'A remarkable guy': Baseball remembers Ilitch

'A remarkable guy': Baseball remembers Ilitch

DETROIT -- Jim Leyland didn't have many meetings with Mike Ilitch, who was the kind of owner who let his managers alone. But he'll never forget the day the Tigers' owner walked into the clubhouse at Comerica Park and talked.

Baseball never came up.

"He sat in my office and talked with me and my coaches," Leyland recalled, "and explained to us how he got started selling aluminum siding."

Leyland knew of Ilitch, who died Friday at age 87, before he took over as manager, but he had never met him. But the more they talked, the more they had in common, both coming from humble Midwestern beginnings to greatness in their professions.

"It was just a remarkable story of a guy who worked hard and had a vision," Leyland said. "It certainly was an honor to be his manager. I never really knew Mr. Ilitch before I went there. It was a wonderful eight years for me.

"He obviously had a big heart. He loved those teams. He loved those players. When he walked into that clubhouse, you could hear a pin drop. He was the man, and everybody was instantly on their best behavior. He was just one of those guys. He was a remarkable guy."

Mike Russell had never met Ilitch, either, during his early days with the organization. He was a scout, having joined the organization after Dave Dombrowski became the team president and general manager. Yet when Hurricane Ivan destroyed Russell's family home in Florida in 2004, leaving him, his wife and young daughter to rebuild, he received an unexpected donation from Ilitch to get him and his family back on their feet.

"I tried to repay it," Russell said, "but he refused."

Beck reflects on Mike Ilitch

Russell paid it forward with a contribution to Ilitch Charities, then paid for the funeral services for a homeless man who was known for his rally cries at Comerica Park.

"Heck of a human being," Russell said.

Scott Boras knew of Ilitch for years, but the well-known agent never had the chance to do much business with him until after the '03 season. The Tigers lost 119 games that year, and Ivan Rodriguez won a World Series with the Marlins that fall. Somehow, they came together and made a deal to bring Rodriguez to Detroit, the place no free agents wanted to go.

"You realize that a lot of people may have vision for things they do," Boras said Friday, "but Mike truly had a vision for his passion, and it's obvious his passion was baseball. I don't think I've ever seen an owner more excited about a player as he was when we brought Pudge to Detroit, because he knew it was the start."

Two years and two more free-agent deals later -- Boras clients Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers signed in ensuing offseasons -- Boras remembers getting a call from Ilitch after the World Series, looking back on the signings and the heat he took for them. As fate would have it, Boras said, all three deals were good for the franchise.

"He could serve as a model for what a baseball owner should be," Boras said, "because he's committed to his team, his city. He had to make difficult decisions on talent, but they were his decisions, and he was a man that trusted and spent a great deal of time with players."

Ilitch and Boras talked incessantly about baseball, starting a relationship that went on for over a decade and included free-agent deals for Prince Fielder, Johnny Damon and Mike Pelfrey. And they talked about life, too.

"He taught me a lot about how he treated his children, his family, which meant a lot to me," Boras said.

Casey on playing for Mike Ilitch

As news spread of Ilitch's passing, reactions poured in from all over baseball and sports. To a man, Tigers young and old expressed their appreciation and respect for his commitment to his teams and his city. Those who had the chance to speak with him appreciated his passion -- for baseball, for Detroit, for life.

"I worked for Mr. I as both a player and as a manager," Brad Ausmus said in a statement. "I can honestly say it was an honor to work for a man who made winning the priority. Baseball is a business, but Mr. I was a baseball player who became a businessman. He loved baseball, and my memories will always be centered around the passion with which he talked about it."

Alan Trammell had the same honor. He was still the Tigers' shortstop, with some good years left in him, when Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992. He was the manager when Ilitch embarked on his grand plan to restore the Tigers to glory after 2003.

"People of Detroit and the state of Michigan were very privileged to have Mr. I as an owner," Trammell said. "I feel very fortunate to have called him a friend."

Mike Ilitch's legacy

Ilitch not only signed players, he recruited them, personally meeting with Rodriguez and Ordonez to express his commitment to winning. He not only brought players to Detroit, he tried to make them feel at home.

"He was a very player-oriented individual," Dombrowski said. "He was a guy that knew the importance of players. I think that's one of the things that made him a successful owner. He understood players. He understood it wasn't easy.

"He loved the game of baseball and he was very knowledgeable about it. He loved playing it. He would tell stories every so often about his time playing. But I don't think there's any question in his understanding of players. As we know, it can look so easy to people because they're so good and make things happen, and I think he understood it wasn't easy."

That playing background, Leyland said, was where the passion came from.

"Sometimes I think ownerships, they enjoy owning a team," Leyland said. "But Mr. Ilitch probably had the most passion for the game itself of any of the owners, because he played in the Minors with the organization. He had more of a relationship with the game itself. I think he had a passion for the game itself."

Remembering Mike Ilitch

Torii Hunter saw that in Ilitch when he visited Detroit as a free agent after the '12 season. He popped into Ilitch's office, shook his hand and started a conversation. What he heard convinced him that he wanted to sign.

Ilitch not only attended the news conference for Hunter's signing, he sat at the podium and traded jokes with Hunter. Their relationship went well after that.

"I really appreciate some of the conversations we had that greatly impacted my life," Hunter said in a text message. "It was an honor to be able to play for and represent his organization. He was an inspiration for the city of Detroit, and he will surely be missed."

Hard as he tried, hard as they tried, the Tigers never won the World Series title Ilitch so fervently pursued. The journey in trying was an amazing story.

"To a man in the clubhouse, from the manager to the players to the clubhouse guys, everybody wanted to win the World Series for Mike Ilitch," Leyland said. "That was a no-brainer. And it crushed us that we couldn't get it for him. That hurt.

"Obviously we wanted it for the fans, we wanted it for ourselves, but everybody to a person wanted it for him. I truly believed that, and I've never seen anything like that."

Ilitch was less visible over the last year, but Boras said he called during the season. He didn't want to sell him on a free agent. He only wanted to see how Ilitch was doing. It was the last time they spoke.

The flowery prose Boras uses to describe his players, he used to describe Ilitch.

"A compendia," he said, referring to a compilation, "for ownership with intuitiveness, intelligence, responsibility, passion and compassion."

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.