In the bottom of the eighth inning of Sunday night’s baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets, televised nationally on ESPN, play-by-play announcer Dan Shulman was nudged by the elbow of analyst Bobby Valentine.
The score was 1-1 and Valentine was waving a cellphone in Shulman’s face.
“There was a text message,” Shulman said. “The text message said, ‘Bin Laden is dead.’ I gasped, this was out of the blue. Meanwhile, I’m on the air. I called a pitch, looked back at Bobby, called a pitch. It was surreal.”
It was also a moment for Shulman to define himself.
First he confirmed the news with the help of Mike McQuade, vice president of production, who was on-site.
Then Shulman told ESPN viewers, “ABC News is reporting that Osama bin Laden has been killed and a presidential news conference is upcoming momentarily.”
An inning later, after the Philadelphia crowd had begun chanting, “U-S-A, U-S-A,” as fans were receiving text messages, checking emails and waving cellphones, Shulman said, “It’s an odd feeling in the ballpark right now, to be perfectly honest with you at home.”
Shulman, a Canadian, is in his first year as the featured announcer on ESPN’s signature baseball broadcast. He replaced Hall of Fame announcer Jon Miller this season, and Shulman said he was aware of his citizenship and his place as a sports announcer and not a news broadcaster.
“What happened Sunday night is not in the play-by-play handbook,” Shulman said. “I’m talking to guys in the truck, finding out what they knew, whether they wanted me to say something. I’d talk to them for three, four seconds, come back, call a pitch, come back, call a pitch.
“I couldn’t have imagined having this situation and in my mind. I was very conscious of not wanting to say the wrong thing. If anything, it’s my nature to err on the side of less is more.
“And the pictures were pretty powerful.”
Those pictures were of the crowd in Philadelphia.
“I knew we had to report on the story in some way, shape or form,” McQuade said. “Once Dan reported the news, then it was sort of, ‘Let’s see where this goes.’ I think we were all surprised by the two story lines colliding, news like this and a feeling in a stadium where suddenly it seemed like all the phones were going off, everyone was looking at their PDAs. I took me right back to 2001. It gave me pause.”
Shulman said that at some point, he’s not sure exactly when, ESPN’s Mike Tirico, a prominent studio host, sent him a text pointing out that the crowd of about 45,000 was the largest gathering of Americans in a single place receiving the news together. “Mike pointed out that so many networks were going to show footage from the ballpark. That never occurred to me.”
After the game, which went into extra innings, Shulman said he thought about another play-by-play announcer who was on the air during a momentous news occasion.
It was 30 years ago last December that Howard Cosell, during a “Monday Night Football” game, announced the death of John Lennon.
“We have to say it. Remember, this is just a football game,” Cosell said. “No matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which in duty bound, we had to take.”
Said Shulman: “I know this. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and in my mind it was, ‘When in doubt, err on the side of caution.’ So maybe I was too understated. But we had the pictures, we had the fans, I could never have predicted a reaction like that, I was taken aback. And that’s what we did.”