The lights are dim. A stale odor of cigar smoke and aged brandy encapsulates the room. 14 American League owners sit weary-eyed around a pair of high stakes poker tables, each trying to make sense of the cards, baseball, life and everything in between.
Dispersed around one table you can find the monetary backing for Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Toronto. The action with this group is almost always casual. Piña coladas. Small antes. Knock-knock jokes. Everyone usually ends up having a wonderful, thrifty time before calling it a night. For the most part, the stuff at this table goes largely unnoticed.
Across the room, surrounded by rows of fans, reporters and television cameras, sits a second, much larger table. Here you’ll find plush seats, gold-plated cards, waitresses at the snap-of-a-finger; everything. This is where the big boys sit. Guys like Boston’s John W. Henry, the Yankees’ Hank Steinbrenner, Los Angeles’ Arte Moreno and Texas’ Nolan Ryan. Large sums of money are haphazardly tossed around here every year. Winning. Losing. It barely matters. Want to own up to a big mistake from the previous season? Show up next winter with a huge bag of cash and *boom*, your gaffe is absolved.
Often described as a too-nice-to-win-at-poker type of personality, Mike Ilitch, Detroit’s Little Caesars King, has been a member of the second table for the better part of the last decade. He’s largely viewed as a star even though he rarely wins a large pot, but has a track record of surprising opponents with cunning, unexpected maneuvers at opportune times. Still, Ilitch has always been more reserved about putting the bulk of his money on the table than his counterparts from Boston, Los Angeles or New York.
And then Victor Martinez went down with a season-ending injury and the situation changed. The news was so devastating, so rock-you-to-the-core intense, that it forced Ilitch to take another wayward glance down at the pile of chips that lay before him. At 82 years old, and endlessly passionate about his ball club, it must have occurred to him that he might never see a stack of chips this tall again in his life. And for anyone in that position, paced by the dream of seeing your own organization win the greatest prize in the sport, waiting another year for a full-push with V-Mart clearly wasn't the most appealing option.
Earlier in his career Ilitch might have folded this hand and let general manager Dave Dombrowski sign a conservatively-priced free agent or two to bolster the lineup. After all, that might be the most long-term-conscious move available knowing some of the contracts the Tigers will have to work in coming seasons. Instead, Ilitch played this one differently.
Yesterday, with all eyes locked to his side of the room, Mike Ilitch unexpectedly went all in.
It was truly a sight to behold. Not for the enormity of Prince Fielder’s nine-year, $214 million contract, but because nobody, nobody saw this coming. The talk about whether Fielder deserves a nine-year deal without a single opt-out clause is to be expected but hardly matters at this point. The fact is, Ilitch opened up his checkbook to pay a star player he’s always secretly coveted, and it took the gutsiest move of his career to pull it off. As a Tigers fan, you literally cannot ask for anything more from your owner.
With one swipe of a pen Mike Ilitch sent thousands of cc’s of adrenaline into every able-bodied Tigers fan in the state. Baseball season can't come soon enough.