After a four-month national hunt for a new baseball TV captain, Fox Sports Detroit and the Tigers have decided they had their man all along.
Matt Shepard will be introduced Tuesday as FSD’s play-by-play choice to replace Mario Impemba, who along with Rod Allen, was discharged after the two men tussled following a Sept. 4 Tigers broadcast in Chicago.
The move was confirmed by sources with knowledge of the agreement who requested anonymity because of the search’s highly sensitive nature.
With his deep, almost thunderous on-air voice, Shepard, 53, filled in skillfully for Impemba last summer when a wedding and funeral required a substitute. He was summoned then again Impemba departed in September and impressed executives who began to call his replacement stint “Sheptember.”
Shepard is expected to be introduced at Tuesday night’s Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena, along with FSD’s official Tigers broadcast lineup for 2019.
Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris will be Shepard’s in-booth analysts, while Craig Monroe will continue as a pre- and post-game host. Dan Petry, who played with Gibson and Morris on the Tigers’ 1984 championship team, will also work on “select” pre- and postgame shows, one of the sources said.
Shepard has been with FSD for nearly 20 years and has handled a wide swath of assignments, from Red Wings and the Pistons, to Lions preseason games, to helping with a variety of Tigers assignments. He also has worked extensively throughout as a sports radio host and play-by-play man. He broadcasts University of Michigan men’s basketball, as well as Eastern Michigan football, with his future as UM’s basketball voice uncertain due to expected conflicts with the Tigers during spring training and perhaps into April.
Contract details were not revealed, and Shepard declined comment when contacted Monday.
He has been dealing with a personal crisis of late even as the Tigers job was known to be his. His wife, Lisa, and son, Scott, were injured Jan. 4 when their car was hit by a driver who allegedly had run a red light at the intersections of Squirrel and Auburn roads in Auburn Hills.
Lisa Shepard has had multiple spinal surgeries in the days since but is recovering, while Scott Shepard was not seriously injured.
Shepard was selected for the Tigers job from a group of finalists that included appealing national candidates, sources confirmed. A final decision, however, which was FSD’s and required approval by the Tigers, was based on Shepard’s smooth play-by-play work and by his intimate knowledge of the Tigers and the team’s history.
A basic strength there — knowing the Tigers as well as his audience knows them — became a powerful attraction to FSD, one source said. Shepard is known as a relentless preparer whose homework is on a par with Tigers radio play-by-play man, Dan Dickerson, a veritable savant when it comes to knowing the analytics and numbers behind teams and games.
Shepard also worked deftly with Gibson during his 2018 cameos and is known to have received an important endorsement from the Tigers’ chief broadcast analyst, as he also has earned from Morris.
A nearly lifelong Michigan resident, Shepard was born in Farmington Hills and graduated from North Farmington High. He played baseball at North Farmington and was a baseball team walk-on at Eastern Michigan before transferring to Central Michigan University for his junior and senior college years.
During his time in Mount Pleasant, he worked football, basketball, and baseball games on both the campus radio and TV stations. He graduated from CMU with a degree in broadcasting and a minor in journalism.
His first job was as a news and sports broadcaster for COSY 98 FM in South Haven, where he did prep play-by-play work.
His first foray into professional baseball came in 1989 when he took vacation to attend baseball’s Winter Meetings in Nashville. Armed with 300 resumes, he handed his credentials to every baseball executive in sight and eventually got a single follow-up — from the Reds, who were looking for radio help with their Single A team, the Charleston (West Virginia) Wheelers.
The move was brief after Shepard realized the team was more interested in having him sell on-air advertising. He moved next to Milwaukee and to a radio job covering the Packers, Brewers, and Bucks. Then it was back to Detroit, working for the Ross Roy Advertising Agency from Monday through Friday and filling in during Saturday and Sunday as a part-time sports newsman for WWJ-950.
Five years later, his seven-day-a-week stints became more conventional when he was hired by The Palace at Auburn Hills to handle play-by-play for Detroit Vipers hockey, as well as work with the then-Detroit Shock and Pistons.
He next was hired by WDFN in Detroit as a sports reporter and host, and from there joined FSD as a reporter and anchor.
Shepard has worked at various times as a TV play-by-play man for all four Detroit pro teams and has done fill-in radio play-by-play for all but the Lions. His work for FSD has included play-by-play on the Michigan High School Athletic Association playoffs, as well as Central Collegiate Hockey Association games.
He is a two-time winner of the Michigan Sportscaster of the Year Award, and also won Detroit Sports Media’s 2018 Ty Tyson Award for Excellence in Sports Broadcasting
Shepard hosts a morning radio show, simulcast on Comcast TV, for the Michigan Media Network, which brings Shepard’s work to eight statewide stations, including WDFN.
The range of assignments can make for short nights and long days, which are expected to be pared and streamlined as Shepard moves to full-time Tigers duty.
A lifelong dream
It is known that his past Sunday night and Monday morning schedules were anything but rare. He broadcast Wolverines basketball Sunday evening, returned to his Bloomfield Hills home at 11 p.m. and did morning-show homework until 1 a.m. He rose at 4 a.m., as he does on weekdays, for his Michigan Media Network stint from 6-9 a.m.
Shepard has dreamed since he was 10 years old of broadcasting Tigers games. Alongside his later father, Yale, Shepard watched and listened to Tigers broadcasts from George Kell and Ernie Harwell, while during backyard games, friends with whom he grew up insisted that Shepard call play-by-play.
There, he would do his best Kell and Harwell imitations, keying on their inflections and cadence and, when the moment arrived, for delivering a dose of drama.
Shepard discovered, like Dickerson, that he also had a coach and mentor eager to assist: Harwell, who during his generations as an announcer was unfailingly helpful to young broadcasters.
Shepard had contacted Harwell while in his 20s and returned home one night to receive the most memorable voicemail of his life: Harwell inviting him to his Farmington Hills home for a get-acquainted visit and consultation.
The two men sat at Harwell’s kitchen table as Harwell’s wife, Lulu, served fresh-baked muffins. Harwell’s play-by-play pointers, Shepard later confided, were as important and as indelible as the time spent with his broadcast hero.
Another bit of serendipity, say those who know him, is that Shepard’s lifelong favorite team was the ’84 Tigers. He now will work alongside two of those stars, Gibson and Morris, with Petry occasionally joining from the FSD set.
While critics of the Tigers telecast team — in any year — are loud, it is known FSD was buoyed by overall feedback about Shepard’s work during last season’s Tigers stand-ins.
He now moves to the Tigers booth for a full season, and for what he and his executives at FSD and with the Tigers believe will be a steadily comfortable reception. And, they hope, a graced era for the Tigers TV audience.