Super Mario has Tigers coveredWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Describing Mario Impemba as a baseball broadcaster is like identifying Paul McCartney as a bass player; you’re leaving out an abundance of detail.
For a decade, Detroit Tigers fans have invited Impemba into their homes 162 times each season as the play-by-play man for FOX Sports Detroit’s television coverage of every pitch and swing. But he also calls games for the Oakland Golden Grizzlies men’s basketball team, blogs at his own website, established a website honoring sports broadcasters, makes sure servicemen and women overseas get to see Tigers Opening Day and is raising two sons with his wife, Cathy.
The Michigan native and Emmy winner stepped inside from the spring training sunshine in Florida for a March 27 phone interview, a week before the Tigers visit to play the Mud Hens at Fifth Third Field.
Toledo Free Press: Your son Brett has been drafted by the Tigers organization. Have you thought of what you’d say if you get to call his first at-bat in the big leagues?
Impemba: He’s playing college ball at Oakland [University]; we’ll see what happens later in his career. It would be wild, but that’s so far down the road, and it is such a difficult thing for anyone to get into the big leagues. It would be neat, though.
TFP: Optimism must fit right in with the Tigers’ mood this preseason.
Impemba: It’s nice that the team is winning a lot of games, but even more than that, this team really seems like a unit with a lot of chemistry and a lot of talent. And a lot of expectations; if this team can avoid injuries, they can put together a really special year. There are a lot of great teams in the American league, and it really ought to be a fun race this year, but the Tigers should be right in the middle of it.
TFP: Are you seeing anything in the eyes of the players this year that wasn’t there last year, in terms of nervousness or confidence?
Impemba: I don’t see any nervousness; I see a lot of confidence, and a lot of guys who can’t wait to get it going. Every year as spring training winds down, the players are itching to go, but there’s a special feeling this year with Prince Fielder on board and these players are not only ready to go, they’re ready to get it done. Justin Verlander is talking about the World Series, and that’s the goal for these guys. They used to seek to make the playoffs; they’ve done that, and now they want to get to the World Series and win. There is definitely a feeling that this ball club can do it.
TFP: How is Fielder fitting in with the team?
Impemba: It’s been phenomenal. If you ask anyone who has been around the team, it’s not that we’re surprised it’s happening this way, we’re surprised it’s happening so quickly. When you have a team with this many superstars — the Tigers have three $20 million players — that can work for you or against you. Fielder has been treated very well — Miguel Cabrera has welcomed him and is even changing positions for him — and all the guys say he’s a fun-loving guy, he’s a positive influence in the clubhouse on a daily basis. He’s the complete package, and he realizes what he needs to do to live up to his contract. He is working very hard at practice every day to make sure he does live up to it.
TFP: Were you calling games when his father Cecil was swinging the bat for Detroit?
Impemba: Yes, when I got here, he was winding down with the Tigers, and I did get to see Prince when his father played for the Angels at the end of his career.
TFP: That certainly marks time, seeing a player’s son carry on the tradition.
Impemba: It makes you feel old. It’s, “Oh, my God, the kid’s dad was a big leaguer just a few days ago, now his kid’s a big leaguer.”
TFP: Verlander is coming off a historic year; what are you seeing from him at practices and games?
Impemba: His goal is to win a World Series. I talked to pitching coach Jeff Jones about this very question recently, and asked if Verlander feels any pressure to top his numbers from last year. Jones said Verlander doesn’t think in those terms, that he is one of the most focused players he has ever been around, and everything he does is with a purpose, whether it’s throwing his bullpen pitches getting ready or throwing in an actual game. His goal is to win the World Series. Not to win one more game than last year or strike out more guys or better his ERA. He wants the ring, not the just the numbers.
TFP: How is the skipper’s mood?
Impemba: Jim Leyland is more relaxed this year. I would be too, if I had Fielder and Cabrera in the middle of my lineup. Going into battle each day with those guys, you always have a pretty good chance. He understands he has a really balanced team. It’s a young team blending with some veterans who can really play, his pitching staff is solid, the backend of his bullpen is solid, his lineup 1 through 9 is going to score a lot of runs. Jim knows his team has a really good chance of winning this year, now it’s time to go out and play the games.
TFP: Leaving the field and going into the booth, you have been working with color commentator Rod Allen for a while now; do you maintain contact during the offseason?
Impemba: Rod lives in Arizona, a long way from Michigan. We do check in once in a while during the offseason, but once the season starts, it’s such a long haul, he becomes another part of your family. We have our ups and downs, but we have a great time in the booth, and we’re on the same page in trying to be as professional and entertaining as we can be.
TFP: How has technology changed the way you call a game? Have the graphics and computers forced you to adapt the way you announce?
Impemba: That’s a great question. When I first started calling minor league ballgames in the mid-1980s, we had stat sheets that were faxed to us every morning, and that was it. No Internet, no MLB.com. It’s had a tremendous impact on how we call a game. Each year our graphics get better, our camera angles get better; it’s just a better, more polished product, and viewers benefit from that.
We can keep up with all the news from other teams, and there’s just no excuse for not being prepared for every game. The crew people in truck who look up stats, who produce, who direct, our replay guys, it’s a huge staff. Rod and I are out front on camera, but we can’t do any of what we do without the crew.
TFP: This will be the fourth year for your project Operation Opening Day. (Impemba oversees and funds the creation of a DVD that captures Tigers’ Opening Day so it can be sent to overseas servicemen and women who are Tigers fans).
Impemba: Yes, a couple of years ago I met a group of soldiers who were getting shipped out and were sad they were going to miss Opening Day. I thought, if they can’t come to the game, why can’t we take the game to them?
So we take the game, the parties, all the atmosphere surrounding a game, and soldiers can go to Tigers.com, fill out a form and we’ll send them a DVD for free. I decided to organize and fund it, and the first three years have been really good. I get so many letters from our military folks, and it helps us bring a slice of the game to them.
TFP: On April 4, the Tigers are coming to Toledo’s Fifth Third Field to play the Mud Hens.
Impemba: We’ll be there! It will be our last dress rehearsal before Opening Day the very next day. I have been to Fandimonium a few times in Toledo and I am extremely impressed, not only with the number of fans, but the knowledge of the baseball fans there. It’s a great ballpark and I can’t wait to see it with the stands full. There is so much buzz around this team, I’m sure a lot of Detroit fans are going to take the short trip down to Toledo. We’re used to this beautiful Florida weather, and hopefully we’ll have some of that for the game in Toledo.
TFP: You cover all 162 games; how do you handle being on the road so much?
Impemba: When people ask me what the best part of my job is, I say the travel, and when they ask me what the worst part of my job is, I say the travel. It’s great to go to all these cities and see all these ballparks. It’s what I dreamt of as a kid. It’s a great thrill.
But I missed a lot of my kids’ lives as they grew up. I missed a lot of sporting events, a lot of concerts. That’s the difficult part of what I do, and there’s a part of me that feels like I’m not being a very good dad, because I’m not there for these things. But I realize that this is what I do for a living to give my kids a good chance. They have grown up to be great kids, but it’s difficult to leave my family for the whole summer.
TFP: It must be a little easier when the team is winning.
Impemba: It’s certainly better than in 2003, when we lost 119 games. But even in those times I realized I was going to the ballpark for a living, so it can’t be all that bad.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.