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‘. . . You understood what an enormous moment it would be for the country.’

When Sunday Night Baseball helped share the news of Osama bin Laden's death 10 years ago, ESPN reporter Buster Olney found himself in unique circumstances. He recalls that emotional night for Front Row

EDITOR’S NOTE: On May 1, 2011, ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball was on the air amidst breaking news that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had been killed. Dan Shulman, who was calling the New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies SNB game at the time, announced the news to a national television audience. He described the atmosphere with fellow ESPN commentators Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine (watch the post-game video above). When the news circulated among fans in Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, the crowd began chanting “U-S-A!”

Buster Olney, who was just a month into his new SNB reporter role, recounts his experience below with a special essay for Front Row. Coincidentally, Olney will find himself at Citizens Bank Park this Sunday, May 2, nearly 10 years to the day, as the Phillies once again play host to their rivals, the Mets, on SNB (7 ET, ESPN, see sidebar below). Olney writes:

The 2011 Major League Baseball season was my first working as the field reporter on Sunday Night Baseball, and so yes, I was there in Philadelphia on the night of what is known in ESPN shorthand as “The bin Laden Game.”

But when Dan Shulman shared the breaking news on-air, I was on the New Jersey Turnpike, frantically turning my radio dial to get updates on the emotional news that the al-Qaida leader had been killed in a military raid.

Buster Olney
(Scott Clarke/ESPN Images)

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was the New York Yankees beat writer for The New York Times. A friend from my high school days, Frank Doyle, was among those killed at the World Trade Center, and because I lived and worked in the New York area, I had many friends who lost family members and loved ones. In the weeks that followed the attacks, first responders were honored daily at Yankee Stadium, well into the fall, as the Yankees played all the way through a Game 7 of the World Series.

When you would walk out of the Yankees’ clubhouse and into the hallway underneath the stands, you would pass the firemen and Port Authority officers and others, and you tried to imagine the grief they must have felt in those days.

The Yankees and Mets players did what that they could to provide some temporary relief, a few hours respite for those grieving, for those charged with sorting through the World Trade Center site, but that emotional balm could never heal the devastation.

So as the first flickers of information began to emerge, you understood what an enormous moment it would be for the country, for all of those sitting in Citizens Bank Park on May 1, 2011. But I was not among those. A month before, I had gotten a notice to report for jury duty at 8 a.m. on the morning of May 2, and so I asked the then-head of ESPN’s baseball broadcasts, Mike McQuade, what he wanted me to do.

I’ll never forget the October day that Brielle Saracini, the teenage daughter of one of the pilots of the hijacked planes, came to Yankee Stadium after an invitation from Derek Jeter. She beamed as the Yankees players tried to give her a few moments of joy. She would say, nearly a decade later, that the day standing next to the Yankees’ batting cage with Jeter was the best of her life.

So as the first flickers of information began to emerge, you understood what an enormous moment it would be for the country, for all of those sitting in Citizens Bank Park on May 1, 2011.

But I was not among those. A month before, I had gotten a notice to report for jury duty at 8 a.m. on the morning of May 2, and so I asked the then-head of ESPN’s baseball broadcasts, Mike McQuade, what he wanted me to do.

At that time, the SNB games started at 8 p.m., often lasting past midnight, and one way or another, I would need to make the 3-hour drive back to the New York area. Mike, a great boss, compromised for me in a conversation with then-game producer Tom Archer. He suggested that I remain at the ballpark through the sixth or seventh inning or so, participating in the pregame show and conducting the in-game interviews of the managers in the third and fourth innings before hitting the road.

We followed that plan, and as I listened to the radio broadcast of the game and the chants of “USA,” I wondered if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time – and maybe I could have added some reporting about the reaction of players and fans to the breaking news.

We followed that plan, and as I listened to the radio broadcast of the game and the chants of “USA,” I wondered if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time – and maybe I could have added some reporting about the reaction of players and fans to the breaking news.

But really, I don’t think I would’ve helped. ESPN was incredibly well-positioned to react, because of the professionalism of Dan Shulman, and because of the presence of Orel Hershiser, who had played in New York, and mostly because of the booth presence of Bobby Valentine; nobody in the sport could’ve been more deeply connected with that moment than Bobby.

He had been the manager of the New York Mets on 9/11. Valentine had devoted himself to the subsequent relief efforts – to the point of exhaustion, in the eyes of close friends in the Mets organization.

Also, he had once worked for former President George W. Bush when Valentine managed the Texas Rangers.

I’ve heard from others that Bobby was the first in our SNB group to get the word about bin Laden’s death, as he got text messages from friends who were in the know.

Bobby’s voice was an important one to have on our telecast that night, the perfect voice; it almost felt like more than a coincidence. When I heard the replay after getting home, I was proud of how well “Arch,” Dan, field reporter Wendi Nix, Orel, and Bobby handled an unexpected and world-changing event.

Ben Cafardo contributed to this post.

E60 Feature On 'The bin Laden Game' To Re-Air Edited On OTL Saturday; Mets at Phillies on SNB
Mets and Phillies fans reacted to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death during ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball game on May 1, 2011. (ESPN)

Programming notes:

  • Saturday morning’s edition of Outside the Lines (9 a.m. ET, ESPN) will include a re-airing of a segment from ESPN E60 recalling the May 1, 2011 Mets versus Phillies game during which the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death was made.
  • The Philadelphia Phillies and Rhys Hoskins host the New York Mets and Pete Alonso on this weekend’s edition of Sunday Night Baseball Presented by Taco Bell at 7 ET. The game airs on ESPN, ESPN App, ESPN Radio and ESPN Deportes. For more information, visit ESPN Press Room.

– Andy Hall and Katie Hughes

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