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

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Mario Impemba (left) and Rod Allen will not be returning as Tigers TV announcers, according to a source familiar with direct knowledge of Fox Sports Detroit's decision.

Detroit — What began as season-ending suspensions for Tigers television announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen has led to their ouster as Detroit baseball fixtures.

Two announcers who together worked more than 2,000 games since coming to Detroit have been jettisoned, with Impemba’s representatives already informed of Fox Sports Detroit’s decision, and Allen’s side yet working on an exit agreement.

Neither the Tigers, nor Fox Sports Detroit, would comment Tuesday night.

Impemba’s contract, which ran through 2018 and is estimated to have paid him more than $500,000 annually, will not be renewed. Allen was in the final year of a final-year deal, with a salary pegged at about $350,000, and had a network option for 2019 that attorneys are working to settle, according to sources familiar with each broadcaster who asked to remain nameless because of legal sensitivities.

Their exit from the FSD booth ends what long had been an edgy, sometimes hostile, partnership that exploded during a postgame confrontation Sept. 4 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, during which Allen allegedly had his hands on Impemba’s neck.

According to the same two sources with knowledge of Sept. 4’s chronology, the final blowup was the result of events, each trivial or even petty, that together became incendiary.

There was a brief, pregame spat over a chair, which all sides agree had little to do with the final fireworks.

There were prickly words from Impemba about an early afternoon interview between Allen and Tigers outfielder Jim Adduci that Impemba believed Allen had postponed out of convenience. Allen was furious, not only because he believed Impemba’s charge was baseless, but because he viewed the interview was none of Impemba’s concern, according to a source.

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And, as often had been the case between two broadcasters who got on each other’s nerves, late during the game on Sept. 4 there was a 43-second blackout when Impemba, again irked by what he believed was Allen’s fixation on emails, Twitter, and texts rather than on the game, decided he would boycott the microphone as retaliation, a source said.

The extended, uncomfortable stretch of dead air signaled to viewers something was wrong. Confirmation came moments after the game, an 8-3 Tigers victory, during a spontaneous and bizarre episode outside the visitor’s TV booth. 

Although accounts are disputed depending upon side, it is known Allen, 59, and Impemba, 55, clashed immediately after each man departed the booth — Allen to take a break ahead of a postgame appearance; Impemba who needed to clear space for Allen’s postgame wrap-up.

Tigers television broadcasters Mario Impemba, left, and Rod Allen talk in the dugout during spring training in 2013.

Impemba walked out of the booth and found Allen standing 10-20 feet away in a narrow corridor that in almost all big-league ballparks runs outside a line of TV and radio boxes. Neither of the men was in a mood for pleasantries following an icy broadcast, according to sources, and the confrontation in a split-second turned physical. Impemba’s side alleges, and Allen’s refutes vigorously, that Allen placed his hands on the sides of Impemba’s neck. 

It was broken up quickly, according to both sides, by a series of three NBC Sports Chicago freelancers who were working on that night’s broadcast: Brian Schnoor, a stage manager; Ethan Cooperson, who was working as a statistician; and an unnamed camera crew person.

Efforts to contact any of the NBC Sports Chicago men have been unsuccessful.

Allen got busy with his postgame work, which he managed without evidence that a fight had just occurred a few feet away. Impemba headed for a cab and for sanctuary in his room at the downtown Westin hotel. 

Powder keg

FSD’s execs soon knew there had been trouble. The men were ordered back to Detroit the next day, on separate flights, as FSD’s bosses realized bad blood had now turned volatile and even dangerous.

Play-by-play man Matt Shepard and analyst Kirk Gibson were ordered just as quickly to board Wednesday morning flights for Chicago and for impromptu fill-in work as Impemba’s and Allen’s replacements on that night’s series finale.

The suspensions, which were announced but unexplained, initially were understood by all parties, including by Impemba and Allen, to be short-term — a single game, Sept. 5, with Sept. 6 already a scheduled Thursday off-day. It offered a blessed lull ahead of a big weekend series against the Cardinals at Comerica Park, where there was to be a happy 50th-anniversary celebration of the 1968 Tigers and their World Series championship over the Cardinals. 

Impemba met that Thursday with FSD senior vice president/general manager Greg Hammaren, and with human resources, as the event and its fallout were assessed. He left with the understanding he would work Friday night’s series opener. Allen believed he, too, was status quo.

But by Friday, news of the tussle was the equivalent of an ugly Hollywood divorce. It had become for the Tigers and for FSD an incident embarrassing and increasingly entangled.

For an audience that during the past 16 seasons had come to view Impemba and Allen, far too romantically, as broadcast partners seemingly immune to everyday workplace scraps, the eruption had destroyed, stunningly, a baseball television illusion.

In fact, Impemba’s and Allen’s days and nights in the Tigers broadcast booth doubled as an exercise in irony. Two men distant in their lives and relationship were forced to sit side-by-side in a cramped space. 

Two baseball announcers who for 16 years worked to project professional teamwork and cohesion, too often, were personally at odds. It was managed, as all the moments of tension, anger, frustration and exhaustion through the years were treated, with orders straight from headquarters: “Work it out.”

But Sept. 4, events overwhelmed words, which, according to the two sources, included the trivial pregame spat over something both silly and yet symbolic: a chair.

Mario Impemba and Rod Allen worked 16 years together on Tigers telecasts.

There were three chairs in the tightly packed booth, only one of which was sturdy: one Impemba had mindlessly or, perhaps carelessly, decided to occupy when it rested in his broadcast spot. Allen has had back issues and rigid seats are important. When he arrived, he expected the more supportive chair to be his.

Impemba, according to a source, said nothing but was steamed as he turned it over. Impemba’s ire was obvious and now Allen was miffed:

“Are you mad that I took this chair?” he asked, according to the source. The pot now was boiling — over — as a profane exchange flared.

Allen was a one-time big-leaguer who had played briefly for the Tigers during their 1984 World Series championship season. He was working as a TV analyst for the Arizona Diamondbacks when FSD summoned him following the 2002 season to team with Impemba, who had just wrapped up his first year in Detroit, working games with Gibson before Gibson departed to join Alan Trammell's Tigers coaching staff.

Happier times

Initially, the Impemba-Allen team — the second-longest Tigers TV duo ever, behind George Kell and Al Kaline (21 years) — seemed compatible.

They might meander into conversation about that day’s hotel-gym workout. Allen would call Impemba “partner” and they clearly enjoyed, together, a Tigers rebound that in 2006 with Jim Leyland managing delivered a Tigers rocket ride to the World Series.

But the relationship began to wither and included another, tense, nearly combative episode during the mid-innings of a game 10 years ago at Comerica Park. It, again, had been spurred by Impemba’s perception that Allen was more interested in emails than in action on the field, an insinuation that enraged Allen.

On team charters, at the team hotel, wherever they found themselves brought together as seemingly happy and cooperative broadcast-booth sidekicks, a different reality existed, despite their joint efforts to repair feelings and carry on with work.

But then came Sept. 4 and emotions, evidencing a deeper and longer divide, exploded. 

Impemba, a Metro Detroit native and Michigan State alum whose lifelong dream had been to broadcast Tigers games, was suspended from a job that, weeks later, for him and for Allen no longer exists. It is the result of a momentary scuffle that has ravaged two long careers and saddened much of a Tigers baseball audience, which seemed all but sure its friendship with two broadcasters somehow flowed from theirs. @Lynn_Henning