There’s an impishly impressionable slice of Bob Costas’ “Wonder Years” period in the early 1960s that comes with Vin Scully’s narration attached to it.
For reasons still not clear — his father, John, either took a new electrical engineering job or was trying to escape from bookies looking to even a score on gambling debts — the Costas family left New York one day and moved to an apartment in Redondo Beach.
To that point, Costas’ entrée to baseball was Mel Allen and Red Barber on Yankees games, with radio the preferred experience. Once in Southern California, the 8-year-old could immerse himself in the Scully Experience that included, as many people could attest, sneaking the transistor under the pillow to follow the conclusion of the Dodgers games still going on at the Coliseum.
“And all you got were nine TV games from San Francisco,” Costas recalled. “Sure you slept with the radio, but when you had games back in the Central or Eastern time zones, live, it could start at 5 in the afternoon, so a kid could stay up until the end because the game only went about two hours and 15 minutes.”
A few years later, after the Costas family of four circled back to New York, Bob remembers taking the keys to his dad’s car as it was parked in the driveway, turning on the radio that had better reception than the antenna in the house, and picking up out-of-town baseball broadcasts.
Bob Prince in Pittsburgh, Chuck Thompson in Baltimore, Ernie Harwell in Detroit and, on a clear night, even Harry Caray and Jack Buck in St. Louis.
“The primary way to connect with baseball in the ’50s and ’60s was from radio, and even then I was aware of the distinctly different styles of the announcers,” Costas said. “That was very interesting, and even enchanting to me.
“I was smart to realize, even at 9, 10 years old, that if I was ever going to get into Yankee Stadium without having to buy the ticket, it would probably be to where Red Barber and Mel Allen were sitting rather than where Mickey Mantle was standing. That idea of being a broadcaster took hold very early.”
The idea of being a Baseball Hall of Fame-endorsed broadcaster, and one who excelled on TV rather than building a career in radio at St. Louis’ KMOX where he began working under sports director Jack Buck, usually can never be anticipated.
Saturday, during a ceremony connected to baseball’s Hall of Fame weekend, the 66-year-old Costas will become the 42nd honoree of the Ford C. Frick Award for his contribution to baseball’s broadcasting history.
A resume of national TV work that currently involves calling games on the MLB Network but goes back to NBC’s “Game of the Week” in the ’80s and ’90s and more post-season work may not add up to the thousands of games someone like Scully has broadcast. But it’s validation that Costas has mattered in the conversation of the national pastime.
Costas, who has an offseason home in the Crystal Cove area of Newport Coast in addition to living in New York, shared thoughts on his legacy among baseball’s men behind the mikes:
As much as growing up in New York provided a broadcast foundation, where does someone like Scully or others come in shaping your collective experience of baseball voices?
I not only listened to him quite a bit during the time we lived in Southern California, but when the Dodgers were so often in the World Series, remember that, up until the ’70s, NBC would always use one announcer from each team along with Curt Gowdy or whomever was the lead announcer. So I can remember hearing Scully on the ’63 and ’65 and ’66 World Series as well. Then I went to St. Louis right out of college [Syracuse] when I was 22 years old, so I’m listening to and around Jack Buck so much and was probably influenced by him as well through osmosis. I don’t think I consciously copied another broadcaster. You can pick little bits and pieces. If you take whomever you think are the 10 greatest voices in baseball history, you’ll hear some substantial differences in style among them. Actually, the baseball world would be poorer if for some insane reason Vin Scully tried to be like Harry Caray. Or Harry tried to be like Vin (laughing). We’re better off with both of them distinctly different. Both can be beloved for different reasons.
You love to write about the game as well. Any special sports writing influences?
Again, I can’t recall consciously copying anyone. Just having an affinity for thoughts well expressed, whether they be on the air extemporaneously or on the written page, I just absorbed a lot of that. They could be lyrics from Paul Simon or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. The punch newspaper style of a Dick Young in New York or Jim Murray in Los Angeles — and Jim was much more humorous than Dick. And then Frank Deford was a great sportswriter in a different way than Jim Murray was a great sportswriter. Tom Verducci is a great baseball writer who I admire as well. And then, like a whole lot of teenage boys from a different generation, we all thought for awhile we were Holden Caulfield from “Catcher In The Rye,” but you wouldn’t really want to end hiding in the shadows from the rest of the world like his creator, J.D. Salinger. That doesn’t seem like a good outcome (laughing).
Is there someone you plan to thank in your Cooperstown speech that most of us would not recognize?
That’s the difficult part. If you start naming people, not only is the list so long you take so much time, but invariably you leave someone out equally deserving mention. The trickiest part of this is how, in broad strokes, to pay tribute to everyone who has been important to you personally and professionally in a few sentences. You also want the names you do mention to be relatable to the audience — like [former NBC partners] Tony Kubek or Joe Morgan or Bob Uecker, or [current MLB Network partner] Jim Kaat — even though the names of directors and producers are crucially important.
What has been your relationship not just with Vin Scully but also Dick Enberg over the years?
I want to mention both of them [in my speech]. I always had great admiration for Dick. He, like Vin, like Barber — anyone who’s good at this — they came to the booth prepared to go 20 innings because they had 20 innings worth of stuff. And if it was 11-1 and you had to fill it with anecdotes, they were good with that. If it was 6-5 and they had to talk strategy, they could toss the notes aside and react to what was in front of them. Not only were they both prepared, but that preparation included everything they had seen and experienced over the previous decades. When Vin would show up on a Tuesday night for a game against the Padres he didn’t necessarily think that he was going to tell a Branch Rickey story, but something happened in that game to bring a Branch Rickey story to mind. That’s a lifetime of preparation that’s called upon when the moment is right. That’s what the great broadcasters like Dick and Vin have in common. I don’t think anyone did as many different prominent sports on network television from a play-by-play standpoint and did them as well and consistently as Dick Enberg.
