At 60, Costas remains at top of his game
MLB Network commentator's talent, love for baseball unmatched
Bob Costas turned 60 years old on March 22, a milestone that Costas the announcer would surely note with the proper amount of significance, plus a touch of irony. After all, Bob is as entertaining and enlightening as ever. He is in the prime of his career. Sixty?
Wasn't the great Curt Gowdy 60 when he was pushed out at NBC after a decade or more of working every big assignment? Sixty -- as it relates to Costas -- sounds like the word "playoffs" sounded to former football coach Jim Mora. In a 1985 article published in GQ magazine by veteran television critic Ron Powers, Powers quoted Costas, then 33. "First and foremost, I still want to become a great baseball play-by-play announcer," Costas said. "That has always been my greatest goal in sportscasting, and it always will be." The times changed. The money changed. The values and the goals have remained unchanged.
Bob Costas joined NBC Sports in 1980. I first met him in the spring of 1982, when I was an intern for NBC Sports' publicity director. When my boss fell ill and couldn't come in one day, I was given the task of taking newly signed baseball analyst Sal Bando around town for meetings, including lunch with his new booth partner, a young Bob Costas. Bando had just retired following a 16-year career highlighted by captaining the three-time World Series champion A's. Bando was a very good playe -- an even better lunch companion -- and he would go on and be the general manager of the Brewers for most of a decade. But Bob's best-remembered pairing with a former infielder wouldn't come until 1983, when NBC's Michael Weisman tabbed Costas to work with Tony Kubek.
"Baseball was his passion, and I thought baseball is what he did best," Weisman told me recently. "He came to NBC as a regional football announcer. What I remember was: He was star struck with Tony Kubek. He admired him, he learned from him. He modeled himself -- in terms of preparation and dealing with the media -- from Tony. Part of Bob's appreciation for Tony was that Kubek was a teammate of [Mickey] Mantle [Costas' boyhood hero]. Kubek had as much influence on Costas as anyone he has ever worked with."
"Michael said that?," Kubek said. "Bob always had a curious mind and wanted to learn things, but I never thought of myself as a mentor. If I helped Bob at all, it was in the beginning, when he had that boyish look and I took him into clubhouses with me and introduced him to baseball people he would need to know."
NBC had the esteemed duo of Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola as the primary voices on the Game of the Week. Costas and Kubek formed the second team.
"They became such a headache on years NBC had the LCS ... inevitably, Bob and Tony would receive accolades from the media with some stating that NBC's No. 2 team was actually superior," Weisman said. "They were so well received, and I hated that we were competing with ourselves."
It wasn't so hard on alternate years, when Weisman placed Costas on the pregame (and postgame) shows for the World Series. That's how Costas found himself awaiting the winning members of the 1986 World Series in the Red Sox clubhouse (he got out of there in plenty of time as events unfolded). That's also how he became a story in the 1988 World Series -- when his comments prior to Game 4, that the Dodgers were fielding one of the weakest-hitting teams in World Series history -- caused Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to use Costas' words as bulletin-board motivation material.
Costas handled that in a good-natured way, of course, befitting a broadcaster known best at the time as an irreverent quipster. When one of the Costas/Kubek games at Yankee Stadium got out of hand, Weisman remembers switching their audience to Vin Scully's game, and Scully -- as was his custom -- welcomed the new audience by telling them to "pull up a chair." In response, Costas said to the control room that he felt awful -- not having any idea his audience watching the Yankees game had been standing for seven innings.
And I've been there (call me an "infield fly" on the wall) almost from the beginning. I was with Bob at Wrigley Field for Game 2 of the 1989 NLCS, when Vin Scully was stricken with laryngitis and had lost his voice following Game 1 of the series. Costas -- who was working the ALCS between the A's and Blue Jays -- flew at the last minute from Toronto to Chicago to call the NLCS Game on the scheduled off-day for the ALCS. (I was already in-place, having prepared research and working the Giants-Cubs series).
I was with Bob in the 1990s, memorably at the 1996 ALCS Game 1 at Yankee Stadium between the Orioles and Yankees. His live call of the Derek Jeter home run --memorably snatched by fan Jeffrey Maier in the field of play -- was a testament to Costas' top-notch play-by-play.
"In right field ... Tarasco ... going back to the track ... to the wall ... and what happens here? He contends that a fan reaches up and touches it ... but Richie Garcia says no, it's a home run. ... Here comes Davey Johnson out to argue as Jeter comes across to tie the game ... the pitcher Benitez comes all the way out from the mound to argue ... the contention by Tarasco is that the ball is descending and the fan touches it. (After seeing the replay) He's right ... he's right!"
His ability to report a story, advance a story and place it in historical context is remarkable. Never have I been prouder of my association with Bob than I was after Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.
What made the telecast unique was Costas' live prose capturing each and every storyline perfectly, without benefit of rewrites and editing. It's one thing to say that the histories of these teams cannot be more different ... it's another to have put the Indians' dismal history into such clarity. And yes, I worked on the telecast and am very biased. But I'll be damned if the important points not only made the air -- but at the exact appropriate time, and with the exact phrasing needed.
