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Owning the Detroit Tigers Is No Longer Pie in the Sky for Pizza King Tom Monaghan

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It’s the sixth inning at Tiger Stadium, and Detroit is leading the Texas Rangers 3-1. As shortstop Alan Trammell comes to bat, Tom Monaghan leans forward in his seat. He rockets out of that seat when Trammell belts a homer deep into the left-field stands.

“Oh wow! Incredible! Fantastic!”

Winning 12 of their first 13 games, including their first nine, the Tigers pounced on the American League this spring for their hottest start in 73 years. No one has been enjoying the campaign more than Monaghan, an intense but ebullient multimillionaire who looks pleasantly rumpled even in $500 suits, carries rosary beads in his pocket and makes “almost a religion” of rooting for the Tigers.

Monaghan, 47, owner of Domino’s Pizza, the largest privately held restaurant chain in the world, bought his team in October for $53 million. He is still pinching himself. “I still can’t believe I own them,” he says, shaking his head. “The same Tigers I cheered for as a kid. It makes me shiver to think about it. It’s a dream come true.”

An unlikely one at that. On Christmas Eve when Monaghan was 4, his father died of complications following ulcers. Soon after, his mother placed Tom and his brother, Jim, two years younger, in an orphanage. St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, in Jackson, Mich., was run by strict Felician nuns, and among Monaghan’s few fond memories was “listening to the Tiger games. We’d gather around the radio, and I knew all the players by heart. Dizzy Trout, Hoot Evers, Hal Newhouser…”

At age 12, he left St. Joseph’s and began drifting through a series of foster homes and farms. Meanwhile, to earn pocket money, “I sold vegetables that I’d grown, door to door.” As a teenager he entered a Grand Rapids seminary to study for the priesthood but was kicked out for misbehavior. After a stint in the Marines he enrolled at the University of Michigan. He dropped out for lack of money. “I’ve had so much poverty and humility, I don’t need any more for practice,” he grins.

The turning point came in 1960 when Monaghan, hoping ultimately to earn money for college, borrowed $500 with his postman brother Jim to buy a pizza shop named Dominick’s. (They liked the name, but the former owner made them change it.) He quickly realized that in spite of his Irish rather than Italian heritage, “I’ve got tomato sauce in my veins.” A year later he bought out his brother for a used 1959 VW Beetle. (Jim now works as a consultant for Domino’s.) In 1962 Monaghan opened his second store and making his first delivery met Marjorie Zybach, his wife-to-be. If it wasn’t love at first sight, it was close. “She was working the switchboard,” he recalls, “and was really pretty.” The problem was, “I was scared to death of girls. I had only four dates in high school and in two of those the girl asked me.”

Yet Monaghan was able to overcome his chronic shyness. He asked her out, and three dates later he successfully proposed marriage.

The union prospered—they have four daughters—and so did Domino’s. Emphasizing delivery within 30 minutes and hot pizza—Monaghan was the first to put heaters in his delivery vans—the chain grew to more than 1,400 shops in 48 states, Canada and Australia. The company is expanding at a rate of one outlet per day. Last year Monaghan was offered $273 million for the operation. He turned it down.

When he first approached Jim Campbell, the Tigers’ president, in the spring of 1982, he got the brush-off—as had others who had made the same pitch. (“Is this character for real?” Campbell asked a friend.) Finally, Campbell arranged a meeting with John E. Fetzer, the club’s crusty 83-year-old owner. “As long as you’re here,” said Fetzer, his voice dripping ennui, “tell me about yourself.” Monaghan did. For nearly three hours. Swapping stories of their hardscrabble youths—Fetzer’s father died when he was 2—they hit it off.

A former schoolyard shortstop who “was very good at scooping up the ball, anticipating—but I was no power hitter,” the 5’10”, 163-pound Monaghan jogs five and a half miles daily, a necessary antidote to his weakness for tuna casseroles, ice cream and, of course, pizza. “I sure do enjoy eating,” he says (he has given up alcohol, cigarettes and coffee).

Though he insists “I don’t know anything about baseball,” he knows a contender when he buys one. Last year the Tigers’ 92-70 record was the third best in baseball. To a nucleus of young stars such as Jack Morris—who pitched a no-hitter in the fourth game—slugging catcher Lance Parrish and slick infielders Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, they’ve added more power in first baseman Darrell Evans and tough relief pitching in Willie Hernandez.

Monaghan plans to keep a low, non-Steinbrennerian profile. “I’ll let Jim Campbell call the shots,” he says. “There’s nothing I can do here but mess things up.” Not so. One of his first moves was to offer team stock at discount to the club’s top six executives, including manager Sparky Anderson. “Boy,” he chortles. “Sparky whipped out a check so fast. I don’t think a team ever offered him a part before. I believe in rewarding people who deserve it.”

At this point, owning the Tigers is all the reward Monaghan says he seeks—in this life, that is. A devout Catholic who attends Mass daily, his first goal is “to get into Heaven.” The former poor boy who used to wear “torn underwear and holey socks” now sports Maus & Hoffman suits, $200 Church’s English shoes and a $12,000 Patek Philipe wristwatch. “Everything else I’ve done, I’ve wanted more,” he says. “More pizza stores. A bigger plane, a bigger boat. But now, for the first time in my life, I have something that is the ultimate.”