Ex-Detroit Tigers broadcaster Rod Allen: Story about Mario Impemba confrontation is wrong

Detroit Free Press

As part of his series on former Detroit sports figures, Bill Dow caught up with former Detroit Tigers television color commentator Rod Allen.

How we remember him

From 2003-18, the first Black Tigers broadcaster was the color commentator alongside Mario Impemba on Fox Sports Detroit. The popular duo scored the highest primetime ratings for several years in the local market. Allen became famous for such phrases as “get on down with your bad self,” “country strong” and “I see ya, big fella.” The pair were suspended and then fired following a heated incident in the broadcast booth in Chicago on Sept. 4, 2018. Allen, a career minor leaguer with a .291 average over 12 seasons, signed with the Tigers on Valentine’s Day in 1984. He made the major league team on the last day of spring training and hit .296 over 15 games as a designated hitter during the first two months of Detroit’s 1984 world championship season before being sent to the minors to make room for Ruppert Jones. He is also remembered for a famous YouTube video of him playing for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and chasing a pitcher who threw at him around the field.

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After 1984

Although he played briefly for Cleveland in 1988, he continued his career in the minors, Japan and Mexico before serving as a minor league hitting instructor for the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks. From 1998 to 2002, he was the Diamondbacks’ TV and radio analyst and was on the air when Arizona won the 2001 World Series. When Tigers television color commentator Kirk Gibson joined manager Alan Trammell’s staff for the 2003 season, Allen was hired by FSD.

Today

Allen, 61, has been married for 36 years to his wife. Adrian, and they maintain homes in Phoenix and the Detroit area. They have four children — Rhonda, Rod Jr., Andrew and Rachel — and four grandchildren. While continuing to pursue broadcast opportunities, he has returned to Detroit to help several charities including the Children’s Foundation, and First Tee-Greater Detroit, an organization devoted to integrating the game of golf with life skills curriculum for city kids. This month he will be a guest color commentator for three Diamondbacks radio broadcasts.

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On his youth

“I was raised by my mother and had the best childhood a kid could ever have growing up in Santa Monica where my schools were integrated and where we had so many mentors. My high school baseball coach, Tom McCaffrey, took a liking to me and he made sure I was at school every day and that I stayed out of trouble. He said I could work at Burger King or make $100,000 playing baseball some day and that it was my choice. The Boys Club was a godsend to me and I went there every day. When my mom wanted to punish me, she wouldn’t whup me, she would say ‘you’re not going to the Boys Club today.’ I really started loving baseball when I saw all the Black players on teams like the Pirates with Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, and Bill Madlock. I loved the Dodgers and met Dusty Baker at Dodger Stadium when I played in a high school all-star game. He gave me a pair of cleats that I used in rookie ball and he’s been a mentor and a friend ever since. My biggest thrills were winning the 1976 American Legion national championship with players from my high school team and when I was drafted by the White Sox.”

Playing with the ’84 Tigers

“I played in the minor league games during spring training, but after I crushed a nearly 500-foot home run, (Tigers general manager) Bill Lajoie and Sparky Anderson invited me to the major league complex to play in a Tigers game the next day. Normally a minor league player in that situation is kicking back, eating sunflower seeds and maybe gets into the game in the eighth or ninth inning. But on the bus, Billy Consolo read the lineup and said ‘Allen batting fifth.’ My stomach turned, but I got a couple of hits. I kept getting invited back to play. I would dress on the minor league side, walk across the street and play in the major league game and then would go back and shower, eat and stay with the minor leaguers. I ended up batting close to .500 that spring and was getting hits off Nolan Ryan, Doc Gooden and Dan Quisenberry, and they could see that we might have something here. I could always hit. Glenn Wilson was going to mostly DH against left-handers and I like to say that the reason they traded him in the deal for Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman was because of me.

[ Lance Parrish never wanted to leave in ’86, but wanted fair treatment ]

“I made the Tigers roster on the last day of spring training, and in my first game, which was the second game of the season in Minnesota, I singled off of Frank Viola and scored two runs. The thing that I’ll never forget was Opening Day at Tiger Stadium two days after Jack Morris threw his no-hitter in Chicago. When Jack was introduced, I had never heard anything so loud or thunderous that it put chills in my body. It was unbelievable. That team was so talented and deep and it was amazing when we went 35-5. When I was sent down to Evansville in the first week of June, I learned what depression was because I had made it to the big leagues, and had done everything they asked of me. That was tough. I still wear my ’84 championship ring.”

Spending 12 years in the minor leagues

“The toughest part about playing in the minors was that I had made it to the majors and knowing that I was good enough to play there because I was hitting .300 year after year. I played in a lot of different places honing my skills to get to the next level and I always thought I would be a regular major league player but unfortunately that never materialized. However, I think the combination of playing all those years in the minors, Japan and Mexico really helped me with my knowledge of the game for my broadcast career.”

[ Dick Tracewski’s indelible impact helped Tigers win two World Series titles ]

Why he chased down that pitcher in Japan

“I had three hits that day and had given a forearm shiver to a catcher who then dropped the ball as I scored from second base. He was down for, like, 10 minutes. I told my teammate Mike Young, the former Baltimore Oriole, that if they threw at me, which I expected, that I was going out there and that he needed to have my back. When the pitcher threw the ball just behind me, I ran down the first base line because I had seen that when others charged the mound, often the Japanese pitchers ran to their dugout. I then turned him up the field and didn’t expect that I would have to chase him all the way to the warning track in left centerfield. I never took a swing. I was fined, but my manager paid it. Of course, it is very funny to watch on the internet and it has had thousands of views. I am asked about that all the time.”

On becoming a broadcaster

“I had decided to pursue a career as a baseball manager after serving as a hitting instructor and had just been hired by Arizona to manage a minor league team in Canada when I was invited to tour the new Bank One Ballpark being built for the Diamondbacks. I spent an hour on the tour talking baseball with the Arizona broadcaster, Thom Brennaman. He was impressed by my knowledge of the game and players, along with my ability to speak and relate. He encouraged me to consider broadcasting, which I didn’t think was possible since I was high school-educated and not a big-name former player. He made it possible for me to do a few Phoenix Firebirds and Fall League games. I didn’t know it but the Arizona executives were listening and they hired me. After my first year, Joe Garagiola Sr. invited me over to his house for the entire day, where he gave me advice on how to become a good baseball analyst. He said, ‘You’re not Mel Allen, you’re Rod Allen,’ and that I should always talk with the players and managers, and keep track of anecdotes that can be used when the games go south. Joe was a wonderful man who was very helpful and I had the pleasure of working with him.”

Behind the mic for the Tigers

“My first year in 2003 was tough and the most challenging ever because the team broke the American League record for losses with a 43-119 record, and it was so hard to find positives with such an undermanned team. But it made me a better broadcaster, because it made me work harder to find positive things to say. When Pudge Rodriguez was signed, it created a buzz and opened the door for Magglio Ordoñez to come, and then some great trades were made. When Jim Leyland was hired, and after I saw Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya in spring training in 2006, I predicted the Tigers would win the division. People thought I was crazy. Dave Dombrowski told me that if you have one of the top five players in the league at every position, you are going to win, and we did. It soon became the best analyst job in the country when we were winning four division titles and two American League pennants. It was so much fun. There are no fans better than Tiger fans and I love them. It was disappointing that we didn’t win a world championship with those great players.”

[ How Billy Martin made the Tigers, and their management, roar 50 years ago ]

On Miguel Cabrera

“Miggy is an amazing player with his bat control and knowledge. He makes it all look so easy but he works hard at it. I would watch him in batting practice, and he would hit home run balls in every direction. He would sit on the bench and tell his teammates what the pitcher was going to throw to him the next time up, where the pitch would be, where he was going to hit it, and then he would hit it there. He truly loves playing the game and has fun with players on both sides and with the fans. I hope people appreciate what he has done for the Tigers for so many years.”

What happened with Impemba?

“It was no secret that Mario and I weren’t best friends. We seldom got together outside of the booth. But we were very professional — he was good at his job, I was good at mine, and we had great ratings. Like every relationship, sometimes you just have a bad day. Looking back, l could have just walked away from the situation that night. I’m not a confrontational person. We both got caught up and a lot of foul words were exchanged. But there’s one part of the story that everybody has heard that is just false. It was written that I had allegedly chased him down and then choked him, and that is just not true. The incident was not at all that serious. It was not violent. Whoever put that out there did so because they wanted to assassinate my character and make me out to be the bad guy. Ultimately, it cost both of us our jobs. We both could have done things differently. I’m not proud of the way it ended. It was one bad night out of more than 16 years. Those were years that brought joy to thousands of Tiger fans, through good and bad seasons. I love baseball and love sharing my passion and insight on the game, especially with Tiger fans who are some of the best and the most knowledgeable fans in the world. I look forward to another opportunity to work again in an industry that l have devoted my life to.”

MORE FROM ALLEN: Incident with Mario Impemba more like a baseball brawl

What he is doing now?

“I enjoy coming back to Detroit several times a year because it has really been home to me and I have many friends and fans there. It was hard to watch games the last couple of years and it was so different not being at the ballpark. I returned to Comerica Park for the first time last month, and I didn’t know how I would be received. But I couldn’t have been more welcomed. It was great seeing my old boss again, former telecast colleagues, familiar folks at the ballpark, fans and visiting with Craig Monroe, who I’ve mentored since he played and helped get into broadcasting. We talk all the time. Craig has done a great job on the telecasts and I’m very proud of him. I still enjoy doing charity work in the Detroit area and will continue to pursue broadcasting opportunities. I’m very thankful that the Diamondbacks have invited me back into the booth to do three games on radio this month and I’m really looking forward to it.”

On the Tigers today

“I love the way Akil Baddoo burst onto the scene, and that got a lot of people watching again. The team has a lot of great stories. They have a very bright manager in AJ Hinch. He knows baseball inside and out and gets the most out of his players. Casey Mize and that young pitching staff will be the guys who get the team back to where we were in 2006. They need to improve their offensive roster but they are definitely headed in the right direction.”

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