CoPa announcer drives from Florida for Tigers home games

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Bobb Vergiels: “If I had one day to live, I’d want to do a Detroit Tigers baseball game.”

Clermont, Florida — Everyone wonders not only how he does it, but why?

It has been 112 years since the Wright Brothers invented a contraption that in 2018 can cover 1,200 miles in a bit more than two hours. And yet here is Bobb Vergiels, grabbing the wheel of his red Nissan Rogue, busting up and down I-75 from Leesburg, Florida, to Comerica Park — and then back again.

Twelve times this baseball season he will make that round trip. All because his job is so special. Vergiels is the man who welcomes fans to Tigers home games. His is the resonant voice that introduces whatever singer, choral group, or instrumentalists are leading the game’s National Anthem. A half-inning later, it is Vergiels’ soaring tones that make way for “Miguelllll Cabrerrrrraaaaa” to approach home plate.

He has been Comerica Park’s public-address announcer the past 14 seasons. And while few people probably know his name, or perhaps even what he looks like, Vergiels (pronounced: Ver-JEELS) has been a constant at Tigers games even before people like Justin Verlander, Magglio Ordonez, Jim Leyland, or Cabrera, showed up for a remarkable era of big-league entertainment in Detroit.

“I’m a fan with a microphone,” Vergiels was saying Monday, in between bites of a burger and fries at a Ruby Tuesday, 30 minutes from his Leesburg abode. “If I had one day to live, I’d want to do a Detroit Tigers baseball game.”

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It’s both complicated and simple, this story of a job commute that stretches from far north to far south, like a migratory bird’s flight.

Vergiels’ mother had a retirement home in Leesburg, about 70 miles north of Lakeland, where the Tigers train and where Vergiels doubles as Tigers P.A. announcer during Grapefruit League games. His mother, Virginia (“Ginny”), died earlier this month at 87, years after his dad had passed away, and as Ginny’s sole surviving child it was Bobb who took steady care of mom in her waning years.

It was more practical, in Bobb’s mind, to simply hit the expressway and be in control of his comings and goings minus the expense of flying back and forth.

“I did fly once to Florida to see my mom,” said Vergiels, a Monroe native and Western Michigan University alum who turns 66 on St. Patrick’s Day. “But rental cars can cost double the plane fare.

“And, really, I just enjoy seeing 1,200 miles of my own country. In an airplane, yeah, I can be there in two-and-a-half hours. But I’d rather do it this way.

“All my friends say I’m crazy.”

Vergiels thinks not. It’s all about a routine that makes those 18-hour drives — one way — manageable and even comfortable.

Public address announcer Bobb Vergiels makes notes on player substitutions during a Tigers-Pirates spring training game at Lakeland last week.

He fills up his Rogue with gas in Leesburg. He won’t need to re-fuel until he gets to Perry, Georgia, at which point he pops into a Little Caesars for a bag of Crazy Bread. From there it’s a straight shot to Corbin, Kentucky, for a fill-up as well as a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken at the place where Colonel Harlan Sanders invented it. Then, on to Dayton, Ohio, where he crashes at a hotel off Exit 63.

From there, it’s only three hours to his northern quarters, in Ida, near Monroe, from which he makes another 100-mile, round-trip commute to Comerica Park.

He reverses the order on his Florida-bound trek. Gasoline and maybe some KFC at Corbin; another fill-up at Perry; then back on I-75 to Jasper, Florida, where he overnights at a Budget Inn.

He packs the Rogue with certain essentials. There are enough clothes for daily changes and weather that, particularly early in the season, might be anywhere on the spectrum. He carries a few snacks, maybe crackers, but goes easy on the liquids to avoid becoming an expert on I-75’s rest stops.

He also brings a dozen or so CDs from a collection of 3,000. He breaks it all up with occasional interludes on SiriusXM satellite radio and with long phone conversations with friends.

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If he gets tired, and he does, a 10-minute nap after topping off the tank revives him.

His car probably wishes it could take a nap — for a decade. Vergiels last year drove 32,000 “baseball miles” but finds his automobiles cooperative. He earlier drove a Hyundai Santa Fe “that was good on gas.”

He enslaves a vehicle for a few years and then buys another car that in an earlier life was probably a sled dog.

He rotates tires and avoids becoming a consumer version of the Michelin Man. He also has become acquainted with all the nuances a 1,200-mile stretch of American pavement can deliver.

Boone County, Kentucky, is one such discovery that can be made the hard way.

“You don’t want to drive even 71 through there,” said Vergiels, who has never had a ticket, mostly, he points out, because “I watch the trucks and rarely pass them unless I’m driving up an incline.”

He has had to deal with detours, one of which hit him hard last year during the downriver I-75 reconstruction. It added 25 miles as well as familiarity with back paths he could have done without. Fort Street, for example. Vergiels learned that if he didn’t get into a rhythm with the stop lights he would be caught at every intersection. Rather than wait out a red light and go, he would pull off until an opening and trustworthy flow developed that ensured he had nothing ahead but green.

