For four decades, he was America’s sports host. Under the brightest lights and on the broadest of platforms, he assessed topics fluently, whether they were tragic, controversial or joyous.
With the suspension of games and the country immobilized by a self-imposed paralysis, who else to check in with, other than Bob Costas!
“I’m not the statesman of sports. My guess is pretty much as good as anyone’s,” Bob said as we began our conversation about the pandemic which has shut down almost every stadium and arena in America.
Can you think of anything in the past that comes close?
There’s no true parallel. The earthquake during the 1989 World Series was traumatic and tragic. But there was an endpoint. Commissioner Fay Vincent resumed the Series ten days later.
In 2001, 9/11 changed the way America lived. Homeland security tightened everyday procedures. It also changed America’s view of the world. Baseball had a hand, a small hand, in America getting back to normal. There was Mike Piazza’s game winning homer when baseball returned to New York, President George W. Bush walking out to the mound at Yankee Stadium in game #3 of the World Series and throwing a strike. The crowd cheered ‘U.S.A’ and the event uplifted the country. Football returned. There was an NBA and NHL season. Sports continued.
In World War II, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt suggested to baseball commissioner Kennesaw Landis that Major League Baseball continue. Even if the quality of play dropped, there was baseball. The 4F guys remained. Players who would otherwise be in the Minor Leagues played in the Big Leagues. In 1918, the season was cut short due to the Spanish flu and World War I. The World Series was played in early September. But a champion was determined. (Red Sox over Cubs, 4 -2)
As for the Covid-19 pandemic, there are no true comparisons because there’s no end on the horizon. We don’t know the end point. It’s ongoing. We sit and wait.
Under these conditions, with no games, if you had to do a three-hour daily radio/TV sports show, Monday to Friday, how would you fill the time? You did national talk radio in the past.
I’m glad I don’t have to think about it. When I did radio talk, it was a generation ago. The show was once a week for two hours. We had bold faced names as guests. To do it five days a week is an extraordinary challenge even when games are being played. To find meaningful new topics now and do so every day is difficult and most daily shows go for three hours. How many times can you revisit classic debates like the greatest trade, the worst trade, who’s the best ever at this or that? You’re eventually exhausted of ideas. Maybe as a matter of principal, I would step aside. I can’t figure it out. If you can, you’re welcome to do it.
Go back to some classic revisit shows you hosted.
On that Sunday night national radio show I did, we had Red Barber’s call of Bobby Thomson’s shot heard ‘round the world.’ Russ Hodges’ call is famous. It was 1991, the 40th anniversary of the game. Red Barber’s Dodgers call had not been heard since that day, October 3, 1951. So we were able to unearth something new. We also had Gordon McLendon’s call. He did it on the Liberty Network. In a modest way, we broke new ground.
When MLB Network went on the air on January 1, 2009, the very first show was the Don Larsen perfect game in the 1956 World Series. To that point, it had not been seen since it aired live. We had Larsen and his catcher Yogi Berra with us in the studio.
In 2010, during the 50th anniversary of game #7 of the 1960 World Series, Pirates over the Yankees, we showed it in a Pittsburgh theater and had game participants with us like Bill Virdon and Dick Groat. Fans were cheering and booing. We couldn’t get Bill Mazeroski who hit the dramatic Series winning homer in the 9th. He was ill and couldn’t make it.
Not much earlier, a recording of the game was found in kinescope form. It was taped for Bing Crosby who owned a piece of the Pirates at the time. Now there’s talk of re-airing it again, ‘60 years since 1960.’
But eventually the cupboard goes bare. You can’t count on these classics indefinitely.
Where can networks head in the fall if the suspension of play continues?
I don’t envy the networks and don’t have any brilliant ideas. The archival material might be a temporary approach. But the networks can’t be unmindful of what’s consuming viewers. Yes, sports are relatively unimportant in all this. But when fans put on ESPN or sports elsewhere, they want an escape. They’re not looking for more COVID-19 coverage. They’re saying, ‘Give me some entertainment.’
If you can interview someone about this crisis, who would it be?
President Trump makes himself available to safe places like Fox where he’s tossed soft balls. But I would be far from the first person in line to do that interview even if he made himself available.
You’ve done interviews with personalities and dignitaries outside sports.
Yes, when I hosted Later in the late 80s and early 90s, only 5% or so of the show was sports.
I did interview Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama during Olympics programming, where the setting was natural. When I did pre-game shows at Super Bowls and we had the president, I threw it to NBC News. On a Fiesta Bowl, Penn State-Miami, (1987, #2 Penn State beat #1 Miami), I did an interview with President Ronald Reagan by satellite.
When games return, how will the public respond?
They will watch games on television immediately, like the first meal after a famine.
TV won’t be a problem. But even after someone credible sounds the all-clear which won’t likely happen real soon, many, many fans will be wary of large gatherings. It will be a while before full numbers attend events whether it’s going to the movies or sports.
When baseball returns, how will fans greet the Astros?
There will be resentment. Whenever baseball with fans returns, they will be booed on the road.
How do you assess Commissioner Rob Manfred’s handling of the Astros scandal?
Manfred got a bad rap. People might not understand that to begin with, the $5 million fine imposed on (owner) Jim Crane is the maximum allowed.
Let me share some points.
1) Like a prosecutor, Manfred had to make a deal. If he had his druthers, he would have sanctioned the players too. But he had to deal with the Players Association and he needed information from the players involved. That was the trade-off.
2) The guilty players will suffer from a tarnished reputation.
3) Most importantly, a scheme like this couldn’t have been pulled off without the coaches and managers being aware of it. A.J. Hinch (ex-Houston manager) acknowledges that he was aware of it and says that he disapproved of it. Still, he didn’t order the cheating stopped. Hinch and Alex Cora (ex-Astros coach and Red Sox manager) are suspended for a year and have iffy futures in the game. So even if players still think they could get away with doing something like this in the future, no coach or manager would risk the fate of Hinch, Cora or Carlos Beltran by looking the other way.
4) The CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) negotiation is coming up and penalties for this sort of cheating can now be codified. Players on opposing teams were victims so they’re unlikely to oppose penalties.
The mistake that Manfred made was how he responded to the suggestion that the Astros’ championship trophy be taken away. He said he didn’t think “a piece of metal really matters.” He later said he wished he had phrased that differently.
Overall, I think that Manfred did well in this situation. When I expressed that view, some said I was a houseman for baseball. ‘Oh, he (Costas) works for the MLB Network.’
Well, if that was the case, I waited until pretty late in the game to start being a houseman. Whether it was the IOC, the NBA, MLB or the NFL, I’ve always had an independent point of view. I try to express myself in a fair and measured way but I have never read from a network script. It’s one reason I’m no longer at NBC.