll will go up in 2014, it is not commensurate with that influx of new cash.
The Detroit Sports Media has attempted to spin the offseason financial moves as positioning for a new Max Scherzer contract, but with about two weeks until Opening Day (Scherzer’s self-imposed negotiation deadline), it appears the two sides are very far apart; the general consensus of those in the know is that Max will be wearing a new uniform a year from today.
The ownership landscape of Detroit sports has changed drastically in the last few years with the deaths of Ford and Bill Davidson and the cancer diagnosis of the 84-year old Ilitch. Only time will tell how the new blood will run these organizations.
There is very little question that a Mike Ilitch-run operation would probably already have free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew in the fold after news leaked out this weekend that Jose Iglesias might miss the entire 2014 season.
But with Chris now in control and seemingly maintaining a precise budget for the Tigers, that signing is probably unlikely. If you want someone to blame other than the last Ilitch Kid standing, I guess you can bitch about ass cancer.
He isn’t gone …….. but I already miss Mike Ilitch.