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If these Walls Could Talk: Detroit Tigers
Stories from the Detroit Tigers Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box
By Mario Impemba, Mike Isenberg
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Mario Impemba with Mike Isenberg
All rights reserved.
The Minors: Paying My Dues
Pass the Toilet Paper
Like baseball players, most baseball announcers spend time in the minor leagues, honing their skills and hoping for a shot at the big leagues.
Even with that goal in mind, I wouldn't trade one minute of my minor league experience. Where I'm now fortunate enough to travel on team charters and stay at five-star hotels, that wasn't always the case. Working in the minor leagues will keep you humble and give you important perspective. It will also teach you how to be resourceful.
In 1987, I was broadcasting for the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. I was 24 years old and just two years out of college. This was my second job.
The team had just completed a three-game series in Wausau, Wisconsin, with a trip to Appleton awaiting us.
In the minor leagues, broadcasting is often a one-man job. I was serving as announcer, engineer, analyst, and the guy who set up and broke down equipment before and after games. Eventually, it all becomes routine, which is good. If the announcer isn't five minutes early for the bus, he's late, and the team ain't waiting.
On this day, I was running a little behind but was able to make the bus. For some reason, though, I felt out of sorts. I figured it was just the adrenaline of the game and rushing to board.
Two hours went by, and we pulled into the hotel in Appleton. My uneasiness was about to go into full-fledged panic.
The trainer unloaded the bus, and my suitcase was one of the first off (since I was one of the last to board). I waited patiently for my equipment case ... and waited ... and waited.
When the final bag was pulled off the bus, I finally figured out why I had that strange feeling. I had left the equipment case back in Wausau, two hours away!
It was now 11:00 am, about eight hours before game time. This was not good. The game was going to start at 7:00 pm, with or without me. And if I wasn't on the air, I would have a hard time explaining to my boss why. My broadcasting career, as it was, flashed before my eyes.
As cutthroat as broadcasting can be, we all realize that at some point, we are going to need help. Maybe a machine breaks down, or we need information about a player on the other team. Or some schmuck leaves his equipment behind. Usually, we try to help our colleagues. Thankfully, this was a lesson I was about to learn.
I called a local radio station and explained my predicament. Our bus driver took me to the station, and they were kind enough to lend me enough equipment to save the broadcast (and possibly my hide).
Now beggars can't be choosers, but when I got to the ballpark, I realized that this was really bare-bones equipment, with just enough to pull off the show. There was no headset — just a mixer board and microphone with no stand. To do this game, I was going to have to hold the mic non-stop for three hours.
This is the resourcefulness I mentioned. How could I do the game while having to hold the mic the entire time? After all, I need to keep my scorebook, take notes, and cue up highlights for the postgame show. That's not easy to do with one hand occupied.
One thing that minor league parks do have is a restroom. So I went inside and lifted a roll of toilet paper. I taped the roll of toilet paper to the counter and jammed the mic into the cardboard roll.
This is ridiculous, I thought. Was I really going to sit in the middle of the press box with my mic jammed into a roll of Charmin?
The answer was yes.
That night, I broadcasted an entire minor league baseball game with my microphone sticking out of a roll of toilet paper.
Since it was radio, and cell phones with cameras hadn't been invented yet, there would be no proof — until a fan sitting just in front of me aimed her camera at me and snapped a picture of me talking into a roll of two-ply.
So somewhere in Appleton, Wisconsin, exists a photo of a young broadcaster calling a professional baseball game into a roll of toilet paper, which was a heck of a lot better than a young broadcaster watching his career go down the toilet.
It's one of baseball's oldest traditions, and it's not peanuts and cracker jacks or keeping score of the game in your program. It's bigger than that. I'm talking about the practical joke. The old hot foot, shaving cream in the cap, Ben-Gay in the athletic supporter kind of joke. Nobody is safe — not the best player, not the worst player, not even the manager. And as I learned, not even the play-by-play announcer.
The good news is that for an announcer, being the target of a practical joke is a sign that the guys on the team like you and it makes you feel like you belong. During the 1993 season, I learned that I really belonged.
It was my seventh year in the business broadcasting AAA baseball in Tucson, Arizona, for the Astros. On any AAA team, you have two types of players. One is the young guy on the verge of a major league opportunity. Future All-Star closer Todd Jones would be called up later that season. The second is a veteran player who is trying to make his way back to the big leagues. Perhaps he's been injured, or maybe he's just lost his skills and is working for one more shot.
