Bob Costas big-league career touches all the sports bases
Sportscaster as busy as ever, even as he lands in Hall of Fame
SALISBURY, N.C. - It doesn't seem possible, especially in light of his thick head of hair and still-boyish appearance, but Bob Costas turned 60 in March.
America's most-accomplished sportscaster is beginning to get up there in age.
"When the miles are clicking by on the right side of the odometer, you don't pay any attention," Costas said Monday night, moments before being honored as a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. "When the number on the left side changes, it does get your attention a little bit.
"But I don't feel very much different than I did 20 years ago. It's all good."
Costas isn't slowing down at all, either, with a schedule befitting of a broadcaster in his prime.
"I would have thought I would have been" scaling back, Costas said, "but what has happened at NBC of late, along with my work with the Baseball Network, has re-energized me."
Costas began his career in 1976 hosting a radio sports talk show while calling games for Missouri basketball and the Spirits of St. Louis of the old American Basketball Association. This summer, he serves as host for a record ninth time for NBC's coverage of the London Summer Olympics.
That's along with his hosting duties this year with the network's Sunday Night Football, the Triple Crown horses races, the NHL Winter Classic and U.S. Open golf.
With the NBC Sports Network -- rebranded from the former Versus network in January -- he hosts the monthly "Costas Tonight," an examination of sports issues and interviews with leading newsmakers.
After an eight-year run in a variety of capacities at HBO, Costas left the cable network in 2009 to work for MLB Network. He handles play-by-play for 12 major league games a season as well as hosting "Studio 42 with Bob Costas" 15 to 20 times a year.
"I was reluctant to leave HBO, but I thought it would be my only chance to do baseball again," Costas said. "Some things have come along at a later stage that have surprised me.
"I still enjoy doing all the things I'm doing. It's not going to go on forever, but it's not going to end tomorrow, either."
The return to play-by-play is a blast from the past for Costas, who hadn't done it for more than a decade.
"His calls always have that rare blend of crisp play-by-play, storytelling and sharp opinions," said Dick Ebersol, former chairman of NBC Sports. "Bob is a unique person in the world of play-by-play and one of the best ever to call baseball."
Costas' competence in the smorgasbord of the sportscasting realm is unparalleled, now and perhaps in history. Nobody has handled such a variety of duties with his level of expertise.
"His incredibly diverse body of work makes him the most complete broadcaster in sports history," Ebersol said while presenting Costas for induction into the NSSA Hall of Fame. "He touches the bases in ways no broadcast talent ever has."
And, as Ebersol points out, Costas transcends the sports world, having crossed over to the real world from 1988-94 with the non-sports interview show "Later with Bob Costas" on NBC.
"As an interviewer, Bob has no peer in all of broadcasting," Ebersol said. "He is the best interviewer in television today -- not just sports television, but television."
Those skills were on display last November in Costas' celebrated telephone interview with Jerry Sandusky that was aired on NBC. Costas had prepared to interview in studio the attorney for the former Penn State assistant football's coach, who is accused of sex crimes with children. Twenty minutes before the interview was scheduled to begin, the attorney offered Sandusky via telephone.
"The interview was a marvel, the singular most riveting television of the year of any kind," Ebersol said. "Bob was able to conduct an interview the likes of which poor Sandusky didn't ever think he would reveal so much.
"The single most essential part of a good live interview is listening. Bob didn't say very much. What he had to say was after Sandusky had gone on time and time again with much further (information) than he ever imagined."
"I didn't know what to expect from that interview," Costas said. "I think I'd met Jerry once in the late '80s when I was there to talk to Joe Paterno, but I had no real acquaintance with him. I wasn't familiar with the way he speaks or how he expresses himself. He was on the telephone. I was looking into the camera. It was low-tech as could be. It could have been in black and white in 1958. It was stripped of all of the bells and whistles of modern television. In an odd way, it became more compelling and more revealing because of that."
When Costas asked if he had a sexual attraction to underage boys, Sandusky paused before replying, "I enjoy young people. I love to be around them. But no, I'm not sexually attracted to young boys."
"By the time I got around to that question, nothing would have surprised me in his responses," Costas said. "Because they were simultaneously halting, but also more revealing if only inadvertently, than you would think he would be advised to do.
"He wasn't helping his case, that's for sure. It seemed to me if I asked the questions the average person would be curious about, his answers would speak for themselves."
Costas' interview seems likely to be featured during Sandusky's trial, which began Monday at Bellafonte, Pa.
"I did what I was asked to do that night back in November," Costas said, "and the rest of it is up to the court system."
Costas' mere presence on a broadcast lends credibility to the event itself. If he were calling the National Tiddlywinks Championships, viewers would pay attention. Fortunately for him, he can be a little choosier than that these days.
"Bob stands out like very few ever have," Ebersol noted, "and nothing stands out like Bob's integrity."
Costas would beg off from being called an expert in many of the areas he covers, other than baseball.
