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A year ago around this time, Matt Shepard was getting ready to head to the Final Four in San Antonio, to call Michigan's eventual run to the national-championship game.

Somehow, someway, this feels even better than that.

Shepard made his official debut as the voice of the Detroit Tigers on Thursday in Toronto — fulfilling a dream that he first began envisioning when he was just a boy.

"It was a blast, man," Shepard said a couple hours after signing off Thursday night. "I texted my family before the game, I told them it's just the most incredible honor for me. I cant say enough about it. It was everything I'd hope and then some.

"To be able to walk around with the Old English D, it really was a huge thrill for me."

Interestingly enough, Shepard, 54, said he wasn't nervous just before signing on for the pregame telecast, alongside his first partner of the year, 1984 World Series hero Jack Morris.

That's probably because Shepard has been around a long time in this business, and he's called just about every sport imaginable, including as the long-time voice of Michigan basketball (it remains to be seen if he will continue next season) and Eastern Michigan football (he probably has to give that up).

He said it actually all started to hit him late in spring training, and then Wednesday, during the Tigers' open practice at Rogers Centre.

"Just the chance to watch batting practice behind the cage, and have the access the Tigers have a granted me, it really kind of strikes you," said Shepard, speaking on his cell from his hotel lobby Thursday night, when he was waiting on Morris to get down so the two could head to a watering hole to watch Michigan and Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. "I can't help but smile."

Shepard sure got a gift-wrapped first game to work with.

The Tigers won the season opener 2-0, in 10 innings, thanks to a home run by rookie Christin Stewart. Shepard's first big call on the beat was simple, and effective.

Of course, the real story line for most of the telecast, though, was Jordan Zimmermann, who took a perfect game into the seventh inning. He lost it with two outs in the seventh, on an infield single.

Interestingly, whereas the previous Fox Sports Detroit booth — Mario Impemba and Rod Allen, or Mario Impemba and Kirk Gibson — often skirted around talking about no-hitters or perfect games in progress, Shepard and Morris really didn't. Morris, multiple times, said a "perfect game" was in progress, and an FSD graphic used the word "perfect," as well. Shepard never said "perfect game," but said something along the lines of "Zimmermann is perfect through five."

Social media, of course, had its opinion on how it was handled. Shepard said he paid no mind to social during the game, and that should be a tradition he continues, as Impemba always did, as well.

"I don't think I wield that much power," Shepard said, with a laugh, on the idea he could jinx a perfect game. "I don't have enough power to say somebody at the free-throw line is a perfect 16-for-16, and then he missed because I said that.

"I don't think my voice and my words carry that much weight."

The fact that Morris was openly talking about Zimmermann's perfect game, given Morris pitched a no-hitter in his career (1984, vs. the White Sox), well he probably should be the authority on that.

Others chimed in on Twitter, including Red Wings broadcaster Ken Kal, who backed up Shepard. You call the game that's in front of you. It's not your responsibility to play coy, or hide anything from the audience.

As for the rest of the broadcast, Shepard was pretty pleased. He acknowledged he jumped the gun in the 10th inning, calling a Kevin Pillar strikeout with two outs, when he actually fouled the pitch off. No worries, Pillar soon grounded to second to end it anyway.

Shepard had some funny lines, including one about manager Ron Gardenhire's playing career. He also set up his partner, Morris, who was more animated and engaged than in previous years' broadcasts.

There was a debate on social media early in the game, when Shepard said the Tigers' side was retired in order the first two innings, when in fact there was a walk in each inning, with each being erased on a double play. Twitter consensus said that doesn't constitute as a side being retired in order, but that's splitting hairs.

Shepard's main self-critique?

"What you want with a baseball game, my concern when I call a game, is I want to let it breathe enough," said Shepard, who kept things as normal as possible for the season opener, even keeping his morning gym routine. "I probably could let the game breathe a little more than I did, but that will come. I just think that's really important. Growing up watching George Kell, it's really important to let the game breathe on TV.

"I don't have to tell you the score, I don't have to tell you the outs all the time. Viewers can already see that. That's vital for a good baseball broadcast."

Shepard takes over for Impemba, and will do about 142 more Tigers broadcasts on TV this year. FSD has plans for about 17 "players-only" broadcasts, featuring Morris, Gibson and Dan Petry.

Shepard called several Tigers games down the stretch last season, and some spring-training games this year. But now, the season has begun. He's officially the voice of the Tigers — a big, big deal, as recognized by several local dignitaries, who taped video messages of congratulations this week, including John Beilein, JK Simmons, Dave Coulier, Matt Patricia and Chris Osgood, among others.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

 

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