Mario Impemba Transitions from Tigers TV to Red Sox Radio

Mario Impemba is part of the broadcast team in Boston now. The former TV voice of the Detroit Tigers is scheduled to work 51 regular-season games with Joe Castiglione in the Red Sox radio booth this year. The new job is different in more ways than one.

The last time Impemba did radio on a full-time basis was in 2001 when he called games for the Anaheim Angels. He did do a handful of radio games during the 2016 season — Detroit’s broadcast teams flip-flopped a few times that year — but television has long been his comfort zone. No big deal. While the mediums are different animals, the 56-year-old Detroit-area native is making a smooth segue.

“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” Impemba told me in late April. “It was seven years in Anaheim, and prior to that I did eight years in the minor leagues, so I cut my broadcasting teeth in radio. Transitioning back isn’t a big challenge. At the same time, I’m shifting abruptly after doing one medium for [17] years. It took a few games of telling myself, OK, you can’t just say ‘groundball to short; one out.’ On radio you have to describe the mechanics of the play.”

Much like the athletes making the plays being described, broadcasters have honed their skills through years and years of repetition. Be it a grounder to third or a fly to right, there is no shortage of familiarity with what’s happening between the white lines.

“When you play sports, a lot of it becomes muscle memory. It’s the same with broadcasting,” Impemba explained. “You see plays and you react. You’ve seen these plays thousands of times before. The only difference doing radio is that you have to retrain yourself to being much more descriptive. The pictures aren’t there to do your talking for you.”

That includes graphics. On TV, if a broadcaster wants to highlight where a player ranks among the league leaders, he can often have the list pop up on the screen. On radio, disseminating the same information isn’t nearly as easy. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Visuals aren’t always available at the click of a button — graphics need to be preplanned — but the information typically is. When he was in Detroit, Impemba would hit the talk-back button on his headset and someone in the production truck would look up what he wanted. That was TV. On radio, he’s having to do more of the information-gathering himself, both before and during games.

His on-air responsibilities have changed in other ways as well. With the Tigers, Impemba did play-by-play exclusively. With the Red Sox, he’s sharing that duty with longtime play-by-play voice Joe Castiglione. For several innings each game, he’s serving as the analyst.

“That’s definitely been different,” said Impemba. “On television, you’re generally working with former players. In Detroit, I had a couple of All-Stars/Hall of Famers in Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge, so you can lean on them for analyzing what’s happening on the field. I learned a lot from them. I can take that to the color aspect of radio when Joe is doing the play-by-play.”

Rod Allen, who played 15 of his 31 big-league games with the 1984 Tigers, shared a broadcast booth with Impemba for 16-plus seasons. As has been reported by the Detroit media, they co-existed despite a long-strained professional relationship. Both were let go last September following a post-game altercation which, by all accounts, Allen initiated. Impemba politely declined to discuss what transpired.

The two did manage to work hand-in-glove once the green light turned on. While the teams they covered weren’t always good, the broadcasts typically were. Familiarity can breed contempt, but it can also result in a smooth on-air rapport.

“When you work with someone for a long time, regardless of who it is, you learn cadence,” explained Impemba. “You learn when they’re going to speak, and what they’re going to lay out. I’m working with a new partner now — we’ve only done 15 or so games, counting spring training — but Joe has made it a breeze. He’s so professional — he’s a Hall-of-Fame broadcaster here in Boston — that it’s been seamless.”

Meshing with the easy-going Casiglione has proven to be a piece of cake. A bigger challenge has been getting to know the players in the home dugout. Well-familiar with the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos, Impemba had only followed Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, et al, from a distance.

“I obviously know the history, and the players the Red Sox have had here in recent years, but as a broadcaster you need to dig deeper,” said Impemba. “The only way you can get some of that information is by being around the team. I’m not doing the full season, so I really need to keep up with my homework. I need to follow the team, follow the team trends, even when I’m not doing games.”

Impemba was at Fenway Park, preparing to help call the action, when those words were spoken. The visiting team was the Detroit Tigers.

“It’s funny, because the second spring training game I did was against the Tigers, in Lakeland,” Impemba told me. “That was kind of a strange scenario. It is here, as well, and looking forward I’ll be doing the games in Detroit leading up to the All-Star break. An advantage is that the prep is easier, because I know them so well. But after 17 years… yes, it is strange doing games from the other booth.”

Impemba was a Tigers fan before becoming a Tigers broadcaster. Born and raised in Motown, he still lives there. And while the controversial departure has left a sour taste in his mouth, myriad friends remain associated with the team. Professional decorum aside, is he still a Tiger at heart?

“That’s a tough question to answer,” Impemba admitted. “When I left the Angels to go to Detroit, my hometown team, it took me time to realize I wasn’t in Anaheim anymore. Now that I’ve left the Tigers and come to Boston… I think I’ve grown a bit. Mostly, I’m just thrilled to be doing games for one of the most storied franchises in baseball.

“That said, you don’t forget the places you’ve been. For me, that includes minor-league cities like Davenport, Iowa, Peoria, Illinois, and Tucson, Arizona. I still follow the Angels after all these years. I read their box scores and some of the articles written about them. Because I live in Detroit, I’m immersed with how the Tigers are doing on a daily basis. The first big memories I had in baseball were from those early-70s Tigers teams. I was able to go to Game 5 of the 1984 World Series. You don’t forget those things. They’re engrained in you. Regardless of what happens in your career, how it happens, when you move on, it’s not going to leave. It’s a part of who you are.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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3 years ago

I have enjoyed listening to Mario in the couple of radio broadcasts I’ve caught this year. I think he works much better with a radio legend like Castiglione than many of his predecessors have. I could tell he is professional and respects and appreciates Joe when he is speaking, which is a breath of fresh air. I am excited to listen to him and Joe next time I’m in the car during a sox game. One quick anecdote, on the broadcast in the last couple of days, Mario missed former Tiger Rick Porcello as a Cy Young winner of Italian descent! Joe let him hear it about that, in a good-natured way.