Tigers, Fox Sports Detroit introduce Matt Shepard, hint at 'tricks up our sleeve' for 2019
They were swamped with more than 100 serious national candidates for a baseball broadcasting job from which career dreams are forged.
They spoke personally with “more than 50” contestants and 20-plus agents.
And when it came time to decide who next would sit in the Tigers television play-by-play seat, the Tigers and their broadcast partner, Fox Sports Detroit, could make a final case for none but the man who last worked there in September — Matt Shepard.
“Our search was intensive and extensive,” said Jeff Byle, an executive producer at FSD, who spoke Tuesday during a conference call after Shepard had been named to replace Mario Impemba as the Tigers’ new play-by-play captain.
“The more people I talked to, the more interviews I had, the more apparent it became Matt was the right choice.”
Byle spoke Tuesday alongside Greg Hammaren, FSD’s senior vice president and general manager. They were joined by Shepard, a 53-year-old Michigan native and broadcast handyman who now can concentrate on a single consuming job, as well as by the 2019 TV broadcast lineup that includes Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris, Craig Monroe, and newcomer Dan Petry.
Shepard repeated that his new job is fulfillment of a one-time fantasy he held onto since he was 10 years old. Gibson and Morris talked about their appreciation for Shepard’s skills and their zeal for a new season and broadcast roster. Monroe and Petry are still sorting out exactly how the new studio arrangement will work with Petry, who, Byle said, “will do quite a few telecasts” as Monroe remains the principal pre- and postgame presence.
There is some mystery there — intentional, Byle said.
“We may have a couple of tricks up our sleeves in the near future,” he said, minus a hint of detail. “We’re excited to do some things that haven’t been done on our telecasts.”
Shepard, though, was Tuesday’s focus. His bosses said Tuesday he won the job because of skill, institutional knowledge, and because he had so seamlessly slid into Impemba’s seat following a Sept. 4 postgame fracas with former Tigers analyst Rod Allen. The two were suspended and never again appeared on a team telecast as FSD, and the Tigers made clear they were moving on with new people.
Hammaren, who had confined remarks about the Sept. 4 incident to a single, released statement, was asked Tuesday about a fight that created headlines, led to the departure of two celebrity baseball broadcasters, and that became an historic Detroit sports TV event.
Hammaren chuckled, attempting to keep a dark moment upbeat, and said:
"The one thing I will say outside of that (earlier statement) is, it was a quick lesson in crisis management. I consulted some good friends and got some good advice."
He conceded that, during conversations with colleagues, they had asked themselves:
"Have we ever seen anything like this.
"And the answer is no."
Hammeren and Byle said Tuesday they consider Shepard the perfect answer to a tumultuous time and search, in great part because he is known as a tireless, universally deft broadcast artisan who can juggle plates in the fashion of an ancient Ed Sullivan Show guest.
“Matt’s a gifted play-by-play person, and that’s going to be shown on a nightly basis," Byle said. "But what people underestimate is how he goes from multiple jobs — from hosting, to sideline (reporting), to play-by-play — and all within a week sometimes.
“That’s very, very difficult to do. This now will be an opportunity for Matt to concentrate on Tigers play-by-play for an extended time. You’re going to see him take this opportunity — and grow.”
Shepard has been an astounding generalist during his 30-plus years as a professional broadcaster. He grew up in Farmington Hills, graduated from Central Michigan University, and in the decades since has covered all of Detroit’s pro sports teams, as well as been a regular play-by-play man on Michigan men’s basketball and Eastern Michigan football.
He also hosts a morning radio and TV show that often reduces his sleep to three hours or less. The idea that a 162-game schedule will be a “grind” for Shepard has met with its share of private guffaws from family and those familiar with his schedule.
Shepard’s lifelong study of the Tigers, and of the sport that always has been closest to his heart, was simply part of the personal and professional mosaic his bosses and the Tigers considered, they said.
Shepard’s fantasy is now reality.
“When Jeff offered me the job, we hugged, I cried,” Shepard said. “I think about my father (Yale, who died when Matt was 19), my friends, every one of my buddies from our summer golf outings. They called, they texted, they said they can’t wait for baseball.
“This is who we were as kids. This takes us back to our childhood. To be able to live that every day …”
Shepard’s booming voice at that moment faded. The sentiment would linger.