DETROIT – Michael Prather walks unevenly down Montcalm Street past Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers will play in a few hours. He holds a whiskey bottle, clumsily covered by a brown paper bag, in his right hand. He requests handouts with his left.
Prather, 54, who says he’s an unemployed general laborer, is wearing a stained black sweatshirt. His gray paints are torn. The reek of alcohol is overpowered only by the stench of his clothing.
“I know I don’t look so good, and the city don’t look good, either,” Prather says. “But things will be better. They got to. There are good people trying to make this city better. The man over there, the one that runs the Tigers and our hockey team, he’s trying. He’s trying real hard. You got to admire that man.”
That man is 82-year-old pizza baron Mike Ilitch, owner of the Tigers and Red Wings. He is fervently trying to resurrect life in his hometown of Detroit.
His downtown office might be surrounded by poverty and despair on the streets, but when Ilitch looks outside all he sees is resurrection and revival. Once the fourth-largest city in the country, Detroit lost 25% of its residents in the last decade, and nearly one-quarter of its homes are unoccupied. But he thinks his city will return to prominence.
Ilitch and his wife, Marian, are worth about $2 billion, but he realizes it will take more than money for the city to fully recover. It will likely take more years than he has left. Yet he has a baseball team ready to jump-start the movement.
The Tigers, off to a 5-1 start and loaded with superstars Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, might just be the entity to help repair a city’s self-esteem.
“I want to win the World Series,” Ilitch, the son of Macedonian immigrants, tells USA TODAY Sports in a rare interview. “But not for me. For our community. Baseball has such a tremendous effect on a city. It would bring so much joy. It would mean everything.”
Ilitch is synonymous with Detroit. He owns Little Caesars Pizza. The Fox Theatre. Motor City Casino. The family holdings alone are responsible for bringing 10 million people into downtown every year, and his sports teams are worth an annual economic impact of $443 million, according to the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“If not for Mike Ilitch,” says Emmett Moten, director of economic development for late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, “there may not be a Detroit.
“He believed in us at a time when the city was fighting for survival. He brought the Tigers downtown and got the Lions to come along with him. He brought Fox Theatre back to life. If we didn’t have all of that, what would Detroit have? I’m afraid we’d have nothing.”
Says Bud Selig, Major League Baseball commissioner: “What Mike Ilitch has done for that city, sociologically, is stunning. Here is an owner that understood the social responsibilities as well as anybody could. Not everything might have been in his best interest, but it was in the best interest of Detroit and Michigan.
“It’s hard to articulate just how much the Tigers mean to Detroit.”
After amassing a fortune, winning four Stanley Cup championships and qualifying for the NHL playoffs in 21 consecutive years, Ilitch is desperate to win a World Series. He’s paying the price. The Tigers’ payroll of $132.3 million ranks fifth in baseball. And he stunned the industry when he invested $214 million on free agent first baseman Prince Fielder in January despite already having an MVP-caliber first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, who will make $21 million in 2012.
“Fans want to see the stars,” Ilitch says. “And if you want stars, you have to pay the price.”
It might defy accounting logic, but Ilitch thinks the Tigers’ first title since 1984 could lead the way to reinventing Detroit, returning vibrancy and faith to the city.
“I’m up in years, as you know, so it would really be special,” Ilitch says. “It’s been a great life.
“But winning a World Series, it would be like a banana split with a cherry on top.”
The parking lot at Elizabeth and Witherell, across the street from the Fox Theatre, is nearly deserted at 8 in the morning. The only vehicle is a white Ford F-150 pickup.
It is the truck where seven men are tailgating eight hours before game time, cooking breakfast burritos and drinking Fireball liquor.
“This is what it’s all about to be a Tiger fan,” says Brad Henderson, 32, an electrician wearing a Brandon Inge jersey.
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Credit: Bob Nightengale, USA Today