He was a great American story, a son of immigrants who rose from a modest Motown upbringing to turn pizza dough into real dough, building an empire of entertainment that helped revive downtown Detroit. Because of Mike Ilitch, the Tigers have been a superstar-laden squad for well north of a decade, the Red Wings brought the Stanley Cup to Hockeytown four times and the Fox Theater shines like the Woodward Avenue wonder it was intended to be.
While all of those attributes are worth recognizing and celebrating in light of the sad news that "Mr. I," as he was affectionately known in and around the Tigers' clubhouse, passed away Friday at the age of 87, for our purposes, it is best to remember this about Ilitch:
He was a ballplayer.
That's the attribute that drove him to do things that were fiscally fanatical, to make investments that made more sense in the heart than in the head.
Ilitch's own career never took off. A star high-school shortstop, Ilitch followed up his four years in the Marines by playing a few seasons in the farm systems of the Washington Senators and his hometown Tigers. Alas, his knees didn't cooperate, and soon enough he was in the back kitchen of a bar named Haig's, whipping up the pizzas that, via the Little Caesar's franchise he launched, would sustain him and, it turned out, his family for generations after the fact.
But years later, in the room where the Tigers announced the 2012 Prince Fielder signing -- arguably the most stunning of Ilitch's many enormous investments -- his wife, Marian, explained that this compulsion to go annually all-in on the Detroit Tigers was borne out of Ilitch's insatiable desire to win big in baseball.
"You know, Mike's an old ballplayer, from way back," she told me. "And he knows that when you have an opportunity, you have to take it. It's a big risk, and it takes a lot of guts, but he knows it's the right thing to try to win a championship. He really wants to win one for this city."
Isn't that all we ask out of our sports owners? To care as much as we do?
None cared more than Mike Ilitch.
No matter the frustration of the World Series results in 2006 and '12, that passion, that indefatigable instinct to field the best team money could buy, is his legacy.
The Tigers had plenty of opportunity for excuses in the Ilitch era. That Detroit became one of baseball's big spenders just as the region endured its worst recession in generations was both ironic and inspirational. Ilitch routinely bet on his ballclub and bet on the Tigers' fans, and their continued support of the ballclub even in the leanest of economic times (the Tigers haven't dipped below the 2.2 million attendance threshold in the last two decades) has been a beautiful thing to behold.
"I've never seen a man more dedicated to this community and to baseball than Mr. I," Tigers GM Al Avila said in a statement released by the team. "What he has done for this franchise, and for Detroit, is immeasurable."
In the offseason before the 2011 season, after the Tigers had followed up their '06 Fall Classic loss to the Cardinals with four straight seasons in which they fell short of October, there was industry assumption that Ilitch, who had publicly admitted he had been "a bit reckless" in his payroll allocations, would scale things back and Detroit would start to look a lot leaner.
A year later came the late-winter news that Martinez had torn his ACL in his workouts, and Ilitch's front-office employees, led by then-president Dave Dombrowski, sat with him and slowly went over the myriad low-profile possibilities Detroit could employ in an effort to account for V-Mart's absence.
"There's only one guy left out there who's a difference-maker," Dombrowski noted.
Fielder. A few phone calls and $217 million in contractual commitments later, he was Tigers property.
I can still see the flabbergasted face of Jim Leyland after the news conference announcing the signing.
"This boggles my mind," Leyland had said, shaking his head. "Three weeks ago, we were talking about maybe getting an extra bullpen guy, but we didn't know if we had the finances. I don't know what happened in three weeks. Little Caesar's did good, evidently!"
Indeed, Detroit's rosters in recent years never lacked "pizza"z.
Just last offseason, the Tigers, having begun the first stages of a potential rebuild with a sell-off the previous summer, were said to be largely out of the free-agent business. Instead, Ilitch gave it one last go, doling out nine-figure contracts to both Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton.
Externally and internally, Ilitch spent lavishly -- and yes, in some cases, regrettably -- on those he believed could help the cause and those, like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, who had embraced what it meant to represent his city. Ultimately, this was a man who was fiercely loyal, and that's what baseball people loved about him.
The movies taught us that sports owners are supposed to be cruel. In "The Natural," The Judge tries to bribe Roy Hobbs to throw the season so that he can gain full control of the New York Knights from manager Pop. In "Major League," Rachel Phelps pines for lowly attendance figures for the Indians so she can move the team to Miami.
But the only cruelty associated with Ilitch was the way his openhandedness ultimately left him empty-handed. That World Series title was all too elusive.
It's the search, though, that stands out. Ilitch always gave it his all, and for that, the Tigers and their fans rightly hold him in high acclaim. His life was an unqualified success, for the way he reshaped a city's sports scene and helped revive its heartbeat. The old ballplayer was a winner, through and through.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com 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.