Detroit Tigers: Dear Chris Ilitch: Let’s have an Honest Chat

Feb 24, 2017; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Justin Upton (8) shakes hands with team owner Chris Ilitch as designated hitter Victor Martinez (right) and relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez and second baseman Ian Kinsler (back left) look on after unveiling the logo in memoriam of the late team owner Mike Ilitch before a spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2017; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Justin Upton (8) shakes hands with team owner Chris Ilitch as designated hitter Victor Martinez (right) and relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez and second baseman Ian Kinsler (back left) look on after unveiling the logo in memoriam of the late team owner Mike Ilitch before a spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /
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A letter to the Detroit Tigers ownership from a fan.

Like Mike Tyson in his prime, I have pulled no punches when it comes to bringing some honest opinions and analysis when looking at the current direction of the Detroit Tigers. What may get lost in the shuffle amongst the necessary negative tone recently is that I have been a huge supporter of Chris Ilitch and the Ilitch family throughout the years.

You can find me dutifully cheering on the ball club at Comerica Park and the Red Wings at the LCA on a regular basis. I eat Little Caesars often for that quick and easy meal after a long day’s work. I do believe that Chris Ilitch can grow into a successful owner for the next era of winning Detroit Tigers baseball. Unlike many, I have not lost all hope.

I really wish I could have the opportunity to sit down and talk with Chris Ilitch. I think he has been led astray and could use a little help from the outside. Many fans are rightfully angry and disturbed by the direction of the club. It’s disappointing to me on many levels, but I think some honesty and sincerity from our CEO could go a long ways in earning some trust back from the fan base. Since I don’t have that kind of access, I will offer my unsolicited advice and pen this open letter.

Dear Chris Ilitch,

It has been a rough start to your stewardship of the Tigers since the reigns were officially handed over upon the passing of your father. It took him a long time to find the correct path and meet his objective to get the Tigers to a sustained era of competitive baseball. It’s a shame he was unable to deliver the ultimate objective of a World Series championship but it was not from lack of effort. I think you can figure it out and become a dynamic leader as well as make good on your father’s only unfulfilled dream, but first, we have to sit down and take an honest look at the situation.

Let’s start with the finances. I know many fans will point to your family’s high net worth, and say you are just being cheap. Even though a reasonable rough guess on the finances from last year lends credence to a loss, it still appears you have pulled the leash a bit too hard, providing us with nothing of substance for the 2021 squad. Shedding around 30 million dollars with Jordan Zimmermann and Prince Fielder falling off the payroll and seemingly shopping exclusively from the clearance bin is really not acceptable, especially without providing clear guidance for when we can expect a major league product and a commitment to excellence.

Fielding a 2019-2020 caliber squad is not going to help the dollars flow through the concession stands of Comerica Park. Though you don’t owe any of us an explanation, a quick crash course in how most of the family assets are not liquid would help a few more people understand you don’t have a couple of billions just laying around the house. If I could be so bold, I would like to also suggest that you need to stop making vague comments like “I will spend when the time is right”. When you don’t have the trust of the people, it rings hollow.

Many will point and laugh at the slow development of District Detroit and the vast amount of undeveloped land and parking lots as reasons to doubt your sincerity. Illustrating in some detail the amount of liquidity required to keep the various highly valued companies running during these trying times would help the public’s understanding of the team’s current predicament.

There have been whispers of cash issues for quite some time on the streets, even prior to the pandemic. I am sure there are more hands in the cookie jar now without Mr. I at the helm, with some competing interests and views on how the family should move forward. I would never expect you to air any private family matters in public, but some of us do think this could be at play and understand to a certain extent that it could be having a profound impact on how you are forced to run the team. We can leave that issue hinted at but left unsaid. If in fact there are behind-the-scenes issues hindering the proper running of the franchise, you must find a way to resolve them before the end of the 2021 season.

A matter of fact explanation and some detail on how the free cash flow loss was devastating this year from the lack of fans in the stands and parking lots, as well as the slot machines operating at a fraction of their past performance, would go a long way. If it’s coming sincerely from you and not from the PR staff located in the cubicles at 2100 Woodward Avenue, or the organization’s unofficial mouthpieces, also known as the local print and digital media, the fans who are capable of thinking on their own and question everything they are told would not be so quick to dismiss what they perceive as a sales pitch and be much more receptive to the message.

