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On Baseball | Owner steps up for Tigers

Meddlesome owners can drive general managers a little crazy. But there isn't a GM in baseball who wouldn't welcome this kind of meddling.

Meddlesome owners can drive general managers a little crazy. But there isn't a GM in baseball who wouldn't welcome this kind of meddling.

It was just before Thanksgiving. Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was catching up on the coverage of baseball's hot stove season and couldn't help but notice that the Florida Marlins were taking offers on slugging third baseman Miguel Cabrera.

Ilitch called Dave Dombrowski, his team's president and GM, and asked whether the Tigers were interested.

Of course, Dombrowski said, the Tigers had interest. (Who wouldn't want a 24-year-old who has averaged 31 homers and 115 RBIs the last four seasons?)

But that interest was tempered by the large price tag the Marlins had put on Cabrera. They wanted big prospects in return, and Cabrera figured to make more than $10 million in arbitration this winter, a sizable paycheck with the Tigers' payroll already approaching $110 million.

None of this bothered Ilitch.

"If there's something you can do, maybe we push our situation and see if we can make it work," Ilitch told Dombrowski.

That was code for: Go get Miguel Cabrera. Go get a World Series championship - now.

And so Dombrowski, who had previously thought his wintertime wheeling and dealing was complete, showed up at the winter meetings Monday and immediately initiated talks with the Marlins. The Tigers also sought lefthanded pitcher Dontrelle Willis in the deal. They presented a staggering package of six prospects, including two of the best in baseball, lefty Andrew Miller, 22, and centerfielder Cameron Maybin, 20. By late Tuesday afternoon, the deal was agreed upon and the Tigers had the look of a powerhouse club ready to get back to the World Series for the second time in three years.

"We made this trade to win now," Dombrowski said.

Tigers fans were so pleased with the deal that they purchased nearly $1.3 million worth of tickets on Wednesday and Thursday, according to the Detroit News.

The excitement started with a phone call from the owner, the blessing to give up two prospects whose combined draft price tag was about $7 million, and a willingness to hike the 2008 payroll to close to $130 million.

"Not to say that we didn't have interest, but Mike Ilitch calling and saying, 'Why don't you see if you can be open-minded to that, if there's something we can work out?' kind of inched it along a little bit," Dombrowski said.

Ilitch, the founder of the Little Caesar's Pizza empire, also owns the Detroit Red Wings. He has already hoisted the Stanley Cup. At age 78, he clearly believes it's time to put a World Series ring on his finger.

Now he owns a baseball team capable of getting him one.

Willis joins Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson in a solid rotation that will benefit from plenty of offensive support. The Tigers were second in the AL in runs (887) and slugging (.458) last season. With Cabrera likely to hit fifth behind Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordoñez, they could be even more explosive in 2008.

"If you don't pitch well, they'll let you know," Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

"I bet there are some lefthanded pitchers that aren't too excited in the American League," said Boston manager Terry Francona, taking a look at the big righthanded bats of Sheffield, Ordoñez and Cabrera in the middle of the Tigers' order. "The American League has got a lot of good teams. And when you go through cities like Detroit, if your pitching is not in line, they cannot just beat you; they can beat you up and hurt you for about a week because they just maul you. There's no letup."

After 12 straight losing seasons, the Tigers won 95 games in 2006 and got to the World Series, where they lost to St. Louis. Last season, the Tigers did not make the playoffs. To get back there, they will have to contend with Cleveland, the defending AL Central champion, and even AL East stalwarts Boston and the New York Yankees, who annually contend for the division and wild-card titles.

AL teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians and Angels are so good that a team must act boldly, as the Tigers did, if it wants to get to the playoffs. Hence the Tigers' decision to give up top prospects, hike their payroll, and go for it now.

Trying to keep up with the Red Sox and Yankees is one reason the American League is superior to the National League.

"They have set the bar high," said Lou Piniella, who manages the NL's Chicago Cubs. "I think these American League teams say to themselves, 'Boy, if we want to get where they are, we've got to improve.' You've got to get after it. That's exactly what Detroit did."

And it all started with ownership.