Shortly after Illitch purchased the Tigers in the early 90's, the Tigers payroll skyrocketed to among the top in baseball. However, there was just one problem - the Tigers weren't winning. Without a reliable farm system, the Tigers simply struggled to put together a respectable ball club. Illitch had seen enough, and out went the expensive contracts, and in came a new regime led by Randy Smith. Smith promised a revamped farm system and a new brand of Tiger baseball.
Much was made of Smith's '5-year plan' and his claim that his up-and-coming prospects weren't like the others - these kids could really play ball. Much was also made of Smith's crafty tradesmanship, making something out of nothing. But in reality, the farm system's improvements merely returned the Tigers to a below-average major league organization and the public slowly realized that his trading prowess was overrated (honestly, how many times can you hear about Damion Easley for Greg Gohr before you realize there's a problem when you hear about a trade that happened four years prior?).
And while all of this was happening in view of the fans, Illitch sat back and was silent. There was never a demand from the ownership that improvements had to be made or else. Meanwhile, Illitch's baby, the nearby Detroit Red Wings, were in the midst of one of the greatest championship runs the city had ever seen. And financially? Never a cent spared, only the best for the beloved boys of Hockeytown.
Illitch finally made a decisive move, going out and bringing in widely respected front office man Dave Dombrowski. This was no longer the John McHale and Randy Smith show - Dombrowski was the man in charge now. Smith was shown the door shortly after, but where was the money? There would be none - Illitch wanted to see all these great prospects that Smith kept hyping as the next big thing. So, Dombrowski obliged, moved out every noteworthy veteran - and gave the kids a chance. The result? The second worst season of any team in modern baseball.
Maybe this was the wake up call Illitch needed. No longer was his baseball team just one of the less impressive ones. Illitch and his Tigers had become the laughing stock of baseball, being ridiculed on late night talk shows and simply being referred to as an embarrassment to the city.
Finally, change was on the way. Dombrowski was given the green light to go out and make improvements. Illitch stepped up and accepted the blame, and came to the realization that it was time to step to the table financially - as he should. Detroit is still one of the top 10 markets in the nation - the city's population may be declining, but the suburbs are prospering. There is absolutely no reason for Detroit to be mentioned in the same breath as Milwaukee and Kansas City.
And so, in came the players. The Tigers started off with adding 2B Fernando Vina. A player no longer in the prime of his career, Vina still represented a solid veteran willing to play for the Tigers - a huge question mark going into the offseason. And not only did Vina get the ball rolling; he played a role in recruiting OF Rondell White to the Tigers. After White came reliever Al Levine, followed by starter Jason Johnson. A trade weeks later brought in Shortstop Carlos Guillen - and the offseason appeared to be a success. But then, the real kicker came.
The aforementioned Catcher Rodriguez was still without a home as February quickly approached. Dombrowski inquired, and unlike other marquee free agents like Miguel Tejada and Vladimir Guerrero, Rodriguez and his agent Scott Boras listened. The Tigers had already spent more money than in any other recent offseason - but was a chance at Rodriguez too good to pass up? Illitch made it clear that it was.
Boras and Rodriguez flew into town for a face-to-face meeting with Dombrowski - but this time, Illitch was there. The Tigers scheduled a routine physical for Rodriguez - but Illitch didn't just call after the fact to make sure everything checked out, he accompanied Rodriguez on the check-up. Some might consider it silly, but Rodriguez appreciated the gesture - especially after stops in Florida and Texas where he constantly felt under-appreciated by management.
Now, this isn't to say that Rodriguez just fell in love with the city and the front office and the team. Rodriguez became a Tiger because Illitch offered the money that others wouldn't. But even at that, Illitch backed up his talk - and provided the money to make something happen. The same Illitch that practically sold off the only star the Tigers had seen since the 80's championship teams in Cecil Fielder. The same Illitch that froze spending when the team was close to turning the corner and needed the upgrades terribly to get there. Illitch just went out and nabbed the biggest free agent in Tiger history.
And while all of the improvements are noteworthy, the Tigers are still far from contention. The rotation only possesses one 10-game winner (Johnson) and two with an ERA under 5 last season (Cornejo and Johnson). The lineup while rejuvenated, still features as many question marks as it does answers, and who knows if the few promising youngsters that remain will ever develop into full blown major leaguers.
All the question marks still exist, yet this season is different. It's always said in the business world that for change to happen, it has to start at the top. Is Illitch finally looking to make the Tigers a priority? Will the days of old return to the Motor City? It's far too early to tell, but then again, when was the last time it was popular to be a baseball fan in Detroit? Well dig the old English 'D' cap out of the closet - the Tigers are on their way back - and that might just be led by the last man ever thought interested in doing so.