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Buster Olney Is One of the Lucky Ones

“He grew up on a dairy farm in Randolph Center, VT, but he and his family knew working on a farm would not exactly be his calling.”

Brady Farkas

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Buster Olney is one of the great ones. He’s been covering sports for more than 30 years. He’s written books. He’s been recognized by the Associated Press. He’s been nominated for a Sports Emmy. And in my opinion, someday he’ll win the Ford C. Frick Award, given out by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Olney’s impact on baseball coverage is undeniable. He’s among the most recognizable writers and reporters in the sport. His years of reporting, which have spanned both coasts, have earned him that reputation and the deserved respect that comes with it.

But Olney also knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

Not only because he’s covered multiple World Series or Derek Jeter in his prime every day, but because in a sports media world where the career path is often winding, he’s always known what the goal was—and he’s achieved it.

Olney knew he wanted to be a sportswriter long before he got to ESPN. The first seeds of his career path were planted at 15 years old. He grew up on a dairy farm in Randolph Center, VT, but he and his family knew working on a farm would not exactly be his calling.

“My folks figured out that I wasn’t going to be someone who was going to be adept at fixing tractors, so I left the family farm when I was 15 to go to boarding school,” Olney told BSM.

It was in his sophomore year at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Western Massachusetts that Olney met Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former New York Times writer, Red Smith. Olney said that meeting sparked his career.

“I got to sit next to him at dinner and I walked away from that conversation, just being so impressed by him and his knowledge and his love for sports, his love for writing,” said Olney. “And it was like, everything came together right in that 72-hour window after he left.”

Once that 72-hour window closed, Olney broke down the metaphorical door to his own life in journalism. Right before his graduation from Vanderbilt University, he began writing for the Nashville Banner in 1989. His next stops included the San Diego Union-Tribune for more than four years, the Baltimore Sun in 1995, and the New York Times in 1997.

He covered the Padres, Orioles, Mets, and four World Series appearances by the Yankees. He even did a season covering the New York Giants on the beat before he moved on to ESPN in 2003.

Just like other longtime writers who have worked at ESPN–Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullen, Tim Kurkjian, Mike Wilbon, and Dan LeBatard, among others—Olney has massively expanded his footprint beyond writing. 

Though penning news and columns is obviously still a huge part of what he does, he now wears many hats and has continued to evolve and diversify. He’s a Senior Writer for ESPN.com and covers Major League Baseball, and is entering his 12th year on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball telecasts. He has appeared regularly on SportsCenter, hosts the Baseball Tonight Podcast, and does hits across the network’s radio shows. 

The ability to be multi-dimensional is something that Olney welcomed long ago.

“I loved the idea that ESPN was presenting at that time of being able to do other things,” he said. “You could just see the whole industry was moving in that direction that you had to understand how to present yourself on radio or on television.”

But it wasn’t always an easy transition.

“There’s no doubt that the toughest transition for me was going into television because I’m, generally speaking, a shy person,” he said. “And to this day, I really don’t have any formal training when it comes to being on television.” 

He recalled a series of “disastrous” appearances on TV, but credits ESPN staffers for keeping him positive and giving him many needed repetitions on all of the network’s platforms, especially ESPN News, which helped him get more comfortable on-screen.

“It was like having a lot of opportunity for batting practice,” he said. 

That batting practice has paid off. I personally have been a part of three radio stations that have done regular weekly segments with Olney for the past seven years, and his delivery and information are as polished as any guest we have. 

You can tell he’s knowledgeable and passionate about the subject matter. Plus, he has the ability to generate a rapport with hosts. That’s why stations keep coming back to him. It’s why he’ll be a staple of my baseball coverage for as long he wants to be.

As we know in radio and television, it’s not just the information, it’s also about being entertaining and about the way you present that information. Olney has all the stories that go with a 30-year career.

He beams through the phone when telling me about a front-page story that he wrote at the New York Times in 1999 that I had no idea about. Former journeyman reliever Jason Grimsley once broke into the umpires room as a member of the 1994 Indians to steal back Albert Belle’s corked bat! 

 “Well, lo and behold, I found out years later from Jason that (former MLB Commissioner) Bud Selig had actually called him into his office and they threatened to suspend him and kick him out of baseball right after that happened in 1994,” Olney said. “But as we were going through the process of working on this story and trying to find out if Jason was going to be suspended if he talked out loud about it, Bud Selig, to his great credit, when, an intermediary for me asked him about this, he goes, you know what? That’s a story that should be told—and he’s right. It was a great baseball story.”

He also discussed being there in person the night the Yankees dynasty ended after they suffered a loss to the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the World Series in 2001. Luis Gonzales singled off Mariano Rivera and the dynasty was history.

“That was a game where there was so much going on because it was right after 9/11, it was so much emotion,” he said. “It was really the only time in my lifetime—or in your lifetime—that fans were actually rooting for the Yankees because of what happened on 9/11. And you knew when that hit dropped, not only did the Yankees lose that World Series, but it was the end of that era of Yankee players and they’ve never been the same. To this day, they’re the last team to repeat as World Series champions.”

He has more stories, from playing pickup basketball with Brad Ausmus, Trevor Hoffman, and Bruce Bochy, to former Padres player Bip Roberts being angry with him for something he wrote, to how Cal Ripken Jr. wasn’t a fan of his work because he criticized Ripken Jr. for trying to keep his “Ironman” streak alive when it wasn’t best for the team.

But the one story I finally heard for the first time?

I had to know where the nickname “Buster” came from.

”So two days before I was born, my great grandfather’s name was Captain Bassett,” said Olney, whose real first name is Robert. “He passed away, and I was born, and my mom was feeling sad about Captain Bassett and happy about me. And she recalled that Captain Bassett always referred to little kids as Buster because he couldn’t remember their names. And so my mom from the first day I was born called me Buster. And that’s what I’ve been called ever since other than the first day of school when they would call roll and they would call Robert Olney.”

So that solves that mystery.

As Opening Day 2022 arrives, the next mysteries center around who will be the best teams and breakout stars of this season. And as we figure out the answers, Buster Olney will be writing and reporting about them, just like he always has. Just like he’s always wanted.

Barrett Blogs

BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

Jason Barrett

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: What Does The Return of Bob Iger Mean to ESPN?

Demetri Ravanos

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Demetri Ravanos has questions about Disney going back to the future with Bob Iger. This entire episode of Media Noise is all about what the change at the top of the Walt Disney Company indicates about the future of ESPN.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: What Is Realistic For FOX at the World Cup?

Demetri Ravanos

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On this special holiday edition of Media Noise, Demetri Ravanos dives into the controversy and criticism surrounding FOX’s coverage of the World Cup in Qatar.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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