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Thieves in high places



Nearly everyone now admits that Mike Ilitch, a seriously bizarre character best known for selling cheap pizza, has been a howling failure as owner of the Tigers.

Even the most docile monopoly newspaper columnists have begun to plaintively beg him to sell the team, which is, now, after a decade of his running and ruining it, probably the worst baseball club in the history of the major leagues.

Yet what hasn’t been pointed out is that Ilitch is also guilty of shamefully misusing public funds. Politicians and plutocrats count on us to have short memories, so let me remind you that he took lots of our money a few years ago and has given us nothing in return. Flash back to the mid-1990s, when Ilitch, worth at least half a billion dollars, decided his team needed a new playpen and that the town ought to help pay for it.

The threat was strong that if we didn’t pay up, he would move the Tigers out of town. Politicians sprang to his aid, and told Detroiters, many of whom were wasting their meager dollars on trifles like food and trying to patch the holes in their roofs, to vote to divert tax revenues from the new facility to pay off $40 million in bonds for Massa Ilitch. They did, and Wayne County kicked in another $20 million in tourist taxes.

The State of Michigan Strategic Fund, which is meant to promote economic development, donated another $55 million to Comerica Park, and I suspect a few other little enticements slipped out of the public purse as well. Never mind that many, perhaps most, of the fans were rather in love with the old ballyard.

Never mind that the luxury boxes, etc., that the owner said he needed could have been added, and other needed improvements made, for a fraction of the price. The Little Caesar wanted a new stadium, and we and some Japanese banks built him one.

However, it went without saying that his part of the bargain was to provide a major league baseball team. Not necessarily a World Series champion, or even a pennant winner, though we’d gotten used to having one of those every 20 years or so.

Ha. Ha. Through an evident combination of incompetence, cheapness, and either lack of funds and/or unwillingness to spend them, Detroit now has a baseball team that is probably less good than some of the real teams’ minor-league farm clubs.

The only other modern-era major-league team ever close to being as bad were the famous 1962 New York Mets. But they had an excuse: They were a brand-new team composed of castoffs, and were amusing and entertaining besides. The Tigers, who have been in business for more than a century, are not even interesting. To be sure, every team has to endure an occasional terrible year or “rebuilding” season. But this is not that, and there is no realistic hope of even attaining mediocrity in the foreseeable future.

Yet nobody is calling for an investigation of the way Mike Ilitch does business with us, or how he seems to keep local politicians in his hip pocket. As Curt Guyette recently reported (“A hole in the heart,” Metro Times, Aug. 6-12), everybody knows somebody could put (another) minor-league team in Tiger Stadium, get some excitement going and generate revenue for Detroit, which needs money desperately.

Everybody also knows that the Macedonian Monarch would hate that, and so nothing happens, and the city pays Mike the Impaler of Dreams another $400,000 a year to cut the grass at an abandoned stadium the city actually owns.

Yes, if someone wanted to build a giant Kate Spade purse store at Michigan and Trumbull, or something about as likely, the city might be interested — as long as there was no chance the Ilitches would protest. But the not-so-secret real plan is that someday before too long, Detroit will deem the stadium beyond saving.

Then it will be torn down, and Corktown will have a parking lot. And who will be to blame? Not really the failing pizza man, now in his 70s, who is just one in a long line of businessmen who “seen his opportunities and took ’em,” and the public be screwed. No, try blaming your hip-hop mayor and his backup band, the City Council.

They could still do something about this sorry state of affairs — even asking a few questions would be nice for starters. Then they could turn Tiger Stadium over to somebody Ilitch doesn’t like, which might force him to sell the team.

Our elected leaders could do that — if they had the guts, or the intelligence, or the fear that the voters might insist on holding them accountable.

OK, it was just a thought. But it might be worth a try.

Kleptocracy in America: Nationally, the situation is worse, you’ll be cheered to know, and nobody tells it like it is better than Jim Hightower, whose latest book is called Thieves In High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country and It’s Time to Take It Back.

Should you be reading this Wednesday, Sept. 24, there is still time to dash down to Southfield’s Centre for the Arts, 24350 Southfield Road at 7 p.m., and hear ol’ Jim, who once was actually an elected official in darkest Texas, talk about the state of the nation. Don’t worry about being depressed, however. He may make you angry, but when I talked to Hightower last week, he was upbeat. “I want to show people that there is great progressive hope in America.”

His message is that the people can take back this country — and he sees some signs they may be getting ready to do just that. His No. 1 priority is to “get corrupt money out of the political system,” starting at the local levels. Almost as important: Getting rid of the “thief in chief” in next year’s election. Naturally, I had no idea at all who he could possibly mean.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail

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