That every major local media outlet had basically the same fluffy spin articles on the lack of an action at the non-tender deadline and Winter Meetings in one form or another within a few days span reeks of a thinly veiled coordinated effort. It is was truly insulting to the intelligence of all Detroit sports fans.

You would not be laying off people, as was rumored to have taken place after the September conclusion of the 60 game experiment that resembled Major League Baseball if there weren’t some serious financial issues. I know it is painful for business owners to make difficult decisions that can devastate a family. Use those painful decisions to illustrate that this is what you were forced to do to try and weather the storm while ensuring financial stability for when we return to normal times. Counteract the negative commentary on these moves by tackling it head-on straight from the heart. Of course a plan to rehire the folks who were forced out of a job and offering some level of support as they seek gainful employment elsewhere would be a good idea and help show your human side.

After telling us honestly and with some detail that money is a major issue, ask the fans to give you another year by making an honest unfiltered statement that this is going to be a low-acquisition-hope-for-the-best-from-our homegrown-talent-type-of-season. We will know that it means it’s another throwaway year but you can’t use those words.  Again this must come directly from you and you only. Pick whatever form of social media or press release that you like, but I would suggest spoken words and video would be the most effective.

Speak directly to the people. Whoever sold you that having the media ask for patience and trying to defend the team’s approach was a good idea is as out of touch as you appear to be by going along with this see-through plan. Bernie Madoff saying he has seen the light while simultaneously offering a new investment opportunity with triple the market returns on investment guaranteed would come across as more genuine and believable. I don’t believe for a second that you want to appear this way and need to look at the overall issues from a fan’s perspective as well as from an owner’s viewpoint and to seek better counsel before any public campaigns. If you need to do another round of staff cost-cutting the PR department might be a great place to start. I’m sure there are some excellent well-intentioned people working for you, but they are letting you down. I know you saw the reactions from the dwindling amount of truly interested fans during this losing era. It was an epic failure. You might even be able to find higher-quality replacements with a better understanding of the fan base for a lower price in these economic conditions.

After explaining how things currently stand, outline exactly how you plan to move forward once the cash register rings from fans returning to the stands, the dealer pulling 5 cards for 21, and the parking lots moving back up at price with the large crowds flocking back to the downtown scene, filling the restaurants and various entertainment hotspots once this virus is behind us. How you plan to get out of this mess is vital to gaining the patience and acceptance required for another likely dismal performance on the field.

Getting back to that District of Detroit issue briefly, It is ok to admit perhaps your father bit off more than your family could chew once he was not here to guide the undivided empire. People love the story of someone successful in admitting failure. They love it, even more, when it is accompanied by a plan for redemption. Show a longer-term plan and commitment that you know you can not just meet, but exceed, the expectations that you set to right wrong.

There will be jeers from the constant bashers of your organization, and they will ignore all of the wonderful charitable efforts of the Ilitch Companies umbrella while pointing out every flaw, but again this will reach at least part of the core audience. There is also a recent win with the new apartment project that you can highlight and use as a down payment towards building trust and further earning that 1 more year of patience that you are apparently in desperate need of obtaining.

Now let’s get to the hard part. Joe McDonald, Jerry Walker, Joe Klein, Randy Smith. Those are the 4 GM’s it took your father to run through over a decade of mostly futility before he finally stopped messing around and got serious, getting a proven winner in Dave Dombrowski. Al Avila has now been leading the franchise for a little over 5 seasons. What assets did he gain during the necessary teardown that sent Justin Verlander, JD Martinez, Justin Upton, and so on packing that is now a major everyday piece for the next generation of winning teams?

A maybe-he-can-be-a-decent-major-leaguer in Jeimer Candelario who is now 27? What else? Losing and stockpiling high draft picks is not a sustainable path to success. It may lead to no success at all. Think about this strategy that your key employees have sold you on and the impact it is having on your fans with your apparent blessing.

