Team Spirit

Rod Allen and Mario Impemba are somewhat of an odd couple, but they’re on an even playing field announcing Tiger games
Photograph by Kevin Netz

The Tigers are enjoying an exciting season at the corner of Woodward and Montcalm, which means the odd couple of Detroit sports television is having a banner year, as well.

Rod Allen, the analyst for Fox Sports Detroit telecasts, recognizes that, to many among their legion of viewers, the quality of the work he and play-by-play announcer Mario Impemba do for 156 games this season is directly linked to the team’s success. “When the Tigers are going great, we’re excellent, brilliant,” Allen says. “When they’re going bad, it’s our fault.”

Actually, it’s the consistency of their on-air broadcasts in seven seasons as the Tigers’ video voices that elicits praise from management and media alike — both Impemba and Allen have won Michigan Emmy Awards — which is extraordinary considering the inconsistencies of their partnership. One is white; one is black. One was raised in Sterling Heights; the other learned the sport on the playfields of southern California. One never advanced past his high-school baseball team; the other has spent his entire adult life, 32 consecutive years, in and around organized baseball, including a .296 average for the Tigers in the ’84 championship season.

Both men, however, fully appreciate their good fortune. Impemba is living a childhood dream; Allen realizes there are only 30 jobs like his in North America and almost all go to Hall of Fame players or local team legends. He’s neither.

“As a kid, I either wanted to be the next Ernie Harwell or the next great sportswriter, and when I went to Michigan State, I explored both,” says Impemba, 46. “The only difference was, I couldn’t handle deadlines. So I leaned toward the broadcast angle.”

One fan appreciates that decision. “I think they’re doing fine,” says Harwell, the once-and-forever voice of the Tigers. “It’s a good combination because Mario’s a good, solid, professional announcer. And Rod brings something from the field that the professional announcer can’t contribute. He has experience from his playing and coaching days; he certainly knows the game, and he gives you the insight from the inside, which is very important.”

Allen, 49, displays an uncanny knack for predicting what’s about to occur in a game — “first guessing,” he calls it — like declaring a home run before the pitch is thrown, based on his years of diamond experience. “There are some analysts who will describe why you just saw something, and I think that’s what Rod is really good at,” Impemba says. “And he’s been around the game so long, he has the ability to let you know what’s about to happen, and that’s not easy to do.”

Allen says the teaching component of the game best fits his comfort zone, arising from several years as a coach and hitting instructor and three seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, where a video of Allen chasing a Japanese pitcher around the field, bat in hand, is YouTube legend. “That’s how the analyst’s role has been defined to me, explaining the game, teaching it,” he says. “But at the same time, you’re trying not to talk down to people who really know the game, because so many people here in Detroit do, so that’s a very fine line for me to walk.”

Impemba spent 10 years learning his craft in the minors. He got his big break in 1995 when the Anaheim Angels called him to the bigs. Moving back to his hometown team in 2002, Impemba spent one year in the booth with ex-Tiger Kirk Gibson. When Gibby left the following season to coach for Alan Trammell, Allen won the analyst job over several more experienced candidates.

Together, he and Rod have witnessed every type of Tigers team imaginable, from the 2003 squad that set an American League record with 119 losses to the 2006 surprise that beat the hated Yankees in the AL playoffs to reach the World Series. And even best friends could become prickly sitting together in an office-cubicle size booth 156 days a year.

“We’ve butted heads, make no mistake about it,” says Impemba, who recently financed DVD copies of the Tigers’ Opening Day game to be sent to local military personnel overseas. “Over style, over little things, but that’s the same as your relationship with your wife or kids.”

And Mario and Rod, as fans refer to them, are family guys.

Impemba is married to Cathy, whom he met while working in the minor leagues. “She was an usher at the ballpark in Davenport, Iowa, and I was an aspiring young broadcaster,” he says. They have two sons, Brett, 16, and Daniel, 13, and live in Macomb County.

Allen and his wife of 24 years, Adrian, have four children, ranging in age from Rhonda, 31, to Rachel, 18, who graduated from high school this spring and has been accepted by the University of Michigan. His sons, Rod Jr., 26, and Andrew, 20, both have played organized baseball, Rod Jr. making it to the minor leagues; he now gives private music lessons in California. Off season, Allen and his wife live in Arizona.

The lessons of family life pay off in the broadcast booth, where they say they have the ability to respect each other’s work. “I think we both realize that if our relationship is not good, then the whole thing is not good,” Impemba says.

Among the framed photos John Tuohey, Fox Sports Detroit executive producer, keeps in his office is one of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. “I love talent, and here was the No. 1 act in show business, and they walked away from $21 million in commitments because they couldn’t work with each other anymore,” Tuohey says. “If Mario and Rod ever get to a point where they have concerns over working together so closely, I’ve told them to remember Martin and Lewis. I think they’re great together and they’d probably be great separate. But in this time, with our fans and the Tigers, I couldn’t be more fortunate to have two guys as special as they are.”