Despite the recent ascendance of the National Football League and NASCAR, Bob Costas still believes that nothing comes close to baseball for overall significance in American culture and history.
“I appreciate the history and tradition of the game and I believe baseball is more reliant on history and tradition and records than other sports,” said the 12-time Emmy-winning sportscaster in a telephone interview. “All of us, regardless of age, have a particular memory of the baseball of our youth, so I hope I’m mindful of that. I hope I can convey that and I think many people, especially of my generation, have connected with that.”
Costas, who will be the featured speaker at United Jewish Community of MetroWest NJ’s Main Event on Tuesday, March 29, offered a preview of his remarks.
“I think the audience mostly wants to be entertained, to hear humorous stories. So what I generally do is a mixture of things I’ve encountered on broadcasts or people I’ve known or covered. And then when you open it up to questions and answers, the audience can dictate where they want it to go.
“Maybe someone wants to talk about something nostalgic, maybe another wants to talk about what’s in the paper or on-line today,” he said. “If this talk had happened in January, everyone is thinking about football playoffs; in late March I bet there’ll be a lot of questions about the NCAA” basketball tournament.
Costas wanted to emphasize that he’s not just a one-trick pony, however.
“Sometimes people will latch on to one facet and make that the definition, and that’s never exactly true; you hope you’re not stereotyped as any one thing,” said Costas, who is also widely recognized for his work covering the Olympics. “But none of it bothers me. It sounds corny but I’ve been so lucky to have the kind of assignments I’ve had and do the things that I’ve done. I’ve always prided myself on being versatile, being able to contribute to the coverage of almost any sport. I’m certainly not an expert on golf or horse racing — and I never present myself as that — but I can host the U.S. Open and provide an overview and set a stage and then hand it off to the people who are the experts.”
Mindful of his March 29 audience and some of the questions he could expect regarding Jewish athletes, Costas said he was looking forward to watching Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, the popular documentary making the rounds at film festivals (including an April 3 screening by the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange).
Author of Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case for Baseball — a 2000 treatise on the problems facing the game and some possible solutions — Costas praised author Jane Leavy for her biographies of Sandy Koufax and, most recently, Mickey Mantle.
An unabashed Mantle devotee and student of his career — he delivered the eulogy at the superstar’s funeral in 1995 — Costas said Leavy’s book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Innocence, “now stands, warts and all, as the definitive” assessment of the Yankees legend.
Although more people are following sports than ever before, thanks to 24/7 cable and radio outlets and the Internet, Costas thinks some of the passion is missing, especially from younger fans.
“Maybe some of the romance and the fondness — and you don’t hear a word like ‘fondness’ attached to sports very much anymore — has probably diminished,” he said. “You had elements of that feeling that people had about players in the ’50s and ’60s surrounding Cal Ripken when he broke Lou Gehrig’s record” for consecutive games.
“People suspended disbelief for awhile in 1998, but they were ignoring an elephant in the room when they did that,” added Costas, referring to the use of steroids by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and other superstars who turned out to have feet of clay. “But it actually spoke to how much people want to feel connected to baseball, not just excited by a given game or interested in a given competition, but connected to the game itself.”
For more on Costas, visit Kaplan's Korner.