ESPN announcer turns news anchor as bin Laden killed during ballgame

Matthew Arnold

Any American who was alive in 1980 will always be able to tell you where they were when they heard John Lennon had been assassinated.  For many, the man they heard it from was not a news anchor, like Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley, but rather from the iconic voice of ABC’s Monday Night Football, Howard Cosell.  Now, three decades later, Cosell may be better remembered for this than any sports moment he has ever called.

Sunday night, another sports announcer was pressed into the same service.  ESPN’s lead baseball broadcaster Dan Shulman was dispatched by the network to cover that evening’s edition of ESPN’s “Game of the Week,” America’s only national baseball telecast, which featured the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies.  What was, by all accounts, a broadcast of a thrilling rivalry game turned historic when one of Shulman’s color commentators, former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, passed the play-by-play announcer his cell phone, on which Valentine had a text message announcing the death of the world’s most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden.

Instead of rushing to air the news, Shulman used a break in the action during the eighth inning to tell his producer what he knew.  The broadcaster told USA Today that the network’s on-site staff confirmed the information and, in consultation with his superiors, gave him the opportunity to announce it.  At the conclusion of the eighth inning, the cameras cut to Shulman, Valentine, and fellow commentator Orel Hershiser in the broadcast booth, where Shulman announced, “ABC News is reporting that Osama bin Laden has been killed and a presidential news conference is upcoming momentarily.”  The network then went to commercial and returned for the ninth inning, where the scene began to turn surreal.

While no announcement of bin Laden’s death was made over the public address system, fans in Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Ballpark began to learn of the major breaking story unfolding during the game.  Many fans were equipped with Blackberries and other devices that could access the Internet, some were alerted by text messages, and still others learned of the story from Phillies announcer Tom McCarthy, who made a similar announcement on the radio broadcast of the game, which some fans had access to.

No matter how the fans learned of bin Laden’s demise, it clearly put them in the mood to celebrate.  As cheers of “U-S-A, U-S-A” rose through the ballpark, it became apparent the only people unaware of what was occurring were the players on the field, who had no means of learning this news on their own.  Obvious confusion could be seen on the face of Mets batter Daniel Murphy, who at one point called for time and seemed to ask the umpire if he knew what was going on.

Emotion reigned in the broadcast booth as well.  Valentine, who was the manager of the New York Mets back in 2001, was obviously overwhelmed by the news, saying little on the broadcast after the news was announced.  Shulman, a longtime ESPN broadcaster in his first year as the network’s lead announcer, did not fully comprehend the enormity of his or the game’s place in the narrative, until fellow ESPN announcer Mike Tirico informed him that the 45,000 people at the ballgame made it the biggest gathering of Americans at the time the news was announced.  Shulman told the Los Angeles Times that the most important thing to him was making sure the story was true before taking it to air and keeping a measured tone.  “I didn’t want to say the wrong thing,” Shulman told the Times, “in my mind, it was ‘when in doubt, err on the side of caution.’”

Erring on the side of caution led to the unique timing of the declaration that many noted, and is best described by legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.  During his Monday telecast, Scully talked about the reaction of the fans in Philadelphia, and, in his famous storytelling style, closed by saying “you know where they were in the game at that point? The ninth inning, the score tied 1 to 1. Nine one one. Nine eleven.”

“How about that?”