NBC's Team Player Has His Eye on the Ball : Sportscasting: With CBS' surprise sacking of Brent Musburger, Bob Costas would seem the obvious replacement--but he's sticking with his baseball-less network.

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

In the world of television, Bob Costas is kind of like a man without a country.

His field of dreams has always been baseball--"the center of my broadcasting universe."

But ever since his network, NBC, lost Major League Baseball to CBS, the prominent sports announcer has been restless for his first love. No matter that he has a successful NBC talk show, "Later With Bob Costas," which follows David Letterman nightly at 1:30 a.m.

NBC clearly regards Costas, 38, as a budding all-around star. Besides sports and "Later," he subs for Bryant Gumbel on "Today," and reruns of his own talk show debut April 14 on NBC's cable channel, CNBC.

He is, in short, turning into NBC's man for all seasons. But the season that interests him most, he says, is the one that begins and ends with baseball--and nothing else in TV commands his passion so completely.

Thus, suddenly this week, through a twist of fate, he became a very popular guy.

On Sunday, to the great surprise of everyone, including Costas, CBS--just days away from the start of its first baseball season under the new contract--dropped its star sportscaster, Brent Musburger.

Costas, whose "Later" series originates in New York, happened to be in Los Angeles to tape interviews for his show--guests next week include Valerie Harper and Dean Stockwell.

And although his NBC contract reportedly runs until 1993, he immediately started getting the baseball question: Could he, would he, defect if asked?

"If it was simply a matter of 'Would I like to do baseball?,' the emphatic answer would be yes," he said in his suite at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel. "But I have both a contractual and, I think, moral commitment to NBC, and I'll fulfill it."

Costas has become an important and attractive part of NBC's trio of back-to-back, late-night entertainment figures, preceded by Johnny Carson and then Letterman.

But, he says, his future with NBC depends largely on the network winning back baseball again in 1994. "I'm banking on it," he says.

And if it doesn't happen?

"There would be two ways to handle that. If I had the opportunity to go to another network that had baseball, then with great regret, I'd have to leave NBC. But everyone at NBC would understand that because they know where my heart is.

"The other possibility would be, if I couldn't do baseball at another network, then I would go be the voice of a team, do the games of the St. Louis Cardinals or the Boston Red Sox."

In the meantime, the stature of Costas at NBC grows as "Later" attracts top-drawer guests, including Ted Koppel, Dan Rather, Letterman, Billy Crystal, Linda Ellerbee and Mario Cuomo.

The series has also become a place for Costas to indulge his enjoyable TV-generation fantasies--interviewing, for instance, old-time, pie-throwing comedian Soupy Sales, who splattered Hollywood's biggest names (they volunteered for the honor).

"Soupy Sales is a great guest," says Costas, "because he brings people back--especially those of roughly my age--to the time they came home from school and flipped on the TV. . . . And Audrey Meadows talking about 'The Honeymooners'--and then you put the clips on: That's pure gold because that's in the time capsule."

"Later With Bob Costas," in short, has become an insomniac's treat, improving steadily since its debut in August, 1988. But if Costas hadn't renewed his contract with NBC in the belief it would still have baseball, "Later" might have gone up in smoke.

"When NBC lost baseball," he says, "my first thought was that if I'd have been a little shrewder, I wouldn't have signed so soon. I would have waited until after baseball was settled and then possibly have been in a position to go where the baseball went. That would have been up to CBS as well. I can't assume it would have been offered to me, but at least I would have had a chance.

"So my first thought was, 'Why did I sign this contract?' Probably I should have been a little colder about it and a little more calculating."

Costas is, however, pleased with "Later" and thinks it's drawn its A-list guests because "they perceived it as being different from the usual talk-show format. They saw it wasn't a lot of bells and whistles--no studio audience, no sidekick, no band, one guest for a half-hour in a relaxed atmosphere."

Koppel is among his favorites--the newsman has done three shows for "Later." Shirley MacLaine is not, Costas says, because she dominated the show with her philosophical views rather than also giving him the time he wanted to discuss her career and film experiences: "I didn't like it at all."

According to Costas, "Later" came about at the instigation of NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff and producer Dick Ebersol, who created the series and has been a major behind-the-scenes figure at the network in programs ranging from "Saturday Night Live" to the "Today" show.

"They persuaded me--'Hey, this would be a good thing for you'--and I went along with it. It wasn't like some burning ambition. But when a guy with Brandon's track record expresses that kind of confidence in you, and you've just been doing sports, and they see something in you that makes them say 'We can give him a show,' you say to yourself, 'Maybe this would be interesting to try.' "

Ebersol's original idea was far different from the simple, pre-taped, one-on-one conversation format that became "Later." At first, says Costas, Ebersol wanted a topical show taped the same night "between 10:30 and 11 to get a sort of late-night feel. He wanted the feel to be, if you walked into a restaurant and looked around, this would be the most interesting table.

"It would be me with three or four other people, and we would have a loose group of 15 to 20 semi-regulars who would drift in and out, plus guests, and we'd be knocking around whatever topic struck us as interesting. If the Berlin Wall came down, we'd talk about that."

Costas turned down the idea twice because he felt it would interfere with his sports reporting and personal life--he and his family live near St. Louis, his wife's hometown, and he travels from there to New York and other assignments.

Ebersol finally came up with the present, less-demanding format of "Later." And Costas, who worked in St. Louis before joining NBC, generally heads for the Big Apple three days a week.

NBC's buildup of Costas has also included his fill-ins for Gumbel on the "Today" show. But although "Today" has slipped in the ratings of late and Gumbel has been somewhat embattled, Costas rejects the notion that the anchor job might be of interest to him:

"Gumbel, in my opinion, is great. The extent of some of the knocks he's taken mystifies me."

And even if the job were available, says Costas, "I'd have a very hard time adjusting to that lifestyle--getting up at 4 in the morning. It's taking a night person and changing their whole clock around. Yeah, you could do it if having that job meant that much to you. To some people, that kind of job would be a be-all and end-all. To other people, having a late-night show like the one I have would be a big career ambition. In my case, neither one is true."

In addition to "Later," Costas already has his NBC pro football show, "NFL Live!," and he'll be prominent in the network's coverage of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and its National Basketball Assn. games.

But it's baseball that he wants--announcing the games again.

"That's what I always wanted since I was a kid. You go to Wrigley Field on a summer day. You go to Fenway Park. You go to Dodger Stadium. And then you sit down and you go, 'I'm a grown man and they're paying me to do this.' It's the greatest thing you could ever do."

But he'll have to wait.

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