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The highest-rated entertainer on Detroit prime-time television is rarely seen on camera. He broadcasts almost every day from April to October, ad-libs most of his dialogue and gives cable viewers distinctly new definitions to words like "filthy," "cheese" and "elevated."
Unquestionably, Rod Allen, the Detroit Tigers' color commentator on FSN Detroit the past six seasons, represents the lighter side of our home team's TV coverage. Roderick the entertainer. While Detroit native Mario Impemba provides the smooth, just-the-stats-ma'am play-by-play, Allen is the jovial, speed-of-thought contributor, frequently peppering his observations with catchphrases like "podnah," "without question" and "Mr. Snappy." (In case you were wondering, in Allen's vernacular "filthy" refers to a practically unhittable pitch, "cheese" is a high-octane fastball, "elevated" an adjective for a pitch ripe for hitting and "Mr. Snappy" a superior curveball.)
And that snappy patter makes Allen possibly the most polarizing figure in the history of Tigers' telecasts. Love his style or loathe it, no one sits in the bleachers where Rod Allen is concerned. Recently, when one of the local newspapers published an innocuous Q&A with Allen about the team's rollercoaster season, readers filled the comment blogs with criticism. "Mario would not be bad if he didn't have the baseball genius next to him," wrote one sarcastic fan. "Rod should be the manager. He seems to know how every position should be played."
One Detroit sports-talk radio station aired a daily segment spotlighting Allen's most unconventional quote from the previous game. There's even a Web site devoted to his lingo, "The Rod Allen Game," that invites users to compete for points when he utters one of his trademark expressions during a broadcast. (Three points when Rod says "elevated," seven points when he says "professional hitter," and so on.)
In his majestic perch alongside Impemba above home plate at Comerica Park, I ask Allen if my perception that he had toned down his singular style this season held any merit. I was stunned by his response.
"I think I have changed a little bit," he replies. "You know, no one likes to be made fun of, to be honest with you. And I got the sense that some of the things I was saying, people were literally making fun of me. And although you try to analyze and stay upbeat and do the best that you can, I have changed as to what I say and when I say it, because the last thing I want is to be taken as is a joke.
"I've been in baseball for 31 years and have tremendous skills to analyze, and you just make adjustments as you go," he continues. "You try to get better and grow and that's what I've tried to do. I've just tried to tone it down and keep it a little bit more professional, give people what I think they want to hear."
Well, I hope you faultfinders are happy.
John Tuohey, FSN Detroit executive producer, is surprised by Allen's statements. "For me, Rod is top-notch," he says. "He had not expressed those feelings to me, but in this business whenever anybody makes a comment you take it to heart, and when you have as many viewers as we do you just can't worry about every comment because there's just too many people watching. He is an extremely good and proud analyst, and if he's feeling that people aren't taking him quite as seriously as they should because they're paying too much attention to his phrases, you never want to be perceived as merely being there for entertainment purposes. But he is entertaining, and very enjoyable to listen to."
I'll go a step further. Resolved: Rod Allen is the best TV commentator the Tigers have ever had. Ever.
Granted, the competition is not exactly overwhelming. Kirk Gibson, Al Kaline, George Kell, Jim Northrup — magnificent ballplayers all, but most were stymied by the challenge of a declarative sentence. Allen has the Tiger pedigree — he batted .296 here in that magical season of 1984 — and though he culminated his career with the Hiroshima Carp in Japan (there's a notorious video somewhere on YouTube showing him chasing a Japanese pitcher around the field with a bat after being hit by a pitch), he's been in the sport so long that Barry Bonds' daddy, Bobby, was once his hitting instructor.
Strip away all the quirky conversation and you'll see Allen truly knows the game. He's amazing at what he calls "first guessing": One night in Cleveland, for example, he predicted a Tiger home run that was delivered on the very next pitch. And since the World Series miracle season of 2006, on most nights Tigers baseball is the top-rated program on local TV, making Allen even more introspective. "There are only 30 jobs like this in America," Allen says. "I don't take this position lightly, and I'm thankful to be doing it every day."
Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.