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Baseball, Family and a Dream: One-On-One With the Voice of the Tigers

In the 1970s, young Mario Impemba tuned in to Detroit Tigers games on his scratchy little AM radio in Sterling Heights, hanging on every word of Ernie Harwell’s play-by-play. He tuned in to other games too, twirling the dial to pull in broadcasts from Cleveland, Chicago, Philly and other cities.

It wasn’t just the baseball, Impemba explains. “I really enjoyed listening to the different announcers around the country,” he says in his familiar, amiable voice. “It sparked something in me. I wanted to be a sportscaster or a sportswriter. I never considered anything else.”

As it turns out, he never had to. Hundreds of thousands of Detroit Tigers fans know the 54-year-old Impemba as the voice of the Tigers, providing play-by-play for all Tigers baseball games televised by Fox Sports Detroit. He works alongside analyst Rod Allen, a former big-league outfielder and designated hitter who was a member of the 1984 World Champion Tigers team.

Working toward the big leagues

Like any major leaguer, Impemba spent time toiling in the minors. While earning a degree at Michigan State, he gained valuable experience announcing Spartan basketball, baseball and hockey. But it was in Illinois, calling games for the single-A Peoria Chiefs, where Impemba says he truly began learning baseball. “It’s more cerebral than many people realize,” he says. “There’s a reason for every pitch thrown, a reason why the shortstop is positioned exactly where he is. There are so many nuances you’re learning every day.”

Impemba learned all right, calling more than 1,000 minor-league games over the course of seven years, for teams from Illinois to Arizona. By then married and a dad, Impemba decided it was time to cash in his dues. In 1993, he sent out letters and highlight tapes to every major league team. To his astonishment, Impemba not only made it to the big leagues, he landed at one of the nation’s biggest markets, doing radio play-by-play (and occasional television) for the Anaheim Angels.

“I was stunned to get the job,” he recalls. “I was so thankful. I would’ve been happy to stay in LA.” And he did, for seven seasons. But then in 2002, the TV job opened in Detroit. “The Tigers—they’ve always been my team,” Impemba says simply. “I had to throw my hat into the ring.”

Press box prep

Now in his 15th season, Impemba has become a familiar face and voice for Tigers fans everywhere. He calls a game so smoothly it belies the preparation that goes into each broadcast. On game day, he might arrive at the stadium five hours before the first pitch to consult with the production team and interview players and coaches. “You’re really putting together a show,” he explains. “We develop storylines and a strategy of what the show will be about.” It might be how a particular pitcher is doing, for example, or the effects of a recent trade. “Of course, we don’t know if we can execute any of that,” he adds. “If a player we want to highlight gets hurt in the first inning, then we’re on the fly.”

By game time, Impemba has his storylines, his interviews and a score sheet that he’s annotated with research notes. During the broadcast, he can talk to the crew in the production truck, who can look up stats or other facts.

Impemba prides himself on being technically solid, like his beloved predecessor Ernie Harwell. “I’m not naturally entertaining,” he admits. “I think my strength is the science of the game. People who tune in want to know what’s happening on the field, not to hear me joke around.”

Game time

When a lot is happening all at once, quick thinking is in order. “How the hitter is running, where the ball is landing, who the relay guy is, how fast the ball is coming back—you need to sort through those things and put them in the best order,” Impemba explains. “And the best sequence is going to be different every time.”

Simultaneously, Impemba is orchestrating with Allen so the two don’t end up talking over each other or leaving awkward silences. “There’s a cadence to it,” he says. “You learn each other’s speech patterns. He can tell when I’ve stopped talking, but I'm not really done. And there are times when I know exactly what he’s going to say after a particular play. It’s sort of like a husband and wife who can finish each other’s sentences.”

The irony is that he probably spends more time with Allen than with his own wife, Cathy, and his two sons. Throughout baseball’s notoriously long season, Impemba calls every game, home and away. By autumn, the constant travel and the stress of preparing for several games in a row takes its toll. The hardest part? “I’ve missed so much of my kids' growing up,” he admits.

So, family time becomes the priority when the season ends, including attending MSU games, where his younger son plays tuba in the marching band. (His older son plays baseball for Oakland University.) But by the first of the year, he’s back at work, researching what happened in the off-season. Spring is coming, and for Tigers fans, the return of Mario Impemba is as welcome as the greening up of the grass.

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