In a sense, Dan Shulman will be back in the same place Sunday night that he was on a Sunday night five years to the day earlier — on national TV, calling a baseball game for ESPN involving a New York team on the road against an old rival.
But Yankees at Red Sox in 2016 presumably will be just another night at the ballpark compared to Mets at Phillies in 2011, which was anything but.
“It still is and probably always will be as surreal a night as I will ever have on the air,” said Shulman, then and now ESPN’s play-by-play man for “Sunday Night Baseball.”
In 2011 it fell to Shulman to break the news to many Americans — and New Yorkers in particular — that Osama bin Laden had been killed by American forces.
Before the ninth inning of a game that was tied at 1, Shulman appeared on camera with analysts Bobby Valentine and Orel Hershiser and said:
“ABC News is reporting that Osama bin Laden has been killed, and a presidential news conference is upcoming momentarily. We ask all of you to go to your ABC stations for further details on that situation.”
Shulman kept things intentionally simple.
“To be honest I think I was just playing it super-safe,” he recalled Friday. “It’s not the kind of thing I was trained to do, so when in doubt, just keep it simple. I think later on we got into it more. Later on, with Bobby V. sitting there beside me, he helped me take it to new discussion places because he was able to provide so much context.
“I thought Bobby was incredibly good, incredibly strong that night. [He was the Mets manager at the time of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.] If I could do it again I might not play it so safe, but in the moment it was, ‘Holy, geez, this is big,’ and I just didn’t want to say the wrong thing, so I played it as carefully as I could.”
Shulman first learned the news from Valentine — or rather Valentine’s phone.
“I was just doing the game and unbeknownst to me, the people in the truck had already gotten wind of it,” he said. “The way I found out was Bobby V., who was sitting right beside me, he just nudged me with his elbow while we were on the air and showed me his phone and somebody had texted him.
“And all the text said was something like, ‘We got bin Laden,’ and Bobby showed it to me and then he looked at me with big, wide eyes and an arched eyebrow as if to say, ‘What do we do?’ Because we’re on the air at the time.
“I started going on talk-back and talking to the people in the truck and trying to get their help, because it was one of those situations where I didn’t have any information, because I’m calling a baseball game.”
The story at Citizens Bank Park quickly became the reaction to the story coming out of Pakistan.
“What I remember most about the night, to be honest with you, is the reaction of the crowd,” Shulman said.
He recalled that “everyone in the ballpark except the players knew what was going in. They found out eventually by asking a cameraman or security guard or something like that, but everybody else had a phone and the players obviously are engrossed in the game and they didn’t have their phones on.
“But the biggest part to me was just the reaction of the crowd. I got a text from [fellow ESPN play-by-play man] Mike Tirico that night and he said, ‘Don’t lose sight of the fact there is no place on Earth right now where more Americans are gathered in one place than in that ballpark.’
“It’s May, it’s Sunday night, it’s the only baseball game going on, so I think the crowd became the story that night, because it was such a release of emotion, 40,000 people, many of whom were from New York because the Mets were the visiting team. To me the crowd was the story and it was almost like dominoes falling.
“You could see from section to section to section people whispering to each other and holding up phones and some of them happened to have some form of USA jacket or jersey, just coincidentally, obviously.
“The way they were pointing to that and the way the chants broke out and the ‘U-S-A’ chants broke out, that’s the part that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
The Mets won, 2-1, in 14 innings, after which the camera again focused on the three men in the booth.
Shulman said, “You’re going to remember you were here forever.”
Valentine recalled managing the Mets in the first game after 9/11, on Sept. 21, still famous for Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run against the Braves.
“That was when the healing began for many people and we began to get back to a recovering state,” Valentine said. “Maybe tonight has helped so many who have suffered all these 10 years to continue their road to recovery. I hope so.”
ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” will premiere a feature on that game at 9 a.m. Sunday — it will be repeated on “E:60” on Tuesday — that includes interviews with Shulman, Valentine and others who were there, including David Wright of the Mets and Jimmy Rollins, then of the Phillies.
Five years later, Shulman was right about the game and that night being seared in 40,000-plus people’s memories.
“It was the biggest story in the world and we just happened to be live at the time and there happened to be 40,000 people in the stands finding out about it at the same time we did,” he said. “So it was a different kind of a night, that’s for sure. And I’ll never forget it.”