If it was not for a lengthy line at the student Gazette office in 1985, Dan Shulman may have had an entirely different voice. Instead of the student newspaper, Shulman walked into CHRW Radio and toward what would soon become an award-winning broadcasting career.
Today, Shulman, BSc’89 (Actuarial Sciences), is an ESPN play-by-play announcer for Major League Baseball and NCAA Men’s College Basketball. Since 2011, he has been the voice of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. On top of his already busy schedule, Shulman joined the Sportsnet broadcast team where he will call 30 Toronto Blue Jays games in 2016 and 2017.
Prior to ESPN, the Toronto-born Shulman, 49, worked for CTV at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Norway and called the 1994 FIFA World Basketball Championship in Toronto. He began play-by-play duties for the Blue Jays on TSN (1995-2001) with former Blue Jay Buck Martinez, who is once again his broadcast partner on Sportsnet this year. He also covered the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies as part of the network’s NBA package.
Shulman is the first two-time winner of the Sports Media Canada Broadcaster of the Year award (2000 and 2007). The National Sports Media Association named him National Sportscaster of the Year in 2011.
Western News reporter Paul Mayne met up with Shulman prior to a recent Blue Jays game to chat about his career and his time at Western.
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Go back to the late 1980s. What do you remember most about campus?
My career came out of Western – even though I did not realize that at the time. I had gone there knowing a number of people from high school. A lot of my circle was also going to Western; my roommate was from my high school. It wasn’t a culture shock. I remember really enjoying it. It was just kind of the next stage of life.
My parents instilled in me and my sisters to do some extracurricular stuff. I wanted to write for the Gazette. Maybe the first or second day of Frosh Week I went into the UCC (University Community Centre) and the line-up for the Gazette was out the door and down the hall. I said, ‘Well, screw this.’ I looked across the hall and it said ‘Radio Western CHRW.’
Nobody had ever said to me that I had a nice voice or anything. So I knocked on the door. I said, ‘Do you guys do sports?’ They said, ‘Yep, we do sports.’ I said, ‘You need volunteers?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I would like to volunteer.’ They said, ‘You want to come to Windsor Saturday for a football game?’
And that’s how it started.
It was one of the first Saturdays in September. In Windsor, we were up on some portable scaffolding kind of thing. I did half of the game. Me and another guy split it with whoever the regular guy was and I got the bug. Very quickly I started doing play-by-play for basketball and football games. I had a talk show called From the Cheap Seats.
It was not a career; it was just for fun. I didn’t even do CHRW my fourth year. I stopped to concentrate on my marks and exams. For three years, I don’t think I ever once thought I’m going to turn this into a career.
So what changed?
I got into the real world. I was an Actuarial Sciences major and was going to be an actuary. I graduated and worked for about six months before I switched. I wasn’t enjoying being an actuary as much as I thought. So I made a deal with my parents; I said give me two years and let me try this – if this doesn’t work out then I’ll go back to Western and go to business school. They didn’t know many people who said they wanted to get into radio. They were nervous, but they were fine.
When did you think you could do this for a living’?
My first job was in Barrie at CKBB and for about the first three months I was an actuary Monday to Friday and did weekend radio for $6 an hour. Then somebody went on maternity leave and I got a full-time job. I knew then I loved it. Emotionally, I was hooked.
You call games on both radio and TV. These are two different mediums that require different approaches. Is there one you lean towards more than the other?
I love both. I do television for baseball. ESPN doesn’t have TV rights for the playoffs, so I do radio for them. I love both, but there’s something about baseball on the radio that is unique and reminds me of my childhood a bit, before every game was on TV. I’m lucky to do both, but they are different. In radio, you have to constantly give the score and the inning, the baserunners, the outs, the count, you know TV handles a lot of that.
You’ve been calling games in one way or another for almost 25 years now and have, most definitely, had your fair share of memorable games to be a part of. Is there one that stands out for you?