An example of a guy looking for one more shot on this team was Jim Lindeman. Jim came into the game as a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals. Now he was a 31-year-old journeyman. Seven years earlier, Lindeman had his best year in the minors with 20 home runs and 96 RBI. That earned him a call-up with the Cardinals. He also played with the Tigers and Phillies.
Now he was just another guy, hoping for one last shot. The reason an organization would sign Lindeman was to hopefully catch lightning in a bottle but also to add depth to the organization or try to set the tone with their young players.
One night before a game I was hanging around the cage watching early batting practice when one of the guys invited me to take a few hacks. They didn't need to ask me twice. This was like fantasy camp except better. I played some ball in high school, but I was only a bench player. Stepping into a cage on a professional diamond was nirvana for me.
This was my big chance. Many players look at announcers as wannabes who never had the skill to compete. This was an opportunity to show that I had some ability — and in some small way to show that I belonged in their world.
I was told to grab the bat leaning against the cage. I looked down, and it had Lindeman's name etched on it. Someone told me it was just his batting practice bat.
The first pitch came. Swing and a miss. Second pitch, and I hit a soft line drive to center field. I had my first base hit — but it came at a price.
You've heard the phrase "crack of the bat," right? Well, I cracked it okay. Actually, I cracked the bat! I was a little uneasy — this wasn't my bat — but I didn't think it was a big deal.
As I walked out of the cage, Jim Lindeman came running out of the dugout screaming, "Did you break my bat?"
I replied with a meek, "Umm, yeah."
"That was my gamer. You broke my game bat! I can't believe you broke my game bat! Why would you even touch my bat?"
If you've been around the game long enough, you learn to understand the relationship players have with their equipment. With certain guys, you just don't touch their bats or gloves. It's sacrosanct. You can do a high five with their kids, tap them on the shoulder, but do not touch their bats or gloves. I had figured since this was only his BP bat, it wasn't a big deal. Clearly, I was wrong, and now Lindeman was about to snap me in half. I was freaking out.
As Lindeman approached me, the team started laughing. I had been had. The bat already had a hairline fracture in it and all it took was any contact to finish the job.
The score that night was Players 1, Me 0. They had set me up and nailed me perfectly. After a good laugh, my heart rate returned to normal and I was assured Jim Lindeman was in on the whole thing and had no intention of throttling me. Now I just had to return my blood pressure to normal levels and call the game.
Most baseball announcers at one time dreamed of playing professionally. Most realize that isn't going to happen, so the next step is the booth. Following my ill-fated attempt at batting practice with a busted bat, I got another opportunity to show off my skills.
We were on the road one night in 1993, playing a game in Portland, Oregon.
Minor league teams didn't typically carry the volume of coaches that a big-league team does. At that time it was just a manager and a pitching coach.
That night in Portland I finished my game prep early, so I was hanging around the field as the team prepared to take infield practice. The crowd was filing into the ballpark, settling into their seats, and I decided to head back to the booth to get ready for the broadcast.
As I was leaving the field, our pitching coach Brent Strom called me over and asked if I could do him a big favor.
"Sure. What is it?"
It appeared the team was going to take infield that night but Strom had a pitchers scouting meeting scheduled. The manager was busy so there was no one to hit fungos (ground balls) to the infielders. Strom asked if I think I could do it.
"Sure, I'd love to."
"Keep it simple," Strom said. "Go around the infield third to first and just hit ground balls. Nothing fancy."
As soon as he handed me the fungo bat, I instantly turned into a nervous, uncoordinated non-athlete. While I never played beyond high school, I was a good athlete and decent player. But not on this night.
As I aimed toward third to hit my first grounder, the ball flared off my bat and ended up in short right field. Great. I missed my target by about 180'.
I tried it again, and my second attempt ended up behind home plate against the screen. With that, Strom walked back from his scouting meeting and took the bat from me.
"Well, that went well," he said.
And with that, he scrapped his meeting and hit infield.
As I walked back to the booth embarrassed, a fan in the first couple of rows yelled out to me, "Nice effort!" "Shut up!" I yelled back.
I remember thinking, Shut up? That's all you could think of?
The worst part was that the broadcast area was located right behind home plate, at field level, next to the fans. They nicknamed me "Fungo," and I heard from them all night.
Within the span of two swings, I had proven why most play-by-play guys belong in the booth.
I'm Not Terry Clark
One of the great things about minor league baseball is intimacy. Back in the 1950s, when baseball was a part-time job, fans could walk into a store and see their favorite player working behind the counter. They might even be your neighbor. Willie Mays, for example, was well-known for playing stickball with kids on the streets of Brooklyn.