It was important to note when the Indians were three outs away from winning a title that would be meaningful not only for this year's group of Cleveland players and their fans, but for the fans who attended games for years at decrepit Municipal Stadium, where the Indians played from 1932 to '93. It was important to mention that this elusive title would be for all the former Indians. And the names Bob used to illustrate -- Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner, Chico Salmon and others -- somehow resonated. The result was lyrical and a good listen then and now, 15 years later. Costas was impartial as befits a national broadcaster -- but as a fan of the game, he admitted on the air that his heart was racing.
When Charles Johnson came up in the bottom of the ninth against Jose Mesa, Costas talked about the history of the game connecting people and generations. Mesa and Johnson standing figuratively at the same places that Alexander and Lazzeri stood ... where Terry and Mazeroski stood ... and where, just two years after that, Terry and McCovey stood. Perfect. The play-by-play man set the stage for what was unfolding in front of him and heightened the dramatic moment.
Yes, Bob has that photographic memory, making him a quick study and an ace at preparation. Yes, Bob has that news sense and the ability to raise the level of any game he's working. But few realize his concentration levels are off the charts. I learned that when working with Bob in Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS at Shea Stadium between the Braves and Mets, a tense, dramatic 15-inning game that went 5 hours and 46 minutes and ended with Robin Ventura's "grand-slam single." It was cold, damp, and draining for players, fans, and broadcasters alike that day. Costas performed as if in an indoor studio, rested after a full night's sleep, allowing him to say as Ventura forced a Game 6, "Deep to right ... way back ... all the way back ... to Georgia!"
I was with Bob the following October, in Seattle, for Game 4 of the 2000 ALCS, when Roger Clemens pitched the most dominating postseason game ever. And it's not just my opinion; Clemens' Game Score -- devised by Bill James -- is the highest all-time, before or since. Clemens' 1-hit shutout, with 15 strikeouts and 1 walk, was historic. There was no way that Larsen or Gibson or Koufax could have been better on any fall day. After Al Martin's leadoff double in the seventh, I remember thinking that all the hit did was make Clemens angrier. Roger struck out seven of the last 10 batters faced after Martin's lone hit.
Who would have thought I could be so lucky to be in the booth with Bob Costas in yet another decade -- this time, June 2010 -- to see the most dominating performance by a pitcher making his Major League debut? Nationals Park was electric prior to Stephen Strasburg's first start, and for once, the performance exceeded the hype. Strasburg struck out 14 batters in seven innings -- scattering just four hits. The broadcast was enhanced when Bob weaved references he had asked me to research concerning the Major League debuts of pitchers like Koufax, Seaver, even Washington's greatest pitcher -- Walter Johnson -- whose debut came in 1907.
Forget Bob Costas turning 60 -- the fact that I've worked with Bob in a baseball booth in four different decades amazes me. I'm not alone in recognizing that -- in addition to his talents in the studio -- Bob is a great baseball play-by-play announcer.
Bob Costas sees things in baseball that take others time to see. For a man who's been accused of romanticizing the game's past, he's often been able to see into the game's future.
Bob wrote Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball in 2000. He wrote about realignment on Page 117: "The more logical step is a 15-15 breakdown. But that alignment was rejected out of hand by Major League Baseball prior to the 1998 season, when it expanded to 30 teams. It was unthinkable because you'd be forced to play at least one Interleague game on every day of the season that all 30 teams were in action. But this objection raises the question: So? And with 30 teams and Interleague Play, it's the only reasonable way to go."
Bob went on to write on Page 121, "And so, really, there is only one team that can and should move to the American League: the Houston Astros. They would go from the NL Central to the AL West. ... Baseball's supposed realignment crisis is solved -- not with radical realignment, but with one single franchise shifting leagues, leaving the NL and AL with three five-team divisions. All factors considered, this is the simplest, cleanest, and most logical move."
Legendary broadcaster Larry King wrote in his 1990 book Tell Me More that Costas "is as enthusiastic, as turned on by the game, when he's telling you about it in a hotel lobby as when he's announcing for network television. If Costas were sitting next to you in your living room describing the game to you, he'd be exactly as he is on TV." Although King stretches the point to say Bob would be exactly like he is in your living room as he is on TV. I can tell you he probably wouldn't be wearing makeup in your living room.
Al Michaels said it best when I asked him recently about Costas' baseball announcing. "Bob offers the perfect perspective. He understands every nuance, and is in sync with the game. He knows what makes the game special ... he absorbs the moment ... and knows how to articulate it. He's loved baseball since he was young, and the fact that baseball was his first love shows. Like me, I'm sure early in his career Bob wanted baseball to be his primary vehicle -- the fact that he has gotten back to it, on a semi-regular basis -- is great.
I keep gazing at a quote from Powers' 1985 article attributed to Costas. "If you asked me would I rather be the most famous TV host in the world," he said at the time, "or capture the poetry of a double off the Green Monster in Fenway Park -- there is no question that I would prefer the latter."
Happy birthday, Bob ... It's a well-deserved blessing that this season as you turn 60, you can do both -- being the most famous sports TV host in America, as well as continuing to capture the poetry of a ballgame at Fenway.
Elliott Kalb is the senior editorial director of MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.