The perfect pleasure of Rod Allen

Texieria is a good defensive third basemen. He has won a gold glove. . . mainly because of his offense.
—Rod Allen, Tigers color commentator

You know how I feel about sub-par broadcasters like Joe Buck.

But perhaps my harsh review of Buck’s lack-of-excitement cliché-ridden brand of sport-calling is partly due to having had a fairly good run of it so far.

I mean, I grew up listening to Ernie Harwell. Now I can tune in a game on the radio and hear Dan Dickerson and Jim Price, Dickerson always taking the time to sketch in the crosshatchings of details fans like me love: the posture of a player at the plate, where he holds his hands, what he does between pitches.

Sometimes, while I’m listening to the game and digging vaguely carrot-scented, insidious and impossible to fully eradicate tuberous tendrils from what will become my moonflower beds out back, I practice my own play-by-play. I think of Alex Avila coming to the plate, his front shoulder turned toward the catcher, the way he begins his stance already coiled, as though he’s trying to get a head start, adopting a hunch to his back that’s a bit like the big Turkish boxer on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.

But let’s be real. I’m less the serene, jovial Dan Dickerson than the bizarre, hilarious and downright individual Rod Allen. Allen’s claim to fame involves playing 15 games for the 1984 Tigers and irately chasing another player around the field in an attempt to consummate a fight—I’ll pause while you watch the video on YouTube. (Try to find the version with the circus music soundtrack. It really ties the room together.)

To put it simply, Rod Allen has fun watching the game and passes that on the viewer—he almost bursts through the screen to nudge you there on the couch and giggle at the sight of Magglio Ordonoz rounding first wearing what Rod calls his “Mr. T starter kit,” a clutch of chains and oversized pendants.

That usually gets a chuckle from Mario Impemba, the homegrown play-by-play announcer who remembers Chet Lemon as Chet The Jet because he grew up loving the Bless You Boys, too. Rod’s rapport with Mario, and his talent for bringing that same joie de baseball out in Impemba, is just one of his incredible qualities.

Instead of adopting the stuffy, pedantic and condescending carriage of a Joe Morgan or the cliché-ridden idiocy of so many former players who mistake repeating the same small point ad infinitum for actual insight into the game, Rod Allen reduces the game down to all the components that made many of us fall in love with baseball.

He’s just as awed by powerful, epic-seeming players like Miguel Cabrera as I am. I was so struck by his call of a 2009 Cabrera homerun—”Big Daddy just leaned on one!”—that I wrote it into a poem for my husband at our wedding. (I should note that he nixed my first idea, which was to write our vows in a sort of Rod – Mario banter.)

As a poet, I am taken by his reworking and reinvention of language. Allen’s pitchers don’t throw change-ups or sliders, they hurl a slide piece or a change piece.

When the Tigers are staring down a hefty deficit or a daunting schedule, it’s “tough sledding,” which is such an unexpected linguistic turn because it’s both out of season and entirely removed from the traditional catalogue of sports metaphors.

And unlike the aforementioned Buck (ugggh), Rod is not afraid to be a fan. My husband and I happened to be at Armando Galaragga’s perfect game, and the moment that lingers in my mind is now overwritten with Allen’s call: rookie Austin Jackson making an insane running catch in the ninth to preserve perfection. I watched the replay so many times that even now, recalling it from our seats along the third baseline and standing on my toes to see what I was sure would be a drop, I can hear Allen’s triumphant, “OH, JACKSON!” as Austin hauls the ball in.

As though I heard the call during the live game, which was, of course, impossible.

For as much as Allen celebrates the game, he’s not at all afraid to poke at some of the less venerable aspects of the sport, such as the charade of awards like the Gold Glove (see his sly takedown of Texieria’s award).

But for all of it, Rod Allen is a silly fan like the rest of us. Like my brother and I inventing nicknames for our favorite players, like my brother and his best friend always commenting on Brandon Inge’s perplexing facial hair or remarking on the lack of speed of certain base runners.

Really, the unbridled joy of Rod Allen is he could just as easily be the guy next to you at the bar with the running commentary of the game—a guy you want to sit next to all summer long because he’s not Joe Morgan.

He’s a guy who calls Brennan Boesch “country strong” and Verlander “filthy.” He’s the anti-Joe Buck, and that’s just my kind of pal.

3 Responses to “The perfect pleasure of Rod Allen”
  1. Jeanette says:

    Ah yes, Mr. Allen and Mr. Impemba complete the Tiger baseball package. I so enjoy your writing Angela!

  2. Eric says:

    Great, great piece on one of the most personable broadcasters in baseball! This post brought back a lot of memories for me, as I loved listening to Mario & Rod over the last several years. One of the things I miss most since I moved away from Michigan is having access to Fox Sports Detroit and being able to listen to these guys. Thanks for including the YouTube links — I will never forget that Jackson call.

    There is a pretty funny Rod Allen drinking game floating around the internet as well. Here’s the latest version I could find:

    I think it would be pretty difficult to make it past the first inning, haha.

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