In The Diamond District: ESPN's Baseball Banterer Calls 'em Like He Sees 'em

by Michael Kane, NY Post

Dan Shulman, ASA Lifetime Member

4/24/12 - It’s all a big game to Dan Shulman. As ESPN’s play-by-play man on “Sunday Night Baseball,” the network’s spotlighted game of the week, the baritone broadcaster has the best seat in the ballpark for the new season of our national pastime. Two Sundays back, Shulman was with color-man duo Orel Hershiser and Terry Francona at Yankee Stadium for the Bombers’ blowout win over the Angels.

It’s the 45-year-old’s second season manning ESPN’s showcase baseball broadcast after working a decade’s worth of NBA and college hoops games for the network — most notably as the unflappable straight man for the antics of partner Dick Vitale.

Married but mostly living out of suitcases, the Canada native spoke to @work from a hotel room in Miami. In true sportscaster form, he gave a precise rundown of an accomplished career — from starting in radio for $6 an hour to announcing on national TV at a Mets game that Osama bin Laden had been killed by US forces.

Did you know early on that you wanted a career in sports broadcasting?

Not at all. I had a huge interest in sports growing up, but I went to school to be an actuary. I was good with numbers, and my dad suggested it was a good way to make money.

How did you start in broadcasting?

As an extracurricular thing at the campus radio station, and I wasn’t even intending to do that. I wanted to work at the newspaper, but at frosh week I went and the line was out the door. Across the hall was the radio station, so I went there instead, and six days later I was broadcasting the school’s football game.

What were the beginnings of your career?

I actually worked for a few months as an actuary. But I joke that I had my midlife crisis at 22 and decided to give radio a try. I made a deal with myself that I’d give it two years, and if nothing happened, I’d go back to business school. So I sent out 50 or 60 tapes to radio stations around Ontario. Mostly no response, but I got a job in Barrie, Ontario, as a weekend newscaster. It was a small station, and it paid $6 an hour. So for three months, I was an actuary from Monday to Friday and a newscaster on the weekend. But I knew radio was for me.

What was it like?

I read the news. There was about 30 seconds of sports at the end, but it was also a lot of reading the farm report, the ski conditions, obituaries. After six months, I landed a weekend job at a Toronto station doing sports. I went full-time at that larger Toronto station in 1991, doing sports roundups, scores and highlights, and eventually I landed a talk-show slot.

Did you dream of a job at ESPN?

No, I thought I had my career job. But in 1993, I finish my talk show at midnight and my phone rings. The man on the other end says, “My name is Al Jaffe. I work at ESPN, and we’re wondering if you’re interested in auditioning for our radio network.” I thought it was my college roommate playing a prank on me. So, I said, “That’s pretty good, Rob. You gave yourself an accent and everything.” And he just said, “I’m gonna say this one more time. My name is Al Jaffe . . . ”

How had he discovered you?

It’s the single biggest break I’d ever gotten, and it was an accident. Apparently he’d heard about a guy in Albany who was pretty good, and the frequency at his station was right near mine. He tuned into my station by accident, but apparently liked my show. By 2001, I was full-time at ESPN, calling basketball and baseball.

Were you nervous calling your first major league game?

It was the Toronto Blue Jays against Baltimore, and the Orioles’ Brady Anderson was leading off. I said to my color man off-air, “I just want him to hit a ground ball to second. Let’s just get one out of the way, easy.” He hits the first pitch of the game to deep center field, and it’s brilliantly sunny and I can’t see the ball. Devon White’s in center, so he’s gliding back, and I’m talking like it’s a routine catch. Meanwhile, the ball is 40 feet over the fence. My first pitch, and it’s a home run. And I blew the call.

During commercial breaks, do you talk about what you’re going to talk about?

Every break, I like 20 or 30 seconds on the headset with our producer about who’s coming up. Maybe it’s something about Yankee Stadium or if it’s the Angels, we’ve got an item about Albert Pujols. Should we put it in, should we wait? I call it the toy box. I’ll say, “What have you got left in your toy box?”

As play-by-play man, you’re also kind of orchestrating in the booth. How do you know when to prompt or cut off your color men?

I use a basketball analogy. I’m the point guard. I’m going to get the ball at the beginning of every play, but it’s my job to then make the best decision. Score, pass. I like to set up my analysts.

What kind of “cheat sheet” do you have in front of you?

For baseball, I have a two-sided scorecard. I have game notes that I’ve highlighted, stats. But I want to watch the game. I’m not big on, “Over the last 17 games, the Yankees have hit .210 with runners in scoring position” or something. My vision of a good broadcast is if it sounds like me, Orel and Terry are sitting at a bar or on someone’s couch just talking baseball.

Last May, you broke the news of the death of Osama bin Laden on national TV.

That’s not something you ever expect to do. It was a Mets game in Philadelphia, and my color man Bobby Valentine got a text on his phone: “Bin Laden’s been killed.” So I go on talk-back to the truck and say, “What’s going on?” They say, “We’re gathering information. Don’t say anything yet. Keep calling the game.” So I call a pitch, I call a pitch. Then they say, “Go ahead.” So I played it safe. I said here’s what we know and directed people to ABC to find out more.

Was it a surreal moment?

It grew more surreal moments later, because with BlackBerries and iPhones, within 30 seconds the whole ballpark was starting to find out about it. And I get a text from [ESPN colleague] Mike Tirico, who wrote, “Don’t forget, you’re at the largest gathering of Americans anywhere in the world right now.” We became part of the story, because the entire ballpark began chanting “USA! USA!”

What’s your advice for someone aspiring to follow in your footsteps?

If you think you’re not gonna work, get out now. Because so many people want to get into it, you’ve got to separate yourself somehow. It’s not just sitting around and talking sports. There’s a lot of meticulous work and preparation that goes into it.