Lapointe: Where Was Chris Ilitch, the Condescending Monarch of Detroit's Royal Sports Family?

July 07, 2019, 10:06 PM by  Joe Lapointe

Chris Ilitch (Photo: Ilitch Holdings Inc.)

Dave Dombrowski showed up at Comerica Park over the weekend, but where was Chris Ilitch?

J.D. Martinez, Rick Porcello and David Price were there too, but where was Chris Ilitch?

Even Jim Leyland and Mario Impemba were around, but where in the hell was Chris Ilitch?

Ilitch – whose family owns the Tigers and the Red Wings and lots of other things – didn’t make himself available to explain the vague, “multi-year” contract extension awarded to Al Avila Friday before their wretched Tigers got swept by the World Series champion Boston Red Sox in a three-game series.

Instead, Ilitch issued a press release about his executive vice president and general manager of his team, now 28-57.

“I’ve been impressed with Al’s leadership and focus,” Ilitch wrote. He never showed up to account to the fans through the media. Perhaps, on a holiday weekend, he was just too busy.

Such haughty remove is customary for the condescending Ilitch, the former crown prince and now monarch of Detroit’s royal sports family.

His critics see him as a profiteering slumlord who accepts public subsidies from taxpayers for his teams’ playpens while breaking promises of developing the surrounding area called “District Detroit.” 

The presence of Boston visitors told a story. Dombrowski, who now runs the Red Sox, ran the Tigers when they were successful. But he was fired during the 2015 season by the Ilitch ownership and replaced by Avila.

Red Sox stars Martinez, Porcello and Price were productive Tigers during their last good era until the Ilitches lost them, too. Porcello won Saturday’s game; Price won Sunday’s.

Leyland, a special assistant to Avila, was the field manager when the Tigers reached the World Series in 2006 and 2012. Impemba, now a Red Sox radio broadcaster, worked TV for Tigers games in a career here that overlapped that era.

Mario Impemba, left, and Rod Allen

He left last summer after a scuffle with broadcast partner Rod Allen, a metaphor for the team they covered. Dombrowski found Impemba a job; Dombrowski knows talent.

Three realistic questions

Had Ilitch consented to address his subjects over the weekend at Comerica, he might have heard questions like:

  • How does your baseball team lose Cy Young pitchers like Porcello, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer – for budget reasons -- while hanging on to the self-centered Miguel Cabrera, a former home-run hitter who will make a little more than $30 million per year until 2023 when he is 40 years old?
  • Why have neither of your bedrock sports franchises made the post-season playoffs in recent seasons?
  • And why have other real estate developers sought, bought and built on properties in Detroit in the last five years while the Ilitches – who promised so much – have not delivered the residential and retail buildings touted in 2014 when they announced their new Little Caesars Arena?

In some major-league cities – especially savvy ones with four core pro teams – a businessman like Chris Ilitch would be questioned harshly by public officials and investigated by the news media. In his publically subsidized sports arenas, the home fans would boo his teams.

Mike Ilitch

But Ilitch dodges this due to the enormous good will earned by his parents, Mike and Marian, who revived the Red Wings in the late 20th. Century and the Tigers at the start of the 21st.

And they invested in downtown back when few did. With four Stanley Cup titles and two American League pennants, the success of the Ilitch teams is a matter of public record.

Fateful turning point

But also on the public record – from court documents -- is a fateful moment in the House of Ilitch from 2005 which prefigured what is happening today.

Until then, Chris and his sister, Denise, had been co-equals in the family kingdom, which includes a casino, a pizza brand and plenty of land -- some of it vacant buildings, some of it paved for parking lots.

A woman who worked for Chris, and who also was a friend of Denise, had filed a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal. Her name was Cheryl F. Good. Denise took her side against her brother. Father Mike was sympathetic to his daughter, at least at first, Denise said.

Denise Ilitch (Photo: University of Michigan)

Court papers show that Chris sent an email to his mother that she needed to “send a message to Denise” regarding the dispute.

“She cannot dictate unilaterally but needs to work with her equal (me) as well as with our owners (you and MI),” the email said “She needs this message loud and clear because she has thrown a challenge of authority to me as well as the both of you.”

In testimony, sister Denise was asked about a subsequent telephone conversation in which mother Marian took brother Chris’s side.

Father Mike (who died in 2017) also was on the call but said little, Denise said.

Her mother spoke clearly about the dispute.

“She said she didn’t give a rat’s ass and that she didn’t care,” Denise Ilitch said. “ . . . She just kept saying `I don’t care. I don’t care, little lady, you got that? I don’t care.’ . . . She just screamed a lot.”

The case was settled out of court, according to Deborah Gordon, attorney for the plaintiff. But it served as a symbolic battle for control of a family empire.

Defeated, Denise left the family business and serves as a regent at the University of Michigan.

So Chris won that power struggle and became the king.

But what crowns has he won lately?

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