When Detroit opens its home schedule Friday, the fountain will not have a corporate sponsor. Instead, it'll have a message: "The Detroit Tigers support our automakers," with the emblems of all three American automakers along the top.
At a time when corporate sponsorships across the sporting world are being stretched by the economic downturn, it's a free gesture from Tigers owner Mike Ilitch that's gaining national attention while Michigan and the automakers try to move forward to better days ahead.
"I wanted to help," Ilitch said in a statement Wednesday. "I kept asking myself, 'What can I do to help?' I've always viewed GM, Ford and Chrysler as pillars of strength in our community, and I understand the ups and downs that a business must endure. To me, it's a small way of showing our support and saying thank you for all the times they've been there for this community."
While baseball and the auto industry have been intertwined for years, from sponsorships to advertising on game broadcasts, that relationship is particularly close to the Tigers. With GM, Ford and Chrysler all based in the area, the team has benefited from their success, not to mention the well-being of a fan base that has always included many autoworkers.
That relationship grew closer when the Tigers moved into Comerica Park in 2000. GM signed an agreement to advertise on the most visible piece of architecture in the ballpark, the giant fountain beyond center that shoots out giant bursts of water during games. Not only were all of GM's brand logos displayed, the fountain included platforms to put new automobile models on display. It was impossible to miss on national television when Detroit hosted Major League Baseball's All-Star festivities in '05 and the first two games of the World Series in '06.
The sponsorship was expected to last through at least this year. With GM on the verge of potential bankruptcy, needing federal funds to keep operating in the short term and looking to cut costs, the company decided last fall to significantly reduce all aspects of its marketing, from celebrity spokespeople to sponsorship deals.
With that in the mind, GM told the Tigers after last season that it would exercise an option to pull out of the sponsorship deal. The team kept in touch on potential deals over the winter, but the economy for GM and others was tough.
Knowing what was going on, Ilitch stepped in and made a choice he felt was right, even if it wasn't easy: Make it a message, not a deal. No sponsors, just thanks.
"It was completely Mr. Ilitch's decision," Tigers spokesman Ron Colangelo said. "It was a community decision and not a business decision."
General Motors remains in the center of the design, but it now includes Chrysler and Ford on either end. The message runs underneath.
The redesign first caught attention last weekend, when the NCAA men's basketball Final Four came to town across the street at Ford Field. The ballpark hosted several activities over the weekend as Detroit hit the national sporting stage.
The team has received messages from fans all week. Now that the Tigers are about to head back home, it's about to get even more attention.
"The message from the public has been very encouraging," Colangelo said. "They've been very appreciative."
The automakers' pain -- and in turn, that of many autoworkers -- is understandably reflected at the ballpark. After setting franchise attendance records over the past few years, the Tigers have announced several promotions and deals for this season designed to give fans more value for their dollar.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.