Henning: In the aftermath of Impemba-Allen, Tigers and FSD need a home run
As early as this week, or probably closer to TigerFest on Jan. 26, the Tigers and Fox Sports Detroit will unveil a new baseball play-by-play pilot for the team’s 2019 telecasts.
All sides are keeping this one super-tight. They want this to be a celebratory surprise. They crave suspense. They foresee buzz and excitement when their months of studying game-tapes and talking with contestants for a plum job give way to an introduction that might be called a coronation.
The Tigers and FSD understand all that counts here. Baseball viewers have an amazing relationship with their team’s broadcasters. These are the voices welcomed into living rooms during a season that spans six months and 162 games. You want these guests, as it were, to be comfortable and pleasing, not that any two people will ever agree completely on that most subjective of topics: baseball broadcasters.
All parties prefer that the new person is as much a fixture as Impemba was for 17 seasons, or, ideally, as iconic as was the extraordinary George Kell during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
Knowing the stakes, and knowing how calamitous was September’s bizarre end to the Mario Impemba-Rod Allen years, there has been extra care by FSD and the Tigers to get this call more than right. They are resolute that a new, fresh, and happy play-by-play voice will sit alongside two analysts who are expected to work most of this season’s games: Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris.
The secrecy with which this search has been carrying on is CIA-grade. The parties want not only the surprise, they want start-to-finish control — no names disclosed, no media chatter — of this move when the Impemba-Allen fracas became an out-of-control moment that embarrassed FSD and the Tigers.
Will the new person have everyone doing immediate Google searches seeking clues on his previous work and background? Probably. There has been no hint the Tigers are opting for Matt Shepard, FSD’s all-around artist who did a splendid job filling in for Impemba.
Their preferences might be explained more deeply later, but from what can be extracted by way of conversations these past four months, the Tigers and FSD have implied they want a national person who can arrive in Detroit, sink roots, and become through the years a steady, consistent, trusted ally in the manner of Dan Dickerson on radio.
That, by the way, leads to a natural follow-up: Why didn’t the Tigers go with Dickerson as Impemba’s replacement? Dickerson, after all, has worked the Tigers TV booth and has been as smooth there as he is on radio.
The problem — and that’ll teach you, Mr. Dickerson — has to do with the unique bond a baseball audience tends to share with its radio broadcasters.
It’s a bedrock constituency, the baseball crowd. It insists on a steadiness teams very much care to protect.
Think about a time nearly 30 years ago when the Tigers messed with radio. They bade goodbye to Ernie Harwell and brought aboard two outsiders, Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun, and still there are fans wielding pitchforks and torches because of that misbegotten move.
The Tigers and FSD appear to believe they have their home-and-hearth presence in place with Gibson, who will work as many games as his Parkinson’s allows, and with Morris, another Tigers graybeard whose stature has only risen with the arrival of last July’s Hall of Fame plaque.
It is known the Tigers want their new play-by-play man to be high-energy – not a cheerleader, but someone they see as a strong baseball voice who carries electricity they believe will be felt at the box office.
That’s a neat line to walk: enthusiasm without coming across as a homer or carnival barker. But remember that this was much the story of Harwell’s genius. He brought a verve to broadcasts. He was a Tigers broadcaster who was pleased to make a Tigers home-run call and gratified to tell you the Tigers were winning, but he never for a moment slipped into hucksterism.
That seems to be what the Tigers, particularly, are seeking here, while FSD wants to make this hire immaculate and a historic hit for its Tigers audience.
None of it will erase the sadness of September.
Impemba wanted only one job in his life. He never had the desire to become a national celebrity, a la Joe Buck or Al Michaels. He was a guy from Detroit who wanted only to broadcast Tigers games. He did it for 17 seasons and remains fractured by what happened four months ago.
It is an ache compounded by the fact he, properly in this view, believes there was injustice. He understands that when a face-to-face fight turned physical it brought an immediate end to his Tigers TV life. He believes it was Allen who initiated the grab, which is why he planned to file a police report before deciding that act would hurt FSD and the Tigers.
Allen’s side is just as insistent that Impemba incited the fracas with acts and words, which is why the whole sorry episode has been so difficult to referee with 100-percent accuracy.
It ended up as a nasty, incendiary moment that turned more extreme and more public than a network serving a big-league team could, in its view, ignore.
It wrecked a couple of good baseball men and broadcasters. For them, September’s punishment far exceeded the crime when other people, in other professions, in most cases would have continued with their jobs.
FSD and the Tigers plan now to leave the chatter and drama behind and get on with a hopefully happy and long marriage between their baseball devotees and FSD’s new lineup.
It will be a moment, dramatic and potentially endearing for an audience, as well as for a broadcaster who will know something most of us have understood all our lives.
This Detroit baseball cosmos is sophisticated in its game smarts, and rather invested in its guys in the booth.