There were a lot of celebrity deaths that occurred in 2016, a lot of them that really made you stop and compose yourself: Prince, David Bowie, Gordie Howe, Alan Rickman, and Harper Lee just to name a few. Yet learning today of Mike Ilitch’s passing stopped me dead in my tracks, and I felt a pang of grief that’s usually reserved for family members.
It’ll sound funny to say, but the things he was known for, Pizza and Sports, comprised a large part of not just my childhood but also my formative years and adulthood. Little Caesars was the pizza of choice for my family growing up, with the always-close locations and cheap Hot N’ Ready deals. It was something that helped me in college and post-college financially. It was also a strange affection I shared with my daughter, who loved the simplicity of the pizza and the immediacy of it. But it was the sports that really helped guide my life this far.
I was obsessed with hockey and baseball growing up, the Red Wings and the Tigers. The action, the stats, everything about them captivated me. It was that love that made me pursue sports writing, which netted me gigs at Fansided and Mlive. Those writing jobs got me on the radar of iHeartMedia, which eventually hired me, and from there I was taken into the fold of an NPR affiliate up in Traverse City. All those opportunities for my family and me derived from sports.
And that love also effected my spare time. NHL video games, fantasy baseball, hockey and baseball history books stacked higher than door frame, all of that spawned from a fascination with the Red Wings and the Tigers. And both those organizations went through incredible transformations during my years of fandom, driven by a man who desperately wanted to be at the top of the respective heaps.
The Red Wings’ rise to NHL royalty, how it cultivated talent and seduced legends, the year-to-year drama of a larger-than-life team, all of it played out like some series of novels. Think about it: Some of the greatest players the game has ever seen came through Detroit during that time frame, and we got to see them. I got to see them! Ilitch only wanted the best, and he got it.
The Tigers were more of a long-running drama: Ilitch made poor personnel decisions that sapped away the success of the 80’s, but his inner passion drove him to take risks, and to eventually put together a team that spent nearly 10 years being one of the best teams in the league. Seriously, seeing this team go from the dripping soul-queef of 2003 to not one, but TWO World Series appearances was riveting. Ilitch was the man leading the charge, the main fan upset by the direction his team would take.
Did he let his passion get the best of him sometimes? Yes, several abysmal contracts pock an otherwise fantastic legion of transactions. But no one wanted to win more. No one longed more for a title than Ilitch, the former wannabe baseball player. He rewarded loyalty a bit too much and a bit too often, but what else would a fan driven by his heart do?
Even today my love of baseball, and my love of the Detroit Tigers, can be traced back to Ilitch, one of the best owners professional sports has ever seen. God, thinking about things like Bobby Higginson, or Randy Smith, or Alan Trammell, or the improbable run in 2006…these memories are saturated with emotion, and it all goes back to Ilitch. Michigan has lost a titan today, a man who helped bring pride back to a city, a man who awoke a sleeping giant, a man whose fandom rivaled those of the very people who consumed his product.
I owe Mike Ilitch for Sergei Fedorov and Cecil Fielder. For Miguel Cabrera and Nick Lidstrom. For a happy childhood and a character-building adulthood. I’m truly sad he’s gone, and I hope these organizations do everything they can to honor the memory of a man who loved them more than their fan bases. I wish I could better articulate the gravity this man had for people like me, but words fail in the face of shocking sadness.
Rest easy, Mike. You’ll be missed.