10/18/12 10:19 PM ET
Tigers carry Ilitch one step closer to his dream
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
"He told me if there's one thing he'd really want," Dombrowski said, "it's to have a World Series ring. He told me that 11 years ago when I came here."
The Tigers are four wins away from fulfilling the dream of their owner and his embattled city, where his roots are firmly planted.
A sweep of the Yankees, completed with Thursday's 8-1 Game 4 victory, has the Tigers waiting to see where they'll open the World Series next Wednesday -- in St. Louis or San Francisco, home of the National League champion.
"I saw how happy he was today," Dombrowski said of the 83-year-old owner, who made his fortune in the pizza business and owns the NHL's Red Wings as well as the Tigers. "He felt thrilled to be here.
"I'd like to salute our owner and the family atmosphere we have here. I want him to enjoy this victory tonight with his family. I've never seen a man more dedicated to a community than him.
"We want to win the World Series now, for what he's done for the city, the franchise and the community."
Ilitch, sporting a Tigers jacket with Dombrowski's right arm draped around his shoulder, addressed the roaring crowd as the two men raised the AL championship trophy to the skies.
"It's a big thrill for my fans, you 3 million fans," Ilitch said into a television microphone, with the sound audible throughout Comerica Park. "You pumped my players up!
"I've got a great ballclub. They're all great guys. We don't have one hot dog in the bunch.
"They're humble. They're down to earth. They appreciate the fans to no end. I couldn't be more happy with the Red Wings and the Tigers. But the Tigers are something special."
Detroit-born and -raised, Ilitch, 83, graduated from Cooley High School and then joined the U.S. Marines, serving a four-year hitch. Returning home after his tour of duty, he accepted a $3,000 offer to play for the Tigers and had a four-year Minor League career, primarily as a second baseman, in the Tigers, Yankees and Washington Senators' farm systems.
Forced out of the game by a knee injury, he started Little Caesars Pizza Treat in 1959 along with his wife, Marian, in Garden City, Mich. It would become an enormous success, with thousands of franchises.
"The Tigers have been his life," Sam Lites, Ilitch's grandson, said following the ceremony behind second base, attended by manager Jim Leyland and all of his players. "He had his success with the Red Wings [winning four Stanley Cups], and he really wants a World Series championship.
"Baseball is in his blood; he comes from baseball roots. He played for the Tigers, and he loves the game.
"We're all excited and thrilled -- but we're not done yet. We've still got work to do."
A few moments earlier, Ilitch had posed with several dozen family members -- children, grandchildren, in-laws -- in a cart in shallow center field, smiling broadly amid the people he loves most.
"We're blessed with our owner and a family that have done unbelievable things for the city of Detroit and unbelievable things for the Detroit Tigers," Leyland said, giving all the credit for the AL Central title and pennant to his players.
"I thank the 3 million people who came out to watch us and never lost the faith. We're one big, happy family here."
This will be the Tigers' second World Series appearance in the Ilitch era. They used tremendous starting pitching and timely hitting to dominate the Yankees, the AL East champions and the team with the best record in the league.
In 2006, Detroit made it to the Fall Classic, against St. Louis, after taking out New York in five games in the AL Division Series and sweeping Oakland in the ALCS.
That early finish to the ALCS meant a seven-day delay before the World Series began in Detroit. The Cardinals took Game 1, 7-2, and went on to prevail in five games.
The layoff this time will be six days.
"We've got some different ideas," Dombrowski said. "We've done some research. The key is keeping your players sharp. Every step you take, you've got a little sigh. The big sigh comes when you win a World Series."
Detroit has been waiting since 1984 -- when Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Co. ruled the baseball planet -- to experience that feeling.
Ilitch purchased the Tigers in 1992 from another pizza magnate, Tom Monaghan, but it was tough sledding for quite some time. The team had losing records for 12 of 13 seasons before the 2006 club put it all together.
The owner has continued to invest heavily -- the Tigers have the sixth-highest payroll in baseball, at $133.48 million -- and has given his baseball people freedom to put the right talent on the field.
When the decision was made that free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder could make a difference after Victor Martinez was lost for the season, Ilitch approved a nine-year, $214 million deal.
Now it's on to the biggest stage of all for the man who made his fortune in the pizza business and loves his hot dog-free team.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.