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The Big Payoff
IN EARLY 2005, when Magglio Ordo�ez was a free-agent outfielder, his meeting with Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was going so well that Ilitch pushed a pencil and a piece of paper toward him and asked him to name his price. Ordo�ez, who had hit .306 in eight seasons with the White Sox but had played in only 52 games in '04 because of a knee ailment, had been virtually ignored by most clubs and didn't know what to make of the surprise gesture. So he did what he would never do in the batter's box: He froze. "I got scared," says Ordo�ez, who decided to let his agent work out the details.
Ilitch, the Little Caesars restaurant king who makes bold business decisions and wanted Ordo�ez signed within the time it takes to make Pizza!Pizza!, eventually locked up Ordo�ez for a stunning $75 million guaranteed over five years with the deal potentially growing to $105 million over seven depending on the player's health and performance. Through Sunday neither could be better: Ordo�ez, who had missed only eight games since the start of 2006, led the American League in batting average (.362), runs (50), hits (75), doubles (28), total bases (142), slugging (.686) and RBIs (52) and is the early favorite for the AL MVP award. "It almost seems like everyone else is a Little Leaguer," says Tigers first baseman Sean Casey. "He's homering to all parts of the park. If there's an RBI out there, he's going to get it."
Ordo�ez, 33, had been suffering from bone marrow edema in his left knee, and after two surgeries, including one done in Vienna, no front-office exec felt Ordo�ez was worth the gamble—including Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski. Ilitch recalls that his G.M. told him the team doesn't give five-year contracts. "He was trying to protect me," Ilitch says, "and I appreciate that."
Last winter Detroit rolled the dice on another high-profile free agent, Gary Sheffield. Now sandwiched at cleanup between Sheffield and shortstop Carlos Guillen, Ordo�ez is having his best season by far. Yet he still ranked seventh among AL outfielders in the latest All-Star balloting results, prompting Guillen to ask, "What are people thinking in this country?"
The publicity-shy Ordo�ez has maintained a low profile despite being an excellent all-around player with a beautiful righthanded swing. He has gotten the most attention for his curly and lush mane. "I've got to grow my hair long so my face doesn't look quite so round," he says. That self-deprecating manner was one of the things about Ordo�ez that impressed Ilitch. "He showed he was a humble person," the owner says.
Humbled himself after the Tigers lost 119 games in 2003, Ilitch pushed to sign such free agents as catcher Ivan Rodriguez in '04, Ordo�ez the next year and lefthander Kenny Rogers before the '06 season; at the same time Dombrowski was making impact trades for righthander Jeremy Bonderman, Guillen and second baseman Placido Polanco.
After taking two out of four from Cleveland last weekend, Detroit was 32--24 and 2 1/2 games behind the Indians in the AL Central, in good position to make another postseason run, particularly if Rogers (blood clot) and reliever Joel Zumaya (ruptured tendon in right middle finger) come back strong and if Ordo�ez stays hot. Adjusting his swing so he can drive the ball to all fields (he has a .385 average in spacious Comerica Park) is one of the steps Ordo�ez has taken to improve his hitting, but the key is his knee. "I'm healthy and feeling good," says Ordo�ez. "I never had any doubts about the knee."
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