Henning: Sadness of Mario Impemba-Rod Allen fracas haunts all parties

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Fox Sports Detroit is going shopping for a new Tigers broadcast duo.

With the exception of Ernie Harwell’s pink slip in December 1990, no Detroit sports broadcasting story in memory matches the tragedy of last month’s fracas that cost Tigers broadcasters Mario Impemba and Rod Allen their jobs with Fox Sports Detroit.

People wonder how careers so special, positions so personally and professionally gratifying for two men, could have been risked and ruptured Sept. 4 during a seconds-long fracas outside their broadcast booth in Chicago.

The answer isn’t satisfying. The answer, simply, is that they’re human beings. Two men had the kind of moment too many of us have had at some moment, in some context, during lives that are forever vulnerable to mishap.

The mystery here is that it didn’t occur earlier. They had worked together for 2,000-plus games and too often tension was hanging with them like a third man in the booth. It wasn’t constant. Not by any means. They had their smoother interludes where tolerance for each came easier than during rough stretches.

More: Henning: Candidates who could replace Rod, Mario in Tigers TV booth

More: Mario Impemba-Rod Allen tumultuous TV partnership with Tigers comes to halt

But the lack of chemistry was palpable and forced them to do, in this view, a remarkable job managing their partnership and discord that through the years grew more volatile.

Not easy, scraping away the ice 162 or so times a year for a broadcast that for them would average 3-4 hours, not counting pre-game time, to say nothing of shared travel on the Tigers team jet, on buses, and at hotels. But they pulled it off during most days and nights and put together a solid, professional program.

It is impossible to isolate any one cause, or place upon one man the brunt of responsibility. It takes two people to forge a good partnership. It takes two, as well, to weave strains.

There is no single reason for why Impemba and Allen had their final, probably inevitable, blowup in Chicago. Causes ran the personal and technical gamut. But if you are seeking a constant in a relationship that so often was on edge, it occasionally seeped, like background crowd noise, into the airwaves during certain innings of broadcasts.

In early October 2018, Fox Sports Detroit decided to part with both Mario Impemba and Rod Allen. They worked together 16 years, the second-longest Tigers TV tandem, behind only George Kell and Al Kaline (21 years).

Warning signs

During these pregnant pauses it was as if the mute on your remote had been clicked. It did not happen often. But it cropped up, noticeably a few years ago, and then again on the night of Sept. 4.

Impemba would quit talking as Allen focused on an email, or text, or tweet. The play-by-play man, right or wrong, at those moments had his fill of carrying the broadcast minus help from a partner he considered distracted and disconnected.

Allen in turn would become angry because Impemba was angry and because he believed he was doing his job, even if it were a tweet. This, too, falls within the realm of being human. 

This same chain-reaction was on display during an infamous, and mostly exaggerated, pregame incident over a chair on the fateful night of Sept. 4.

Two men had a schoolyard squabble they knew was juvenile. They got past it. But it could not be separated from their later, rising unrest during that night's Tigers-White Sox broadcast. There was late in the game a long, uncomfortable 43-second blackout that probably foreshadowed worse moments ahead.

The flashpoint came postgame, with hot words about a rearranged interview with Jim Adduci. That seemed to be the night's capstone. It led, moments later, to a skirmish outside the booth, broken up by three freelance staffers.

The fight was over, and so was Impemba and Allen's time as partners.

Once they were suspended by FSD and the ruckus became public, they were finished. Any illusion of teamwork and friendship was shattered. The sidekick relationship fans and viewers sense, or need to believe exists between two baseball broadcasters, had dissolved.

Fans were stunned and bewildered. The Tigers were embarrassed. And their TV bosses at FSD were left to answer a question they yet need to tackle:

Why was this allowed to happen?

It was no secret within FSD’s corridors any more than it was hidden from those who work with the team that the two didn’t mesh.

FSD instead told them, not improperly, to work out their squabbles and carry on with plum jobs that between them paid an estimated $850,000 combined.

That’s reasonable, it seems. But it fails to guard against realities, human and professional. Two men must work cohesively. If they don’t, it’s up to their bosses to assess responsibility and remove one or the other, or both, rather than tempt the destruction of Sept. 4.

Former Tigers TV broadcaster Rod Allen has been hired to broadcast Marlins games.

Painful fallout

FSD courted Allen in 2003 when the Tigers broadcast teams on both television and radio had historically been white men. Big-league baseball’s rosters are diverse. It figures, in a society and profession that knows the perils of all-male, all-white circuitry, that respect for a Tigers baseball team’s demographics would lead to a Latin or African-American presence, which became Allen.

Now fast-forward to 2008, when a broadcast-booth incident between Impemba and Allen nearly matched September’s eruption.

