The biggest moment of Mario Impemba’s broadcasting career could’ve happened when he was just a major-league rookie, on Sept. 6, 1995.
But it didn’t. Because he didn’t think he deserved it.
On the night Cal Ripken played his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig’s legendary “Ironman” streak, Impemba and the Angels — for whom he called games on the radio that year — were in Baltimore, and Impemba’s assignment always were the fourth, fifth and six innings. In other words, when the game becomes official. But Impemba decided instead to give the assignment to his veteran partner, Bob Starr.
Twenty-five years later, to the day, Impemba has absolutely zero regrets.
“I talked to Bob the night before, and I told him I’ll do the top of the fourth and the bottom of the fourth, but in the fifth, you need to call this, not me,” Impemba said Sunday, the anniversary of that famous night in Major League Baseball history.
“We argued back and forth, and we really didn’t settle anything until the day of the game when I reminded him I was giving up the mic going to the fifth. I wanted him to be at the mic for that. It wasn’t right for me as a rookie to step in there and do that.
“So, in the fifth inning, he still didn’t agree to it, but I just shut my mic off and threw it too him. He had no choice. He just glared at me.”
It was a selfless act in a less-than-selfless industry.
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Starr, a long-time broadcaster who did Angels games from 1980-89 and then again from 1993-97, relented and, as Impemba said, “He did it justice, believe me.
“I would’ve probably bungled that,” Impemba said, laughing.
It was about late April or early May that year — Impemba’s first in a major-league booth, after years in the minors following his time at Michigan State — that Impemba started casually looking over the schedule, and doing the math.
And, whoa, he quickly realized the Angels were scheduled to be in Baltimore just as Ripken was scheduled to break the record.
All season, Impemba and many, many others were hoping, praying Ripken wouldn’t suffer a major injury. It was going to be arguably the biggest story in sports that year, and a feel-good boon for baseball, which was trying to win back the fans’ support after that ugly strike that wiped out the 1994 postseason.
“As the season wore on,” said Impemba, “we knew nothing short of breaking a bone was going to keep him out of the lineup.”
In late August, the Orioles were visiting the Angels — the California Angels, at the time — and Impemba, thinking ahead, requested an interview with Ripken that he could tape to air during the record-tying and record-breaking games in September. Impemba knew he stood no chance of an interview in Baltimore, with all the media.
It just so happened Impemba had what he thought was a cold (it really was the flu) the day of the Ripken interview, but went ahead with it anyway.
“God, if I get Cal Ripken sick,” said Impemba, “I’m gonna feel pretty bad about that.”
Impemba, just 32 at the time, called the middle innings when Ripken made it official for the 2,130th game, the tying game, on Tuesday, Sept. 5. He got to call a Ripken homer.
And he got to call another Ripken homer Wednesday, Sept. 6, too, but when it came time for calling the record-breaking moment, Impemba just sat back and took in the surreal scene, with Nos. 2, 1, 3 and 1 being unfurled on four banners on the warehouse beyond right field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and a sellout crowd of 46,272 giving such a rousing ovation, the game stopped for more than 20 minutes.
Ripken even took a lap around the ballpark, high-fiving fans.
Starr made the call, and Impemba took it all in, even staring to the booth to the left, where President Clinton was on with ESPN.
“It was just a wild scene,” he said. “It was cool. The whole night was cool.”
Impemba would go on to call scores of memorable games — no-hitters, a near-perfect game, playoff clinchers, you name it — as the lead TV voice for his hometown Tigers from 2002-18, but he never has been much of a memorabilia guy.
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He makes an exception in his home office with the Ripken night. He has a photo with his partner, the late Starr — who Impemba calls “one of the more underrated announcers in history of the game” — and his scorecard from the tying game, which Impemba got signed by Ripken the following season.
Speaking of that following season, right around the same time of year, in 1996, another Orioles great, Eddie Murray, was going for his 500th home run. And this time, the Orioles were in Los Angeles.
And with Murray due up during Starr’s innings, this time he returned the favor. He gave Impemba the mic, in case Murray did it. (He didn’t. He popped up, and then hit No. 500 the following series, at home, against Detroit’s Felipe Lira — amazingly, also Sept. 6).
“He was probably the perfect partner for my first year in the big leagues, no ego. He always treated me as an equal,” Impemba said. “That really set the tone for how I wanted to handle my career.
“That taught me a lot about humility and respecting people.”