Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch ranked No. 238 on the 2010 Forbes Magazine "400 Richest Americans" list. Last year, the net worth of the fast-food magnate was estimated to be $1.7 billion.
A Marine veteran who played three seasons of minor league baseball after the service, Ilitch was not born wealthy. In 1959, he and his wife opened a pizza joint outside Detroit. The place eventually expanded into the Little Caesars chain that today serves customers everywhere from Guam to Turkey.
Given Ilitch's status as a self-made billionaire -- and mine as a bargain-hunting connoisseur of thrift shops -- I have no more room to criticize the man's business decisions than berate Brad Pitt's brand of sunglasses.
But, wow, that was one dumb deal Ilitch made Tuesday.
In exchange for a nine-year contract worth $214 million, Ilitch's baseball team got 275 pounds of Prince Fielder. That's how Fielder's weight is listed by the folks at Baseball-Reference.com., anyway. Last time I saw him swing a bat, during the Brewers' National League Championship Series defeat to the Cardinals, Fielder appeared to be every bit of 300 pounds.
Fielder's weight is topical because he'll turn 28 years old in May, and the career trajectory of a heavy-set baseball player, vulnerable to injuries, figures to take a radical decline after the age of 32.
The case of former first baseman Mo Vaughn comes to mind. In 1999, the Angels signed the free agent to a six-year, $80 million contract before his age-31 season. Vaughn put together two good years in Anaheim before sitting out a third season with a bum knee. He then was traded to the Mets, who between 2002 and 2003 coaxed 166 games from his 267-pound body.
The $80 million the Angels and Mets owed Vaughn -- more precisely, the $78,000,001 they owed him; hey, why quibble about small numbers? -- is regarded as one of the worst contracts of the free-agent era. Or at least one of the worst contracts not arranged by Bill Bavasi, whose ineptitude as general manager threw the Mariners into a spin cycle that's lasted almost a decade.
Seattle, as you may have heard, explored the idea of acquiring Fielder, whose mere presence -- even casual fans recognize the face of the three-time All Star -- could've supplied Sleepy Hollow ... uh, Safeco Field ... with some energy.
But Fielder, as you also may have heard, didn't reciprocate the interest. Fielder never explained his issues with Seattle, but it's reasonable to suspect, as a Florida resident, he wasn't thrilled about the location. (Another Florida resident, Ken Griffey Jr., once had the same misgivings about Seattle ... after moving from Seattle.)
Safeco Field's reputation as a pitcher's park did nothing to intrigue Fielder, nor did the reality the Mariners are looking at still another rebuilding season that will be judged a success if they merely flirt with a .500 record.
Finally, let's not forget about another impediment to Fielder's chances of signing with the Mariners: agent Scott Boras. He was looking for an owner dumb enough to agree to a guaranteed contract with more years on it than his porcine client ever will be able to fulfill.
Observers of the Prince Watch determined that Boras would be forced to "settle" for a deal of something like seven years at $170 million. The observers underestimated Boras' history of eluding the interference of general managers while appealing to the hubris of billionaire owners.
They underestimated Scotty's ability to beam it up.
What Scotty wants, Scotty gets.
So his client ended up in Detroit. Despite Fielder's trouble fitting into things -- shirts and pants and stuff like that -- he'll fit in nicely with the team he followed when he used to hang around with his dad, ex-Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder. The Tigers' hopes of repeating as AL Central champions recently were quelled with the news that designated hitter Victor Martinez will sit out the 2012 season with a torn knee ligament. With Fielder on board, Martinez won't be missed.
In the short term, the Tigers' acquisition of Fielder makes sense.
And, really, the short term is all that Ilitch cares about. He's 82. My hunch is that the last ambition of his rich and storied life is to participate in a World Series championship parade through the streets of downtown Detroit.
But in the long term? Guaranteeing an overweight athlete $214 million over nine years is insane. Charlie Sheen has a better chance of serving as secretary of state than Prince Fielder has of playing through the final half of his contract.
Mariners fans were grousing about how the team failed to entice a superstar slugger into even thinking about relocating to Seattle. Get over it, friends.
Be glad. Be glad the franchise will not be committed to another albatross of a contract. Be glad it was a pizza baron who came up with the dough.