If you’ve watched sports in the last 25 years, you know who Bob Costas is. Bob sits down with Will to talk about the place of baseball in the American psyche, from Jackie Robinson to Mickey Mantle to Barry Bonds. Costas has a unique perspective reaching from coming up with the classic Cardinals and Yankees to today’s global era. Join us for a special BPR with one of the biggest names in sports, Bob Costas.
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Will Carroll: Welcome back, once again, to a special edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. You know, we often say somebody doesn’t need an introduction, but if Bob Costas needs an introduction to any of our listeners, you really need to just find a new hobby. Bob was gracious enough to take some time out of his day-Bob, thanks for the time.
Bob Costas: Hi Will, how are you?
WC: I’m doing great. The first thing I want to get to: we’re talking the day after the US presidential election. A lot of thoughts went back to Martin Luther King, of course, but my thoughts went to Jackie Robinson. Do we give him enough credit for what he did?
BC: Well, I think because of various milestones-60th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier, at least the modern color barrier, coming up a year ago, and the retiring of number 42, I think in a general sense most Americans, young and old, have a general appreciation of what he did, and what sort of character he had. On the other hand, I think there are some people that don’t really appreciate his personal qualities. They understand the historic achievement, but they don’t understand the combination of restraint and passion that he had. His passion was focused, his intent to be a person of significance was always there throughout his life, not just as a player, but post-playing career. But at the same time, it was coupled with a certain, almost traditional sense of dignity. I found those same dual qualities in Arthur Ashe, and in some other people that I’ve admired-a combination of a kind of traditional values, and yet, a progressive agenda. And I think that if you have that appreciation of Robinson, then you have a deeper understanding of him.
WC: A traditionalist’s values with a progressive spirit-that could be used to describe you and your take on baseball. Why does baseball still have such a hold on the American psyche?
BC: Well, I think the game obviously goes back generations and generations; it’s more dependent upon history and generational comparisons than other sports are. And even though sometimes this can be overdone, and it can become a cliché, and almost a parody of itself, there’s no doubt that there’s a different connection to baseball that many of its fans feel, than to other sports. Other sports go more on, I think, the spectacle of it, the excitement of the moment, and baseball occasionally has that, but what baseball has-day in, day out-is a kind of connection and a certain fondness that its fans, at least traditionally, have felt. And some of that fondness has to do with, you know, ‘I remember the first time I went to a game with my mom or my dad, or shared this experience with my friends.’ It’s not to say that other sports don’t have that, but I think it’s just more central to baseball’s appeal than it is to other sports.
And then, of course, leaving those kinds of metaphorical aspects of it aside, just day-to-day, it’s interesting! New stars emerge, crazy things happen, Tampa Bay comes up from out of nowhere, the teams you expect to do well sometimes flop, the teams that come out of nowhere do their thing. And one thing about baseball, and it seems obvious, but it’s worth repeating: if a basketball game was on the line, and the Chicago Bulls were in it, Michael Jordan was going to get the ball. At the end of a Super Bowl, if Joe Montana’s got the ball, A), he’s going to have it, and B), he’s going to be looking for Jerry Rice. Whereas with baseball, yeah, it might be Manny Ramirez‘ time at bat, it might be A-Rod’s time at bat. On the other hand, baseball is just dotted with your Cabreras and your Weisses and your Bucky Dents. It was just their turn at bat-Craig Counsell-it was just their turn at bat, and who’s to say that in a given baseball game, that a guy who hits .215 can’t go 4-for-4, and a guy who wins the Triple Crown can’t go 0-for-5 and ground into double plays and strike out with the bases loaded? It’s kind of the nature-there’s failure in all sports, but the best players can assert themselves more readily on a consistent basis than they do in baseball. That kind of, almost capriciousness, of a given baseball game, I think is interesting.
WC: You seem to have a fondness for flawed heroes. When you look back at some of the things you’ve talked about or written about-Mickey Mantle, one of your favorite players growing up. Kirby Puckett. What’s your attraction to them?
BC: Well, at the time, there wasn’t any ambivalence when I was first drawn to each of them. I’m drawn to Mickey Mantle as a kid. When I first started following baseball, the Dodgers and Giants had just left New York, the Mets didn’t exist yet. The Yankees were the only team, they were baseball’s best team, Mantle was one of its greatest stars. So it was natural that I, like millions of other kids of that generation, attached ourselves to him. And it was only really after his career ended that we learned of his flaws, and by that time I’m an adult, and I think I have enough perspective to put those things into some kind of context and have some empathy for him as a human being. When I first met Kirby Puckett, all I knew, just like all those fans in Minnesota and around the country knew, was that this was a close to unique player. He didn’t look like any other player, he had a distinctive style, and he always had a sunny and optimistic personality. He was friendly and outgoing. He made fans of so many people, especially kids who were drawn to him, and I think all of those qualities were true. They’re not rendered untrue by any difficulties he had subsequently in his life. He had a bad patch, there’s no question about that, and he was trying to put his life back together when it tragically ended, and he didn’t really have a chance to write a third chapter in his life. And I have the feeling, having been pretty close to him, that had he had the time to do it, he would’ve written better chapters to follow that rough patch had he lived a full life.
But to answer your question, when I first came to really like Kirby Puckett, I was doing the Baseball Game of the Week in the ’80s with Tony Kubek on NBC when Kirby broke in. My own son, who is now 22, was born early in Kirby’s career, and Kirby became his favorite player, and Kirby was always very warm and friendly to him. So it’s just a natural thing; you respond to people who are open and warm and gracious to you, and Kirby was like that to thousands of people.