These days, with the average major league salary in excess of $3 million, there aren't too many players holding offseason jobs. But the affection from fans hasn't wavered much.
When we're on the road, I see two types of fans. The first is the old-school fan. Of course, this includes kids, who are just thrilled to get a signature on a baseball or even a notebook. I remember being this type of fan, sending letters to the team and asking for autographs.
The other fan is the collector. One of the unfortunate aspects of baseball is exactly how big collecting has become. Don't get me wrong — it's great that there's a passion for the game. But to some people, it's just a business. They show up with a book full of 15 cards for each player and want to get each one signed. It doesn't matter whether he's the best player on the team or the 25th man on the roster. They just want to get the signature. That's a shame.
In 1991, while I was broadcasting for the Tucson Toros, one of our players was a journeyman pitcher named Terry Clark. Clark was the prototypical Crash Davis from Bull Durham. This guy was perseverance personified. He played for 17 different minor league teams. Once he got to the majors, he played for the Angels, Astros, Braves, Orioles, the Royals, the Astros again, Indians, and Rangers.
Back in '91, Terry was toiling in Tucson, trying to make it back to the major leagues. By this time, he had won 81 games in the minor leagues, which is pretty impressive. It's also 81 more wins than I had recorded. But one night in Tacoma, Washington, none of this mattered.
I had decided to get to the ballpark early that night because I had to secure and conduct several interviews. To give me time to set up, I took a taxi instead of waiting for the team bus. That's where the trouble began.
Whenever a cab pulls up to the ballpark, fans will immediately swarm around it. Most of them have baseball cards ready to be signed. I figured, "Hey, I'm a AAA announcer. I'll be fine." I was dramatically wrong.
Most of the time when I get out of a taxi, the fans feel they're seeing a wet towel being thrown on a fire. I can hear it almost every time.
"It's not a player. He's a no one."
Things are a little different now. With Tigers fans all over the country, I feel fortunate that they show me their appreciation wherever we are. But back in my AAA days, that wasn't the case.
So we're in Tacoma, and I get out of the cab. A man and his son thought I was Terry Clark. On this day, let's say Terry was pretty lucky. The guy and his son approached me.
"Mr. Clark, would you sign this for my son?"
A couple of problems here. First, it was obvious to me that he was using his kid to get an autograph. Then there was also the other problem. I was not Terry Clark.
Let's examine the tale of the tape:
Height 6'2" 5'10"
Full head of black Not so much
I politely informed the man that I was not Clark and didn't want to sign the baseball card. But that was not good enough.
The man became irate. He swore at me several times in front of his son and accused me of being a spoiled athlete.
"Sir, I can't sign that card. I'm not Terry Clark," I said.
He refused to believe me and continued to follow me toward the stadium gate.
Fearing this guy was a little unstable, I turned toward him and signed the card.
The father had taught his boy a lesson. "See, son? You can't take no for an answer," he proudly boasted.
The real lesson in the story, however, is this. If you're ever in a Tacoma card shop and see a Terry Clark autographed baseball card, save your money!
That's Not What I Said
Have you ever played the game Telephone? One person tells a story to another, and it goes around the room a few times. It's amazing by the end how the story is nothing like what was originally said.
Broadcasting is like Telephone. All announcers will tell you that before your career is over, you will be misunderstood. Words will be put in your mouth, and selective hearing is your worst enemy.
I found this out early in my career while broadcasting in the minor leagues. Players obviously can't listen to the broadcast because they are on the field, but family and friends sure do, and in most cases they are not bashful about telling players what the announcers are saying about them, especially when they perceive it as being negative.
Most times it is pretty accurate, but many times it is not.
When I was broadcasting in A ball early in my career, I noticed I was getting the cold shoulder from a lot of players and coaches. I made my rounds in the clubhouse before a game, and the players were avoiding me like the plague. No one was talking to me, and I didn't understand what was going on. Finally, one of the players filled me in.
"Skip told us not to talk to you or do any interviews," he said.
"Something about you interviewing one of the other team's players." I approached the manager later that day and asked what was going on.
"My wife heard your pregame show last night. She said you interviewed Ty Griffin and were talking up the other team."
"Well, Ty Griffin was the Cubs' No. 1 pick in the draft. Why wouldn't I interview him?"
"He's one of their players. You broadcast for us. Besides, she said it sounded like you were rooting for them."
Excerpted from If these Walls Could Talk: Detroit Tigers by Mario Impemba, Mike Isenberg. Copyright © 2014 Mario Impemba with Mike Isenberg. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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