As the play by play man for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, Dan Shulman relayed one of the most important news stories in a generation to millions watching that Osama bin Laden had been killed by United States military forces. By all accounts, Shulman was masterful in his handling of the situation. In this interview, Dan talks to AA about how the information was relayed throughout the booth, breaking the bin Laden news, and other questions about his broadcasting career including what it’s like to work with one Dick Vitale. Make sure to click “Read More” for the entire, amazing story.
Q: Before we get to the big news, the first question we always like to ask announcers is how you got your start in sports broadcasting?
A: I’m Canadian as you may know and I went to the university of Western Ontario. I actually graduated as an actuary. While I was at university just for fun as an extra-curricular kind of thing I worked at the campus radio station broadcasting the university’s basketball and football games. When I graduated I worked as an actuary for six months and decided it wasn’t for me. I had my mid life crisis early when I was 22 years old and decided to give broadcasting a try.
I got a job at a small radio station 50 miles north of Toronto, eventually got to Toronto and worked at the all sports radio station, and then eventually was hired to be the Blue Jays play by play announcer on TSN. One thing led to another, and some people at ESPN heard some of the work that I did and I got lucky and wound up there. When I got the Blue Jays job, which was 1995, I did the Blue Jays in the Summer and college basketball for ESPN in the Winter. Then, I went full time to ESPN in 2001.
Q: I have to ask, what’s it like working with Dick Vitale?
A: It’s great. It’s a fun ride. It’s always exciting and unpredictable, but it’s fantastic. He’s a ton of fun to work with and we’re very close and become great friends. There’s never a dull moment when you work with Dick. I enjoy every minute of it and I always look forward to working with him.
Q: You’re the new play by play man for Sunday Night Baseball, how has the transition been filling in the Sunday Night booth, which is a big topic amongst a lot of baseball fans?
A: I’m so honored and flattered that my bosses would offer me the position on Sunday Night Baseball. Jon Miller is a Hall of Fame broadcaster and one of the best in any sport. It was definitely on my mind when I accepted the job that I’m following in the footsteps of one of the all-time greats. I try not to dwell on it because I don’t want to put more pressure on myself. Every Sunday when the game begins I treat it like every game I’ve ever done and I hope all the viewers like what they’re hearing and see.
ESPN puts so many resources into the Sunday Night show providing research and stats and we have so many bells and whistles that enhance the telecast, it’s really fun. Anything a broadcaster could ever think of asking for is at our disposal. It’s great to be a part of such a talented team.
Q: Tell us about how the Sunday Night booth is coming together and your chemistry with Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine.
A: I guess we’ve done about five or six games, we’re very comfortable with each other, but the chemistry develops over time just like anything. This past week obviously was a much different situation because of the news that broke when we were on the air. Both Bobby and Orel see the game so well and so intelligently, I can throw anything at them and they’ve got an answer for it. They’re such smart baseball guys. What’s really nice and what’s really important that your readers may or may not realize is the chemistry you have on the air develops from the chemistry you have off the air and all three of us get along great.
Q: Of course, all eyes were on Sunday Night this week. Your phone has probably been ringing off the hook with interview requests since then I can imagine.
A: Yea, it’s been a crazy couple of days. It’s certainly a moment that I’ll never forget. It’s not something you can prepare for in any way, shape, or form. It’s one thing if it happens at 3 in the afternoon and you’ve got a few hours to think about how you want to handle it during the telecast that night. We weren’t even in a commercial break, we were on the air when I found out. Bobby sits beside me and he nudged me with his elbow and I look towards him and he held up his cell phone…
Somebody had sent him a text and all it said was “Bin Laden is dead.” On the inside, I gasped. Meanwhile, we’re still on the air. I call a pitch and look at his phone again and I call another pitch and then I went on talkback to talk to the guys in the truck. We talked back and forth for ten seconds, “Is this true?” “Do you guys have this?” “Do you know this is true for sure?” And pausing to call a pitch every now and then and not let the game get away from us. We went back and forth for maybe 45 seconds. There were two outs when all of this was happening and they said to me, yes we can confirm it. They kind of gave me a general, “say something like this.” When we did the third out, we’re not going to go to break, we’re going to stay here and come on for 15 seconds of what’s going on, then we’ll go to break.
When we came back from break is when the crowd started to find out, because everything travels lightning quick these days and that’s when the USA! USA! chant started going. It was a surreal moment, I don’t know what I would have anticipated, what the reaction would have been like in the ballpark. At the moment it was happening, it didn’t occur to me, there are 45,000 people here, this is the largest gathering of Americans anywhere right now. I didn’t realize that until Mike Tirico sent me a text. In a sense, where we were became a small part of the story.
But the whole thing from Bobby nudging me to USA! USA! was four or five minutes, tops. And, we’re on the air doing a baseball game, which in the grand scheme of things is inconsequential.
Q: What were your thoughts in getting this information and coming to the camera to deliver such a powerful news story?
A: It was all happening while I was waiting for the third out to happen. That was nerve wracking because all of your mental energy is on “what do I say?” What I decided to do, which is what I always do if I’m not 100% sure or confident, is to play it safe. The first statement is very straight-forward. ABC News is reporting, etc. It was just to get the first bit of information out. I was nervous, just wanted to play it safe and get it right and say nothing that could be misconstrued as inaccurate or inflammatory and just say, “here’s what we know.” Later in the game we revisited it here and there as we found out more. I’ve got to believe once we gave the initial news, a lot of people left our ballgame.
Q: This moment has been compared to times like Jim McKay at Munich or Howard Cosell breaking John Lennon’s death as one of those moments where sports mixed with real life. Have you reflected on that the last couple days at all and the gravity of that moment?
A: I have a little bit. I don’t think I was part of the story and I just happened to tell you what the story is. The Jim McKay moment especially to me is some of the most phenomenal broadcasting that has ever been done. I just played it very safe and if I can do it again I might try to change a thing or two and reflect a little more and bring a little more context. I wanted to leave the heavy lifting to the experts and my job was just to be the traffic cop and tell you where to go. I decided to play it safely as I could.
Q: Perhaps that’s a natural place to go with your style. You aren’t bombastic like Gus Johnson, but more of the straight forward classic play by play guy. Is that your style of broadcasting and personality coming out?
A: It is, I guess it’s me. I have a tremendous amount of respect for all play by play guys and we all have to be true to our own personalities. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong. My style is more low key and like the point guard. It’s my job to get the ball to Bobby or whoever the case may be. It’s my personality and I’ve always believed that the game is the thing. I’m not the show, the game is the show. It’s my job to bring as much as I can out of the analysts, or enhance replays and graphics, so I just look at myself as one spoke on a pretty big wheel.
Thanks to Dan and the ESPN PR staff for helping us set up this Q&A on short notice. Even if another world-changing event doesn’t happen this week, you can still watch Sunday Night Baseball with Dan, Bobby Valentine, and Orel Hershiser at the mics.