WC: Do you feel like we’ve lost anything in knowing so much about these players? Not so much the players of the past, but today, we don’t have that same sort of… I don’t know what to call it, that “gentleman’s agreement,” that you let things go. Now we hear about Alex Rodriguez, certainly with Bonds; I remember following some of the home-run chase, and kids were as vehement against him as their parents, I think, just imitation-wise. And certainly the online influence, the TMZ’s of the sports world-has that taken away, or is that just part of the culture?
BC: Yeah, I think to some extent that has diminished things, and it is just part of the culture. There’s been a crossover, the whole mixture of entertainment and sports, and tabloid journalism and sports. But I think really there are two things that have more of an effect, in baseball in particular. It’s the fact that so many great players now move around because of free agency, or because of transactions that happen for economic rather than baseball reasons. I’ve always fully supported the players in that regard, going back to the days of Marvin Miller, but one of the consequences of it is that the bond between player and fan is lessened. And the other part is the steroid aspect. I think really, fans are more concerned with the effects of performance-enhancing drugs, or if players misbehave in some way that directly impacts their team, than they are with who’s dating who or who might have been in a bar or a strip club. I’m not saying that that latter part doesn’t have any effect at all, I just think that it’s really still the stuff that affects how fans perceive the game and their team that has more of an impact than personal behavior outside the ballpark does.
WC: Growing up-I know you were the same way-I would collect baseball cards. I wish I’d kept them, rather than sticking them in bike spokes.
BC: Right, we never thought of them as an investment.
WC: Exactly. We all grew up flipping them over and reading the stats, and being too young to understand them. With that being how so many of us were introduced to the game, why is there such a resistance to statistics among traditionalists?
BC: I think it’s not so much statistics, it’s what they think of as “newfangled” statistics. I have never been resistant in that way. I’m not as immersed in it as you are-I’m older than you are and I have a different orientation-but I remember when Bill James was cranking out the Baseball Abstract, almost on a mimeograph machine in Kansas, I was one of his early subscribers. I was one of the first people to put him on the radio, on KMOX radio in St. Louis. I found this stuff fascinating and enlightening, and to the extent that it was available in the 1980s, I used to try to work it in on the Baseball Game of the Week with Tony Kubek. I think that the traditionalists are maybe just more comfortable with the standard stats that were on the back of a baseball card, and they fear that computers and “egghead” baseball people will force out the kind of “classic baseball man” that’s part of the game’s lore, and its-I don’t want to say mythology, because I think a lot of it was true-but the classical scout, and the person whose baseball instincts lead him to a judgment. And I think that they fear that, at the most extreme, the Moneyball thing supersedes everything which had preceded it about baseball. And I think the reasonable approach is that what Baseball Prospectus, what Bill James, what all the “seamheads,” what Michael Lewis and Billy Beane and the Moneyball idea-what they do is that they add to our understanding of baseball. They don’t invalidate the classic truths; they can be blended with those truths to reach a better understanding.
WC: I completely agree. Bob, I know you just have a couple more minutes. Growing up, I always wanted to be a baseball player, but I realized my talent wasn’t going to take me there…
BC: Me, too.
WC: … (and) thought about being a broadcaster early on, never thought I could do it, but sometimes we take strange turns. But I always watched you and your show later, and one of my favorite things on that show was one time you had-I think it was a bet with Larry King. You had to interview somebody that he brought with no prep; you did the same to him. I remember-was it you that had to interview Meatloaf? I think it was him.
BC: He had to interview Meatloaf, and his problem was, he had to first determine who Meatloaf was.
BC: The deal was that the surprise guest would just walk out from around the corner, and he produced Mario Cuomo. And while I hadn’t prepared to interview Mario Cuomo, obviously I knew who he was-he was at that time the governor of New York. He sat down and there were, to me, obvious questions, and it went pretty smoothly. It was more interesting to watch King interview Meatloaf, because he literally did not know who he was. So he had to play a game of “What’s My Line?” just to determine who it was he was speaking with, which was actually kind of entertaining.
WC: Oh, it was amazing. And Meatloaf of course is a huge fantasy football guy.
BC: Yeah, and he’s a big baseball fan too.
WC: Yeah. Could you do something like that today? Is there anybody besides Larry King that could pull that off?
BC: Well, the thing about Larry is that he’s always said that he doesn’t need preparation to do an interview, that he would just ask whatever occurred to him. The example he always gave was, “I arrive at a fire along with Ted Koppel. Ted Koppel says to the fire chief, ‘What caused this fire?’ And I say to him, ‘What made you want to be a fireman?'” I guess those are two different ways to arrive at part of the story.
WC: Pretty amazing stuff. Last question for you, Bob. We’ve seen online journalism come up, we’ve seen the advent of TV and ESPN, kind of the death of the newspaper… who is the next Bob Costas?
BC: Well, I think probably, and I don’t mean to flatter myself because he’s so good, but probably he’s already arrived: Joe Buck, who I know gets occasional criticism, because everybody in the blog world and the internet world is going to get some criticism, much of it just inane abuse that has nothing to do with anything that a reasonable person would pay any attention to. But someone who understands broadcasting realizes how talented Joe Buck is and how he blends a somewhat younger perspective with the classic tools of a broadcaster that his dad had, that he learned from being around his dad. I think that Joe is probably the best guy under 40 working today.
WC: So it’s got to be something in the water in St. Louis, then.
BC: It doesn’t hurt! It doesn’t hurt. I went to the two best places: Syracuse, and then on to St. Louis. Those are the places that have been the cradle of sportscasters.
WC: Absolutely. Bob, thanks so much for the time. We hope we can do it again sometime.
BC: Will, thanks a lot. Always good to talk to you.