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Ilitch Happy to See His Tigers in Playoffs

October 08, 2006|From the Associated Press

DETROIT — A knee injury cut short Mike Ilitch's baseball career in the 1950s. It couldn't end his baseball dreams. Nor could a dozen losing seasons since he bought the Detroit Tigers 14 years ago.

Now he has another stunning success to add to those from business and hockey. The Tigers brought people in droves to the downtown stadium that Ilitch opened six years ago.

And it's not over yet: Detroit is in the postseason for the first time since 1987.

"It means everything to me, because it's something that has taken a long time and has been a hard process for me," Ilitch said last week after a team photo.

He spoke before the final homestand in which the Tigers lost their lead in the AL Central that they had held for months. The Tigers had to settle for the wild card and a matchup against the New York Yankees, with the first-round series continuing this weekend.

Whatever happens, the Tigers' mere presence in the playoffs is seen as a minor miracle in Motown. The great season has buoyed the city and the state amid tough economic times, Ilitch said.

"It makes people feel better about themselves, and especially if we can get deep in the playoffs, it will be wonderful," he said.

The 77-year-old founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain and owner of hockey's Detroit Red Wings also is reaping financial rewards.

The Tigers turned a profit for the first time since Ilitch acquired them, and average attendance at Comerica Park was up by 7,500 a game.

"I found out that it's a beautiful park -- when it's full," Ilitch said. "What a difference. When it's empty, you say, 'I'm not so sure about how the stands go back, or this or that.' "

Born in Detroit to Macedonian immigrants, Ilitch played in the Tigers' farm system, but a knee injury dashed his hopes of playing in the majors. He became a door-to-door salesman before he and his wife, Marian, opened the first Little Caesars in Garden City, Mich., in 1959.

The Ilitches built Little Caesars Enterprises Inc. into a national carryout business. Now it's the fourth-largest pizza chain in the country.

Ilitch acquired the Red Wings in 1982 and oversaw a dramatic turnaround. The team once derided as the "Dead Wings" has won three Stanley Cups under him. Today the family business also includes a major Detroit theater that hosts big-name touring acts, a casino and vast amounts of downtown real estate.

Ilitch has ceded day-to-day control over most of his businesses to his children.

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