As hard as it was to get the Tigers to a level of success, keeping them there is a whole new challenge.
"I look at it as I finally got to the higher level," Ilitch said on Wednesday, "and you're learning now, like I learned with [hockey], how to stay up there and some of the things you have to do in baseball to make sure that you're keeping your eye on to make sure the team's going to stay up. That's going to be the secret now, to keep the club contending every single year. That's my objective.
"I just have to prepare myself. Regardless of what happens, I wouldn't be happy if I can't contend every year now."
The Tigers' team picture day each September is usually a time for Ilitch to talk about the state of the team. In past years, that wasn't usually an easy topic, and it often revolved around how to turn around as organization mired in a string of losing seasons.
Now, the organization is there, and it's not simply a Cinderella story. On Wednesday, Ilitch had a wide-ranging talk that hit everything from payroll issues to ways to increase revenue at the ballpark that include possibly adding more seats. He defended the Tigers' philosophy of paying over slot value for Draft picks, praised young players like Curtis Granderson and even suggested that the National Hockey League's unbalanced schedule has to go.
But mostly, he talked about the health of the franchise, which drew three million in attendance this year for the first time in its history, and how to model it after other organizations that have been able to keep it that way.
"You know what I'm pleased with? This is the only sport where it's reasonable for a family [to attend a game]," Ilitch said. "I mean, here we are in hard times, the hardest times that we've ever had going way back, and our fans are turning out. And I'm not so sure that we'd have any kind of success if our tickets were up there [in price]. We couldn't do it if we had those prices."
That was as strong an indication as Ilitch could give that he doesn't want to raise revenue by drastically raising ticket prices. He hinted at possibly adding a small number of seats to the stadium in the future, and mentioned the size of the dugouts as an example, but he emphasized the stadium experience more.
"Every year I want to enhance the park, bringing something new into it all the time, to keep the excitement with the facility. And then, along with that, by visiting all the clubs, you learn about how you might be able to expand your seats, too. ...
"You have to find ways to generate revenue through the success of the three million [fans] and not hit the fans with it, though. You have to be creative there. That's why you have to look at places like Anaheim, places that are run really well, and keep learning."
Asked if the attendance figures give the team more spending power, Ilitch said it wasn't enough to make a major difference in the offseason market. Later, however, he suggested there wasn't a payroll limit on the club.
"I've never had a limit," Ilitch said, "from the standpoint of if a player comes along and we need him, somehow you always try to figure out how you can get him. That's how I always look at it."
The aforementioned Draft is one area where they've found ways to sign guys they needed, even if it came at the displeasure of Major League Baseball and its slotting system. Ilitch steadfastly defended the approach as part of staying competitive, citing first-round pick Rick Porcello without mentioning him by name.
"I have a hard time passing up a prospect," he said. "If somebody is rated No. 1 and he drops to 27, I figure, how am I going to pass on that? I mean, I just can't do it. I knew right away it wouldn't be popular with the Commissioner's Office, but I have to take advantage of every break we get. To me, that's a break if somebody falls in your lap like that."
It's one of the few breaks the Tigers have had this year. Between injuries, inconsistency and attrition, even Ilitch said he's surprised how his club has been able to stay in contention.
"It's unbelievable, it really is," Ilitch said. "I realize how well off we were last year. We didn't have any injuries. Everything went perfect for us. ...
"That's incredible, really, being four games out of the Wild Card race with all the injuries we've had. We didn't get the pitching and hitting coinciding. Things didn't go well at all. It's amazing. You feel we should be 15 games out or 12 games out. We've still got a shot. If we can keep winning, you never know in this sport."
To keep winning for the next several years is the next step.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less