These are idiosyncrasies personal to a committed traveler. And to a guy who somehow decided his first name needed an extra “b.”

There is a story, of course. It dates to his days at Western Michigan. He was working at a Kalamazoo radio station, WMUK, doing Broncos football and basketball games, which the station decided need to be promoted by way of a billboard hailing “Bobb Vergiels — voice of the Broncos.”

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A buddy saw the typo and said to Vergiels: “They just gave you a gift.”

The double-up stuck. And so did Vergiels’ radio and P.A. career, which had begun when he was 18 and broke in at Monroe station WVMO where another young gun was also getting a start: Paul Smith, later to be known as Paul W. Smith, WJR’s morning man for the past 20 years.

Vergiels did a morning sports show at WVMO for four years before working off and on for a decade as a police reporter at the Monroe Evening News. He later joined AAA Michigan “doing fishing reports and gas prices” before moving to Detroit Edison and to a 22-year run there, much of it at the Fermi 2 nuclear plant.

There was a final stop, for seven years, as communications director for Monroe Public Schools ahead of retirement in 2016.

Vergiels has worked throughout the years doing P.A. games for a host of teams: University of Michigan men’s and women’s basketball; the Toledo Mud Hens, which set him up for the Comerica Park job; the Toledo Storm, a minor-league hockey team later known as the Toledo Walleye; and Wayne State football and basketball.

Vergiels says he has worked more than 3,700 games, more than 1,000 of them at Comerica Park, where his voice has become as constant as seeing the Detroit Athletic Club center Detroit’s downtown skyline.

His philosophy is spare – as no-frills as his commutes.

“I want people to be able to close their eyes and know what ballpark they’re in by the way the player’s introduced,” said Vergiels, who understands, these days in professional sports, energy must be brought to a microphone without crossing over into a kind of obnoxious, over-the-top tenor. “I want to be able to add to their enjoyment of the game, and not infringe on it.”

He learned early that a man accustomed to ad-libs at Mud Hens or Storm games would need to throttle back at Comerica Park. His recommendations from the get-go had been to stick to a game’s script and not freelance. The policy isn’t inviolate – spontaneous stuff can occur – but it makes sense to Vergiels, who is free to adjust when he senses an exception.

One of those times occurs when a one-time Tigers favorite returns to Comerica Park wearing a different uniform.

“When the player comes back to Detroit, I don’t want to introduce him as I would other opposing players,” said Vergiels, offering as one example Curtis Granderson, a deep favorite in Detroit before he was traded to the Yankees. “I want to kind of aid the crowd in introducing that player one last time. These guys have given so much to these fans and they don’t always get a chance to say goodbye.

“But after that initial intro, they’re part of the other team’s guys.”

Vergiels has a life away from Comerica Park that isn’t spent entirely on pavement. He has a son and step-daughter from his first marriage, which ended in 2011. He has three grandchildren as well as a girlfriend, Gloria Bohacz, a seamstress from Wixom.

He also is steward over a collection of, yes, 750,000 stamps collected through the years by himself and his late father, whose name was a more conventionally spelled “Bob.” He has thousands of baseball cards, as well, dating from the 1950s.

At his Florida home, he walks a half-mile regularly in a backyard pool and does 60 push-ups by way of a bar in his hot tub. The regimen helps now that he is back playing softball for the first time in 40 years (“I’m sharing second base with a guy 84,” he says).

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He has another sideline gig not exactly from the labor mainstream.

Vergiels was watching the Miss America pageant in 1988 when a Monroe woman, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, stole the show and won a crown. He had noticed that some contestants had a rugged time in the interview phase.

A man who had helped DTE’s senior management prepare for interviews decided the women needed a coach.

He began working with Molly McIntyre, a Miss Monroe County winner from 1988 who a year later became Miss Michigan.

“She won and said she had been helped by an interview coach,” Vergiels remembers. “I was kind of hooked.”

He has advised others through the years, “helping them anticipate what they might be asked,” including Darbi Dombrowski, daughter of former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski. She a few years ago finished in the top 10 of the Michigan Outstanding Teen competition and, notably, won the Teen Interview Award.

How much longer he will introduce players and singers and service veterans at Comerica Park, Vergiels isn’t sure. One thought he carries is that with so many old faces gone and new names showing up during a Tigers rebuilding era it might be good to keep that P.A. voice as a carryover presence.

Another enticement is that Vergiels simply craves baseball and the team for which he works and for which he has had a love since he can remember.

“I’m the luckiest guy you’ve ever met,” he said, looking ahead to the coming week, and to his next game, Thursday, at Lakeland.

No surprise. It’s a 90-minute drive from Leesburg.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning