‘I never lost hope’: Ex-Tigers TV man Rod Allen grateful for another chance in booth

Detroit News

From 1977, when he was a 17-year-old outfielder from California drafted by the Chicago White Sox, until Sept. 4, 2018, Rod Allen was employed, some way, somehow, in professional baseball.

It was a 40-plus run that took him from a player — with a bit role on the Tigers’ 1984 World Series championship team — to a coach, to a broadcaster.

The last three-plus years, he always kept the faith that one day, he’d be back. But it wasn’t easy, and he never really knew if he was holding out hope for a day that would never come.

“It didn’t get any easier. It was very difficult,” Allen said the other day in a phone conversation with The Detroit News. “I continued to watch baseball, even though it was very tough.

“It’s in the blood, but that first year was very difficult to watch.

“It was a long three years.”

The wait for a shot at redemption is over for Allen, 62, who, last week, was hired to join the broadcast team for the Miami Marlins, his first full-time baseball broadcasting job since a 16-year run calling Tigers games, alongside Mario Impemba, came crashing down one September 2018 evening in Chicago.

Bally Sports Florida announced last week its broadcast team for 2022, with Allen among those who will call games, as well as work on the pregame and postgame shows. The Marlins also have hired Allen to do a portion of the team’s games on the radio.

Last week, on a layover in Atlanta on his way to see the Marlins in spring training, Allen gave his first lengthy interview to The News since he and Impemba were fired following the 2018 season. Allen prefers not to discuss the Impemba incident anymore. But he acknowledged it proved hard to come back from.

In Miami, he returns to the place where he began his coaching career, and where he met a general manager named Dave Dombrowski — foreshadowing a long run in Detroit.

“You know, to be out for three years and to get another opportunity to go back to a place where you started your coaching career, it feels good to have an opportunity to go back,” said Allen, who expects to do somewhere around 90-100 Marlins games. “I just really couldn’t be happier. It was a long wait, obviously.

“I couldn’t even put into words what I’ve gone through the last three years, mentally and things like that. But that’s not important. The important thing is I’ve been given another opportunity.

“I’m just grateful and thankful.”

Allen began his broadcasting career with the Arizona Diamondbacks, with whom he spent five years calling games on TV and radio. In 2003, he was hired by the Tigers to be the TV analyst on Fox Sports Detroit, replacing Kirk Gibson, who was joining Alan Trammell’s on-field staff.

Impemba and Allen grew in popularity, especially in 2006, when the Tigers were surprise contenders, making it all the way to the World Series. Allen’s catchphrases — purposeful ones, like, “Country strong” or “I see ya, big fella,” and accidental ones, like “Second deck!” — made him a hit with Tigers fans. He didn’t just tell you when a player might steal or what a pitcher might throw. He brought entertainment to the television during a time when Tigers fans were watching in record numbers, thanks to five playoff appearances and two World Series appearances from 2006-14.

Then, one night in Chicago, it all ended. It was Sept. 4, 2018, the Tigers were nearing the finish line of a garbage season, their second in a row, and outside the press box at what then was called U.S. Cellular Field, Allen and Impemba got into a physical altercation. Accounts vary on what happened; Allen was accused of choking Impemba; Allen has strongly denied that. The dispute was apparently over a chair, though the tensions between the two had boiled for years. They were never the best of friends.

Fox Sports Detroit officials sent Impemba and Allen home to Detroit, bringing in a replacement crew for the finish of that series. Impemba and Allen were eventually suspended for the rest of the 2018 season, then weren’t retained during the offseason.

Allen went back to Arizona, his reputation in tatters, and his mental state not much better.

How’d he get through it?

“My grandkids,” said Allen, who has four — three boys and a girl, ages 16 months to 11 years old. “They just kept you going, man, because they don’t see that pain that you’re feeling, they don’t see that anxiety, they don’t feel the worry. All they saw is Paw Paw, and they love Paw Paw. They made me feel great.

“There were a lot of good days, but there were a lot of bad days.”

Wife Adrian and their four kids, as well as his faith in God, were critical, too, Allen said.

“That,” said Allen,” is how I got through it.”

Last year, Allen dipped his toes back into the broadcasting game, with the Diamondbacks giving him three radio assignments in the second half of the season.

At the same time, Allen was considering a move back to Detroit, possibly joining the Internet-streamed Woodward Sports Network. He was discussing a contract with owner Chad Johnson.

But, during the offseason, an opportunity arose with the Marlins, whose games air on Bally Sports, the same network that airs Tigers games — and the successor to Fox Sports Detroit, Allen’s employer while in Detroit. Many executives whom Allen worked with at FSD stayed on during the transition to Bally Sports, and those connections proved pivotal. Allen credits Bally Sports Detroit executive director Jeff Byle for continuing to have his back, as well as Tigers vice president of communications Ron Colangelo, and others. Allen isn’t sure if Colangelo talked to the Marlins people, but he knows Byle did.

“All these people were still in my corner,” Allen said. “It makes me feel good

“I never lost hope. I knew what happened that day, I handled it the right way, and I was told by everybody, I knew I would get another opportunity. I knew that some day, I would get another opportunity to get into the broadcast booth.”

For his part, Impemba has previously told The News: “I know what happened that night, he (Allen) knows what happened that night. I just want to move on. Nothing comes from rehashing a bad event in your life.”

Al Kaline and George Kell were the most popular Tigers TV both of all-time, but Allen and Impemba, 59, called more Tigers games on television that any other duo, and it wasn’t even close — close to 2,500. Impemba was the local boy, the Sterling Heights native and Michigan State alum who landed his dream job, coming home to Detroit after calling Angels games. Allen was the first Black broadcaster in franchise history.

Impemba was back in baseball the year after the incident, calling several Boston Red Sox games on the radio in 2019. Dombrowski was Boston’s team president. Impemba wasn’t retained for 2020, and since authored his second book, “Major League Mindset: Elevate Your Baseball Play-by-Play.”

Both continue to follow the Tigers closely, and continue to be grateful for the fans. At the end of his conversation with The News, Allen wanted to make one more point.

“Tell the fans I appreciate them,” Allen said. “I am really am thankful for all the support they’ve given me over the years, whether I’ve run into somebody in Birmingham or Troy. The people have been wonderful. And not only the people, but the Tigers and Bally Sports Detroit.

“God has given me another opportunity to do what I love to do.”

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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