Both broadcasters by then were entrenched as a team. If you decide the play-by-play man is primary — and with any big-league team that’s the case — then jettisoning the other party calls into question why you made such a choice, particularly if that person is of color.

It would be understood, at least in terms of corporate comfort, if FSD did not care to tread there. Issues between Impemba and Allen might not go away, but those headaches would be more easily assigned to two broadcasters when the alternative and its fallout would not be pleasant for a network to consider.

The risks, at least for FSD, could be seen more like in-house maintenance for which two men were solely responsible. Such a strategy might be defensible, at least until something on the level of Sept. 4 blows up and leaves heavy casualties.

This has been more than a nightmare for Impemba and for Allen. Sleeplessness has been a demon. Going to a store or to a restaurant can be torture. People ask one question, and one question only:

What happened?

It is nothing easily explained. It is nothing that can be discussed minus a deep dive into pain and anguish two men have been bearing the past six weeks.

What’s next is for FSD and for the Tigers to figure out. They understood, as some of us understood, that there would be little chance at undoing news as destructive as that from Sept. 4. You can’t make a simple apology and get on with business. People would forgive but would not be moved to forget, and that would invite suspicions and skepticism about any broadcast in which Impemba and Allen were teaming.

Fox Sports Detroit broadcasters, Kirk Gibson, right, and Matt Shepard, have some fun during a segment in the pregame show before a Tigers game in July at Comerica Park.

Moving on 

The matter of picking a new prime-time analyst is less challenging than finding a play-by-play presence who can knead a new and happy relationship with Detroit’s huge TV audience.

The Tigers and FSD will be super-careful, knowing this is the richest of jobs and that it will draw some of the most talented applicants on planet Earth. If they choose to stay at home, then it makes sense, in this opinion, to go with Matt Shepard, who did terrific work — sports broadcasters are the most subjective of tastes — during the past year as Impemba’s fill-in.

It would make more sense to simply move the exceptional Dan Dickerson to TV, since he has had stints on FSD where he either swapped with Impemba or subbed for him. The only hang-up there, in the bosses’ view, is that even in 2018 a big-league baseball team’s radio presence is so valued and so important that they aren’t interested in jiggling some essential broadcast bedrock.

You might figure reverse priorities would be the story in 2018. But while TV is the high-profile, high-ticket outlet, radio remains heart and soul in baseball and it seems unlikely the Tigers will want Dickerson shifting seats.

Either way, the Tigers can, and almost certainly will, come away with a prize for their TV captain’s chair.

The analyst’s job is, maybe surprisingly, less sticky.

Kirk Gibson is marvelous and will continue to work as many games as is possible when his duel with Parkinson’s is serious. He is taking a deliberate approach, gauging his ability to work whatever amount of games might be prudent in 2018.

Another person, probably a more full-time presence, will be added, and it would be a surprise if it weren’t Dan Petry. He played, of course, on the ’84 championship team and has done his share of Tigers analyst and studio work. It is understood the Tigers, for some time, have been waiting to plug him into either a radio or TV chair.

Petry is smart about baseball and appealing in person and on air. He is clear and insightful. He has a genial way behind the mike. It would be a sane and reassuring move if Petry is plugged into next season’s analyst lineup.

That, of course, invites questions about the diversity component Allen supposedly, and for every good reason, addressed.

It’s a different time now than it was when Allen was hired. Craig Monroe is on hand, during pregame and postgame shows, and often works as a third voice from Comerica Park’s stands. He guards against any standard-issue, all-white ensemble that traditionally has marked baseball’s broadcast booths.

At the same time, we’re not talking quotas here. We’re talking broadcast excellence that can and must be diverse out of respect for baseball’s ethnicities and talent pool. This sport is a demographic mosaic that should be reflected in its people behind the mike.

For that reason, FSD can, and must, consider adding to its mix Latin as well as African-American presences that enrich the broadcast roster. It needn’t cancel the compelling case for adding, say, Petry to next year’s team.

Dan Petry is a candidate to join the Tigers' TV booth.

But it can be an objective to fulfill when FSD’s viewers have seen already that multiple analysts can, in fact, work, as when late owner Mike Ilitch decided he wanted Gibson and Jack Morris added in addition to Allen.

That sentiment proved beneficial for FSD, for the Tigers, and for viewers. It can be just as fruitful to add additional solid, absorbing baseball people as a new era begins for FSD and for its audience.

None of this forward glance eases the lingering upset over Impemba and Allen. These are good men, and good baseball broadcasters whose lives have been gashed horribly.

It should not have ended this way. There should have been happy partings, of their volition, a few years from now. That it disintegrated in an awful moment at Chicago is both a tragedy for two broadcasters, as well as a lesson for FSD and for the Tigers as new people are brought aboard.