Henning: So, you want Chris Ilitch gone as Tigers owner? Better know who’s next

Detroit News

Tigers fans, at least the loud ones, seem united in wanting a new owner for Detroit’s MLB franchise. This chorus reached something of a crescendo last week when The Athletic reported that Chris Ilitch was one of four MLB owners who opposed any significant raise in the Competitive Balance Tax, which might as well be renamed the MLB Soft Salary Cap.

The CBT, or SSC as some of us prefer, is the basic reason MLB players are on the sidelines as spring training moves closer to an April start. The owners-players sides are having quite the lengthy family squabble in 2022, with CBT/SST at the center.

It should soothe Tigers squawkers that a new Tigers owner could always arrive. Soon, or perhaps later. Expectations are high among some Ilitch scholars that this team will be sold once the family’s matriarch, Marian Ilitch, who is 89, passes on.

As the fans’ imagination goes, a new owner will liberate life in Comerica Park’s third-floor offices. The team will throw off its spending shackles, which led to a mere $217 million being spent for new talent during the past offseason (with more to come once a new CBA is inked), and the Tigers will return to their proper place among the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, and other big-bucks clubs that each year flirt with, or surpass, the salary ceiling MLB teams must abide by, unless they care to pay sliding-scale penalties.

Here’s what the Get-Rid-of-Chris-Ilitch bleacher section perhaps hasn’t considered:

Any new owner almost certainly will be steeped in business practices, which generally is how you make money sufficient to buy a pro sports franchise.

That new owner will be purchasing a team in the mid-market range of MLB clubs. It means Tigers revenues will be closer to those enjoyed by the Cardinals (who watch their spending) than the above elites with their giant income streams.

There could be an early buying spree, which is often the way it goes with new owners (see: New York Mets). And there might or might not be great success, which, frankly, isn’t to be expected when MLB history shows that payroll excesses and World Series reservations aren’t often a match.

That giddy new owner could, absolutely, have billions of dollars and decide: “Bag the salary strictures. I’m buying a team and a world championship flag that hasn’t flown in Detroit for nearly 40 years.”

That’s how the vision plays out in some minds.

Big spending didn’t work before

Here’s another reality, far more plausible, to consider:

The new owner settles in and decides Tigers baseball is great, but red ink isn’t. He, or she, prefers after a short honeymoon to practice discipline throughout: on player salaries, on scouting and development, on science and technology, on minor-league operations, etc.

Or, in keeping with the Ilitches Be Gone crowd’s stance, maybe fiscal constraint isn’t part of any new Tigers stewardship. The new boss goes for it — loading up on big names and big contracts in a bid to match MLB’s fattest cats.

Which, it might be mentioned, is how the Tigers got into an eight-year rebuild that only in the past 10 months has brought promise to Comerica Park’s game-days.

More: McCosky: No white hats in MLB labor dispute, but players have a win in their grasp

It was because late owner Mike Ilitch went crazy, even past a point he should have been throttling back for a re-do, that the Tigers got into an extended slog, working for years to shed old players and bad contracts after a farm system had been denuded.

Mike Ilitch’s worthy dream of winning a baseball title endured until a franchise coughed and wheezed and finally collapsed of its own weight. It brought about a terribly long timeline, scene then and now, as a rebuild that would be much more complicated and longer than those that typically greet even expansion franchises. Nothing about the past eight years — not the decay that set in as of 2014, not the cleanup of red ink and contracts, not the likelihood that it would be 2021 before earnest dollars could be spent in a gainful way, has been a single surprise.

Another possibility to ponder, and sweat about:

The new owner ends up having more bucks than sense, or workplace values. He becomes the MLB equivalent to Daniel Snyder, who has made a rotten mess of Washington’s NFL club.

Or, perhaps he ranks as a more benevolent despot, a Peter Angelos, who has been shepherding the Orioles through decades of decadence and incompetence.

Do fans understand how fragile ownership is? How bad it can be?

Hinch liked what he saw

Within any sphere of scenarios and realities there is one more thought that Tigers followers might want to mull as Chris Ilitch is fitted for a black fedora. (It must be noted: Ilitch has offered no confirmation of his vote, while a source close to the negotiations told Chris McCosky of The Detroit News on Friday that there likewise was no confirmation on how any owner voted on last week’s CBT figures.)

Why does anyone believe AJ Hinch, the Tigers’ managerial idol, chose to work in Detroit? He had his pick of MLB jobs, even as the White Sox crossed up everyone, including Hinch, when they hired Tony La Russa.

Hinch was not about to sign on with bad, or cheap, ownership. He was smart enough to not make mistakes there, to appreciate whom he could trust and who was a bag of gas.

He chose the Tigers for two reasons, which are tied to a third: He liked the team’s young talent. He knew Chris Ilitch wasn’t joshing when he said the team would be spending, absolutely within a year, on free agents who could join with the kids to forge a roster that in time would be playoff-grade.

He also understood, because the MLB galaxy is small, the Tigers had an organizational culture that would be comfortable. There were no flim-flam operators to worry about, either in the owner’s chambers, or in the front office.

All of this, all of it, flows from ownership.

Ilitch’s reported protests against raising the CBT is flawed in one sense: The CBT must rise. It’s been depressed for too long as player salaries, on average, have decreased, all while MLB cash expanded dramatically, at least before COVID-19 arrived.

His resistance to any big bump in the CBT owes more to his squabbles with the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies (note: coastal influences on baseball bucks), who can afford not only the giant payrolls, but even the luxury-tax fines that can follow.

This isn’t an even playing field, these MLB markets, by any means. Which not only is why Ilitch appears to have squawked over the CBT ceiling, but also why he and his siblings might very well sell the team once their mother is gone.

At which time there will be rejoicing in Tigers Land. At least, in part of it.

Just be sure, those who pine for the day Ilitch and the Tigers are no longer part of the same sentence, that you know who’s next. And what’s next. And how this fiery new magnate who has delivered the Tigers from their debtor’s prison intends to run something as complex, as sensitive, and as treasured by the masses, as a MLB club.

Someone once said: Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

Smart person. Very, very smart.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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