When I get asked about the most memorable game, last year’s Game 5 (Blue Jays vs. Rangers) is right there. Craziest inning I’ve ever seen. Part of it is, because I’m from here, I understood, better than an announcer that wasn’t from here, the mentality of the city, the emotion of the top half of the inning and the emotion of the bottom half of the inning, what it meant to people to win that series. There is a whole generation of people here who weren’t there for 1992 and 1993 and there hasn’t been a lot of success in this town in sports. Doing Game 5, without question, will always be one of the most memorable games I’ve done.
And people still tend to bring up the fact you announced the death of Osama Bin Laden on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball back in 2011. That had to be an odd moment for a sportscaster.
It was more happenstance that I happened to be on the air when that story broke. They don’t teach you how to handle something like that in the play-by-play handbook. I will freely admit, of however many thousands of games I’ve done, when that happened that was the most nervous I’ve ever been because I’m not trained to do that. I played it very, very safe. If it were to happen again perhaps I would have done some things differently, but it’s not going to happen again. That was the biggest story in the world; it was surreal because there was a game going on, too. You have an obligation to call the game and you have an obligation to the news, so you’re juggling.
When you’re calling a game, be it radio or TV, basketball or baseball, who are you talking to? There are millions listening in or watching, but it can be hard to talk to the masses. What’s your approach?
I don’t personalize it that much, especially on radio, because it’s an intimate medium, especially if you’re in a car. Sometimes when I’m on the radio I think about people driving. I’ll get messages from friends or acquaintances saying, ‘I just got to the cottage and you took me the whole way there.’ Once in a while I might think of one of my kids if they’re listening. I’m aware there are a lot of people out there but I’ve always tried to do a broadcast and make it sound casual and conversational, as if we are just sitting at a bar watching the game. That’s the style I try to maintain.
When you think of baseball announcers you think of names like Jack Buck (Cardinals), Harry Carry (Cubs), Ernie Harwell (Tigers) and Vin Scully (Dodgers), you think Broadcasting 101. With Scully retiring at the end of this season, is the era of the classic baseball announcer coming to an end?
There was a generation of announcers – Harry Caray, Harry Kalas with the Phillies, Ernie Harwell, Jack Buck, David Niehaus for Seattle, Vin, who were there forever. There has been a lot of turnover now and with him retiring at the end of the year I think it’s the end of an era, there’s no question. He’s done it 67 years and he’s done it better than it has ever been done. I would say a lot of the guys you mentioned they’re the Mount Rushmore guys of baseball.
You focus your time calling baseball and basketball, as opposed to focusing in on just one. You like this diversity?
I consider myself a two-sport guy. A lot of people know me just for baseball, a lot know me just for basketball, depending on what they follow. Those are the two sports I follow the closest and I’m very happy doing those sports. I’ve had opportunities to branch out into other sports, but I’m very content where I am.
And where you are now is back home more often. As a Torontonian is it hard to separate the fan from your job?
I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t think it wasn’t a little bit different. Having been born here, raised here and lived here my whole life, I think I skew towards the neutral end of the spectrum, but sure, there’s a little extra going on when I’m doing one of these games.
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QUICK HITS WITH DAN SHULMAN
Favourite broadcaster growing up: Tom Cheek, the original ‘Voice of the Blue Jays.’
Favourite ballpark to call a game: Either AT&T Park in San Francisco or Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Favourite athlete you’ve interviewed: NHL Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler. As a kid, he was my idol. Whoever your hero was as a kid is always your hero. When I got to The Fan, I got the chance to interview him a couple times.
Favourite athlete, past or present, you haven’t interviewed: If from any point in time, it would be Jackie Robinson. Living athlete? I’ve done all the baseball player, so I will say NBA MVP Stephen Curry. Actually no, Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers, because I’m a big Packers fan.
You get to start a baseball team. Do you start with an arm or bat? And who do you pick? I definitely go with a bat because they are more likely to stay healthy over their career than an arm. I don’t know how you don’t pick (Washington Nationals outfielder) Bryce Harper.
Favourite Western memory/hangout: Honestly, it was the time I spent at CHRW. For three years, I was in that place more than when I was just working. It became a hangout, more than the classroom sometimes. It turned into a huge part of my life, obviously.