July 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

For Tigers broadcaster Mario Impemba, preparation is pivotal

Detroit— In the sometimes mundane world of sports television, broadcasters don’t get very many days in the sun. Akin to the athletes they cover, the good days outnumber the bad, but the mundane days far outnumber both.

Within a 162-game baseball season, broadcasters go through summer lulls; instead of knee-buckling curveballs and slick-moving sliders, they try to ward off mid-inning malaise and blowout boredom with their description and analysis.

For Fox Sports Detroit’s play-by-play man Mario Impemba, the onset of July brings with it the dog days of summer and an extra push to make it to the All-Star break, where there’s at least a short respite from the everyday routine.

The challenge, though, is breaking out of the lull for the most exhilarating moments, such as last week’s call of Rajai Davis’ walk-off grand slam against the A’s. Along with analyst Rod Allen, Impemba found the right words to encapsulate an improbable victory:

Impemba: “Driven in the air toward left field, that ball is deep, that ball is waaay back — and it’s a game-winner!”

Allen: “He walked him off!”

Impemba: “Grand slam home run, Ra-jai Davis!”

Impemba is in his 13th season broadcasting Tigers games, and chose to keep the call simple, noting there’s little preparation for such a moment.

“I don’t think you can say, ‘If Rajai hits one in the gap, how am I going to call it?’ ” said Impemba, 51. “I think that takes away the spontaneity of what we do. ... Are there instances where you’re running through situations in your head because you don’t want to screw it up? Absolutely. But I wasn’t doing that. I think you do a disservice if you take away the spontaneity of the moment.”

In the breadth of the six-month regular season, the walk-off home runs, no-hitters and other rarities are uncommon but always welcome.

“You have a handful of those nights every year,” Impemba said. “Mostly, (the routine) is come to the game, prepare for the game, call the game, pack up your case and go home. And you come back and do it the next game.

“It was a little different — and sometimes you need those nights to break the monotony, to give you some energy and something different.”

From minors to majors

Similar to a young baseball prospect having to work his way through the minor leagues, Impemba had to pay his dues in the broadcast booth.

He started out working at a Michigan State radio station, doing play-by-play for Spartans basketball, baseball and hockey.

“Some of the first (baseball) games were in April with 20 people in the stands,” Impemba recalled. “I was just doing games because it was a good chance to get experience.”

In his book, “If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Detroit Tigers’ Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box,” Impemba recalls his first assignment at a Michigan State women’s basketball game in 1981, calling it “the worst piece of radio in the medium’s history.”

But he was undeterred and continued to hone at his craft, landing a job in the minors with the Single A Peoria Chiefs in 1987. That’s where he tells of one of his most harrowing experiences — he forgot all his broadcasting equipment at home and had to borrow a set.

Needing to use his hands to keep score and find information, he fashioned a microphone stand out of whatever he could find.

“That night, I broadcasted an entire minor league baseball game with my microphone sticking out of a roll of toilet paper,” Impemba wrote.

Three years later, Impemba moved on to the Single A Quad City Angels, and following a three-year stint with the Triple A Tucson Toros, finally got his break in the majors as the radio play-by-play announcer for the Angels in 1995.

In 2002, he returned to Detroit to take the job in the Tigers broadcast booth.

Day in the life

Much like players have little time to dwell on a winning home run, Impemba has to move on to the next game, the second in the series against the A’s.

Though the highlight of the previous night was the home run call, there also was a glitch with the audio board in the production truck earlier in the game, which affected the FSD broadcast. While resetting all the hardware, the broadcast shifted to Craig Monroe and Mickey York in the FSD’s Southfield studios for a half inning while the problem was fixed.

“It’s part of the business; it doesn’t make you happy,” Impemba said. “By the time you do the next broadcast, you forget about it and move on.”

Generally, Impemba arrives at Comerica Park four hours before a game. On this day, after reviewing stats and prepping for the broadcast, he had a production meeting with the FSD staff to discuss a game in which Impemba and Allen would broadcast from the right-field Pepsi Porch instead of the TV booth.

After months of planning, producer Mark Iacofano and the crew discussed the logistics, including where cables and wires will go and how the sun will impact the view.

“It’s just a fun thing for them to do,” Iacofano said. “It’s something different, like the game behind home plate (in 2011).”

Impemba and Allen usually sit in on both managers’ meetings before the game and glean interesting stories or trends to add background and flavor to the broadcast. Although both like to have some stats for reference, they work differently to gather enough material for the entire game.

“As an analyst, our jobs are different, with one common goal,” Allen said. “I try to bring insight to make a great broadcast. I go to both clubhouses and see who’s hot and who’s not. I might look at numbers, but you have to relate that data with some insight.

“We have a great rapport, but our jobs are quite different.”

Most times, it works smoothly; other times, it’s tough to work through without a gaffe or two — one of the hazards of live television.

“It’s hard to be sharp for 3½ hours a day,” Allen said. “Sometimes it doesn’t flow the way you want it to flow, but it takes care of itself and it works out quite a bit.”

After dinner, Impemba might spend the rest of the time up until the broadcast to finish preparing and to ensure he has everything the way he wants.

“I feel like he’s always prepared,” FSD reporter Shannon Hogan said. “If I ever have a question or need background, they’ll have a story to tell me. I don’t know how there’s room in his brain for all the things he knows; I don’t know how he can file all that away.”

Minutes before the broadcast, he communicates with Iacofano in the production truck to go over final details.

“At 6:45, it kicks in — if you screw up, there’s no taking it back,” he joked. “When you go live, the energy and adrenaline is there.”

It’s just one day in the routine of 162 games for Impemba. It might get mundane at times, but it never gets old.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com
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Mario Impemba is in his 13th season broadcasting Tigers games for Fox Sports Detroit after seven seasons with the Angels. / Photos by Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News