"Baseball is by far my favorite sport," he said. "Always has been. I feel comfortable with football and basketball. Then there are others that NBC assigns me to, where it's my job to set the stage for the casual viewer.
"My knowledge of it has increased through the years, but I wouldn't begin to claim that I know horse racing like Tom Hammond or Randy Moss or Gary Stevens. I enjoy golf, but they use me on one event a year -- the U.S. Open. There's no way I'm around golf or understand it the way Dan Hicks or Johnny Miller does. That's their job. I never try to bleed over into their territory. I try to set the stage, ask the right questions, do my part and hand it off to them."
Costas served as NBC's late-night host for the 1988 Summer Games at Seoul. Since 1992 at Barcelona, he has been the network's prime-time host for every Olympiad.
"It's still a lot of fun," Costas said. "Every Olympics is different. I've probably enjoyed some more than others for a variety of reasons, but there's never one that wasn't significant, didn't yield something memorable."
London, Costas said, could be an easier scene than some -- and not only because of the language barrier is a trifle less than it was in Beijing.
"Americans are more familiar in a general sense with the history of England, with English pop culture, with The Royal Family, with the landmarks than they would have been with some of the other places in which we broadcast Olympic Games," Costas said. "That may help us. They may feel more connected from the beginning as opposed to having to explain to them what's interesting."
Still, Costas' job in part in an Olympics broadcast is introducing both sports and athletes to the viewing audience.
"If you took most of the events outside the context of the Olympics and ran exactly the same competition with exactly the same competitors on a Wednesday night, it would get a rating of 3," Costas said. "In the context of the Olympics, with all the grandeur and the meaning and the history of it, it engages people in a different way.
"I've always felt that the Olympics are a great sporting event, but they're also a prime-time mini-series about the host city, the host nation, the cultural panorama, the parade of nations, the opening ceremony ... it's about a whole lot more than who's best on the balance beam.
"Truth be told, if you just showed a balance-beam competition outside the context of the Olympics, you've got some gymnastics nuts who'd watch it, and the other people are looking for a baseball game."
Costas is regarded reverently by his peers, who have voted him the national sportscaster of the year eight times. But he is also well-liked, and I can understand why.
At Monday's banquet, he had a group of nearly 40 family members and friends with him, many of them colleagues flown in from New York on a charter jet by NBC. During his acceptance speech, he spent much of his time pointing them out in the audience, with observations about what they have done to help him in his personal life and his career.
I've spoken with Costas a few times over the years, but it had been awhile, and I'm not sure even with his famously photographic memory he would recall my name. But his personal assistant greeted my interview request with courtesy, and when he shook my hand upon arriving at the banquet hall, he said, "I know you've been wanting to talk. I have one thing to do and then we'll do it, OK?"
I was one of two media members -- along with a local TV sportscaster -- who got time with him before the banquet. Costas was accommodating and gracious, and I was the one who broke off the interview after nearly 15 minutes, knowing he had more important things to do and people to be with on his special night.
Costas could pass for 45 and has the energy and spirit of a much younger man. He is in a good place in his career, too, like the CEO of a major corporation, or two.
"I'm in good health," he said. "I enjoy what I do very much, and both NBC and the Baseball Network have an interesting menu of events for me.
"I don't feel like I need to do everything, but they use me very wisely, on the things I should be used on -- the big events, and the things where it seems to make sense for me to show up."
Ebersol said the NSSA Hall of Fame honor "may be the award that means the most to Bob, and over the last 25 years, he has been honored in ways no broadcaster has ever been honored. It's an enormous deal to be given an award like this by your peers."
Costas brought up the names of past inductees such as Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Vin Scully, Jim McKay, Al Michaels and Lindsey Nelson.
"It's a cavalcade of the best who have done this and the people who inspired you," Costas said. "To somehow, some way, for whatever reason be included on that list is a tremendously thrilling and humbling thing."
When I suggested Costas has become a cultural icon of our generation, he smiled.
"If that's true to even a small extent, most of it is a matter of circumstance," he said. "I've been involved prominently at a lot of prominent events. I've been lucky enough to be at one network for more than 30 years. The network has had, at various times, the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, the Stanley Cup. I've found myself involved in all those things, so there is the sheer visibility of it.
"And I hope somewhere in there I've done something worthwhile enough that people think I contributed something. But you have to get at-bats. Or to put it another way, if you're an actor, you have to get good roles. I've been lucky enough to get at-bats in big spots and good roles."
On Monday night, Costas got what amounts to an Oscar for lifetime achievement. The good thing is, there are still plenty of swings at the plate left for sportscasting's most prodigious slugger.
National sportswriters' group honors Eggers
Portland Tribune columnist Kerry Eggers received his fifth Oregon sportswriter of the year award at Monday's National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association banquet in Salisbury, N.C.
Eggers, who has been with the Tribune since its inception in 2001, also won the award in 1981, 1997, 2000 and 2003.