You can’t possibly be happy with the franchise’s current status and uncertain outlook, even if taking some profits in 2018 and 2019 after years of a money-losing last-ditch effort by your father chasing a ring does help ease the pain. Seeing the laughingstock teams that have been assembled during this rebuild has to be embarrassing, even if it was somewhat necessary. Ask yourself what were your original expectations in moving the star players out of town? Did you at least expect one or two real players to come out of those trades made by Big Al with another one or two supporting players in minor roles? Have your minimum expectations been met with those trades?

We have heard you say that you are excited about the building up of the minor leagues, but perhaps a quick reminder is needed. All prospects are suspects until they prove it in The Show. The 2017 draft looks like a complete bust with Faedo now heading for a little Tommy John surgery as the icing on the cake from that dreadful talent infusion effort. At best lose and reload, which seems to be the main component of any discernible plan from Al Avila, gives a team a short window until you have to repeat the process.

If players are not acquired, by all means, draft, IFA, and trades, and then properly developed it is nearly impossible to maintain success. Yes there are a few exciting international free agent signings to go along with the draft picks like Roberto Campos and Jose De La Cruz amongst a handful of others, however, when talent development in the minors has seemingly lacked since the vaunted classes of the mid to late ’70s, what good does all this young talent accumulation do in the end if it can’t be procured?

Perhaps you saw the young pitchers the Kansas City Royals used this past season, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic. They were both drafted in 2018 behind Casey Mize. They both looked much more major league ready. Isn’t this at least a little disturbing to you? Why do we rarely have any really young players move quickly through the organization and find some level of reasonable success in the majors when they first arrive? Why do we end up holding the bag and sold a bill of goods on the Christin Stewart’s of the world?

I am sure Al Avila is a good man. A baseball lifer that I respect greatly despite my recent criticism. You can tell he cares and has tremendous passion. There is surely a job for him in the organization. That job is not in the general manager’s chair. Finding the right roles for people within an organization and then acquiring outstanding people to succeed from the outside where there are glaring holes to fill is one of the top traits of a great owner.

When we get to the end of another dreadful season at the conclusion of the 2021 campaign let’s not waste time in pairing AJ Hinch with a proven winning General Manager. The clock is ticking on getting this young generation of Detroit Tigers ready for the main stage and then supplementing them with proven major leaguers to finish off the product.

A wasted decade or more can easily occur with the current regime under your watch. A heightened sense of urgency is needed from you at the top to do everything possible to prevent this from becoming a reality. Learn from your father and move on from a formula that isn’t working and towards the combination that ultimately led to success.

In closing, just like Mike Tyson shocked the world in becoming the youngest heavyweight champion of all time when he knocked out Trevor Berbick in less than 6 minutes, you can right this ship quickly. Even though I still believe spending 30 million or so this year and starting to instill an upward trend and a winning culture is the right move and not asking for too much, you can buy yourself another year with a large percentage of fans with the steps I have laid out if you just don’t have the resources to commit towards this season as I suspect is the case.

Next year is a better class of free agents and you can have a better front office staff in place to take advantage of the market, while simultaneously looking to improve the player development in the minors. It might be the best course of action regardless even if you have the ability to spend freely right now. In case you haven’t noticed it’s not going to be easy in the short-to-mid-term to beat the White Sox and others in the Central Division. Bold leadership and honest evaluation are required. Step up to the plate and be honest with the fans and yourself.

Commit publicly to a real game plan with the end to this travesty on the field after this season. Make the front office moves that are necessary. While we are correcting travesties, please consider bringing back the Slices and Stix promotion at Little Caesars. That’s the best value that was created in 2020 by any of your companies, but I digress. Truly, Chris, I know you want to succeed and I think you have the brains, desire, and passion to achieve greatness, even if it is impossible to match the traits of your legendary father. Thank you for your time and consideration and if you ever need me I am @tigermike1975 on Twitter.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael Sicilia

(Co-expert note: The views and opinions that are expressed on Motor City Bengals are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of all contributors or co-expert(s). Any content provided by our contributors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any organization, company, club, individual or anyone or anything) 

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