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Fielder’s Home-Run Stroke Distracts Detroit From Fiscal Morass

April 05, 2012

Rick Spivey says he hopes that Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder’s $214 million contract leads to a blowout season for the team -- anything to help his neighbors forget a similarly large hole in the city budget.

“As far as people’s morale goes, this is the worst as I’ve seen it with the economy being the way it is and all the foreclosures,” said Spivey, 49, who owns a medical transportation company in the city. “It’s probably going to be a long, hot summer, and baseball and a winning team will be a great distraction for people.”

The Tigers host the Boston Red Sox this afternoon in their opening game, a day after the Detroit city council approved a consent agreement with the state to help plug a $270 million deficit. Today had been the deadline for the city to accept the agreement and avoid having a state-appointed emergency manager take over the government.

“There was a lot of talk over the winter about the state of the city,” said Laura Burmann, 32, over a breakfast of eggs, toast and hash browns at the Steak Hut diner in Detroit with her friend Ron Shelton. “All our conversations pretty much revolved around that. Now with the Tigers coming in, I think there’s going to be more talk about baseball.”

A big part of the hype is based on Tigers owner Mike Ilitch’s January decision to approve a nine-year, $214 million contract for Fielder, the fourth-biggest in baseball history. Fielder is the son of Cecil Fielder, who hit 51 home runs for the Tigers in 1990.

After falling two wins short of a trip to the World Series a year ago, oddsmakers are fueling optimism for Detroit in 2012. The Tigers are tied with the New York Yankees as the second- favorites to win the World Series, with 6-1 odds at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino’s sports book. The Philadelphia Phillies are the favorites with 5-1 odds.

10th Biggest Payroll

The Tigers had a $105.7 million player payroll last season, ranking 10th among Major League Baseball’s 30 teams.

“It’s a great distraction,” said Shelton, 47, who has lived in a downtown Detroit apartment for two decades. “It’s a great thing to look forward to. People who don’t even have tickets gravitate to the downtown. Everybody is working the same direction, and it’s fun.”

The source of the controversy is a consent agreement the Detroit city council approved last night on a 5-4 vote. The proposal requires the state and city to create a nine-member advisory board to enforce spending changes and union concessions. The plan is being fought by city union members in multiple lawsuits.

Contract concessions are “absolutely horrible,” Ron Hill, 35, a Detroit police officer and Tigers fan, said during an interview at Detroit city hall. He operates a vending machine business while off duty that includes a contract in city hall.

Good for Morale

Hill, who doesn’t remember the Tigers’ 1984 World Series because he was only eight years old, said Detroit sports teams are good for the city’s morale and its economy, like the Lions’ playoff run in the National Football League last season.

“Regardless of everything else that was going on in the city, when the Lions won, Sunday was a good day,” he said. “A winning season from the Tigers would be something good. It kind of makes you forget about everything else that’s going on.”

The Tigers drew 2.64 million fans to their 81 home dates last season, ranking 13th among baseball’s 30 teams. The addition of Fielder and the added national interest in the team this year probably also mean in-stadium advertisers will get an increase in exposure worth between $185,000 to $225,000, said Eric Smallwood, senior vice president of Front Row Marketing Services in Port Huron, Michigan.

Winning Red Wings

For Ilitch, a winning Tigers team is another professional sports success. He also owns the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings, which are about to enter the playoffs for a record 21st year in a row at their downtown rink.

“I’ve worked for good ownership before, believe me,” Tigers’ Manager Jim Leyland said in January. “But I’ve never seen ownership like this, where it’s, ‘I want to win, I want this for the city of Detroit, and I’m willing to pay the freight.’ It’s unbelievable.”

Ilitch, 82, with his wife Marian, is 212th on Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans, with a net worth of $2 billion. The Ilitches co-founded closely held pizza chain Little Caesars Enterprises Inc. in the Detroit area in 1959.

The Tigers wouldn’t make him available to be interviewed.

Smart Spending

Residents won’t fault Ilitch for spending lavishly to create a winning team with so many residents struggling because people understand what it takes to compete, said Spivey, as he had his second bowl of soup at the Steak Hut. He had a newspaper article spread out at his booth about foreclosures slowing the Detroit recovery.

“We know that he does spend money on this team, but he seems to spend wisely,” Spivey said. “They were close last year.”

Fielder combines with Miguel Cabrera to give Detroit one of the best third- and fourth-place hitters in the game. Fielder and Cabrera combined for 68 homers last season, when Cabrera won the American League batting title. last year, Justin Verlander won the Cy Young Award as the American League’s top pitcher as well as the Most Valuable Player Award.

Ease the Pain

Detroit sporting success has been a salve for the city’s dire times in the past, said Mike Bernacchi, a marketing and economics professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. The Tigers’ 1968 World Series victory helped heal some of the pain from a five-day riot in 1967 that killed more than 40 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings, he said.

“This is a wonderful topic to help you forget that Detroit is potentially in its greatest jeopardy, ever,” Bernacchi said. “I have a feeling if you asked most people if they’d be willing to trade away the Tigers in exchange for the city being out of hoc, they’d say ‘Play Ball!’”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan, at; Erik Matuszewski in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at

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