Shortly after the [Frick Award] announcement was made on Dec. 13, I got a call from each of them — old school, no text or email. I heard their voices. Vin has always been so classy. I think oddly enough as his career wound down we became closer. I think Vin was grateful for some of the things I’ve said about his career. His is a friendship I value. He’s called me on several occasions to offer a word of encouragement or congratulations. Just hearing his voice was so special — and he always says [imitating Scully’s voice], ‘Hey Bob, it’s Vin Scully.’ … Who else could it be?
The Enberg call so was poignant. The last thing he ever said to me was, ‘I’m hoping that Trevor Hoffman makes it, because that way I’ll be there next summer for Trevor and for you.’ And less than a week later he was gone. To hear from two of the greatest that the profession has ever produced, and in effect have them say, ‘Welcome to the club’ … you can say to yourself, ‘Maybe I do deserve a place at the table.’ If I’m OK with these guys, then I must have done something right.
Have you had any of those “I’m not worthy” moments looking down the list of past recipients?
It’s affirming that the electorate is the surviving Frick Award winners themselves and four historians. If I were to venture a guess, in my case, it can’t be the number of games I’ve done. I will have probably done fewer games than anyone who has received this award, just because of circumstances. If you do the math, I’ve probably done fewer than 500 games, which is only three full seasons if you were a team announcer. But a lot of those games were playoff games, World Series games, All Star games, and maybe in my case they take into account commentary and essays, interviews of consequence, things that are aside from the games themselves.
The process of looking back on your career through all this must be humbling.
To be part of this team — even if you’re not in the starting lineup and coming off the bench … (laughing) … you don’t have to hit cleanup.
Circle back about two decades ago to your book, “Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case for Baseball.” You wanted the focus to be analyzing the game so you could “prove it worthy of our devotion.” In 2018, what’s worthy of devotion in baseball?
What’s worthy is the huge number of truly appealing and stylish young stars. It’s brimming with talent. At the time that book was written, Camden Yards only started the trend of modern ballparks with a retro feel. Now you have more of them and fewer of the artificial turf, soulless domed stadiums from the ’70s and ’80s.
But everyone in the game, no matter how much they love it, recognizes that pace of play is a problem — especially in this modern era where attention spans seem to be shortened. The problem isn’t simply just how long games take, it’s how long the ball is in play. Tom Verducci, he took a stopwatch and figured out on average it’s between three and a half and four minutes per game when the ball is actually in play. Part of baseball’s appeal has been its natural leisurely pace, but we don’t want it to get bogged down with a lethargic pace. Everyone who cares about the game is aware of that.
The question is with analytics abound, focus on launch angle, no stigma attached to a batter striking out, how the stolen base and hit-and-run and squeeze play are in eclipse right now, what may work according to analytics doesn’t necessarily make the game more entertaining. How to recalibrate that balance is baseball’s challenge now. Different era, different set of problems.
We’ve noted John Smoltz doing recent games on the Fox broadcasts addressing things about the lost art of fundamental baseball that bothers him, spin rates and exit velocity and what he calls “selfish at bats” that the game rewards. It led to some social media conversation: Why would Smoltz, or any other broadcaster on a national TV broadcast, use that platform to air out those issues, even if correct, because it takes some enjoyment from viewers who don’t want to hear it. When you do a national game now with Jim Kaat, who is very keen on comparing today’s game to when he played (a 25-year-period from ’59 to ’83), is there any kind of narrative you sometimes want to address about some of those same things? Or do you fear you could come off as the guy on his front porch shaking his fist at the world?
I recently did a Red Sox-Yankees game at Yankee Stadium and we (with Kaat) were talking about the strikeout-to-walk ratios of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. I had a stat that said the year when Kaat broke into the majors in 1959, only three players in the American League struck out more than 100 times — Mickey Mantle and Harmon Killebrew, both who are in the Hall of Fame, and Woody Held. The MVP that year was a scrappy middle-infielder, contact hitter — the kind you don’t find any more in Nellie Fox of the White Sox, who struck out only 13 times. So would you rather build a team around Fox or Mantle?
All it means is that the game was different. It’s not like, ‘Hey get off my lawn, and baseball was better when I was a kid, sonny.’ In many ways, baseball is better now. You see plays made on a constant basis now that I never saw made as a kid, especially by middle infielders. Diving plays. Body control. Backhanded flips. The level of athleticism in baseball is higher than it’s ever been. So in many ways this talent is a golden era.
But they need to figure out how, when 1 in every 3 at bats ends up with a walk, a strikeout or a home run, when it takes several pitches to get to those outcomes, when the ball is in play only four minutes per game, there’s just less to savor about baseball.
There’s a push and pull now between what the stewards of the game realize is best from an entertainment standpoint but what analytics tell the front office what increases your chances of winning. You’re never going to have a front-office guy or manager say, ‘You know what? This approach gives us a 10% better chance of winning, but there’s another approach that gives us a 10% lesser chance of winning, but fans will like it more. … So we’ll do that.’ That’s just not going to happen.
You also have teams trying to follow the model that worked for Kansas City, Chicago, Houston — why do we want to be 75-87 and be marginally competitive when we could let this whole thing collapse, accumulate draft choices, stop spending big money on middling-level talent, save our resources and then build it back up again? But in the meantime, there are more teams than ever playing about .600 and more below .400.
Q: Is there a metric you see — a TV rating, an attendance average, pitch counts — that most accurately captures the push-and-pull of angst and enjoyment of baseball today?
I don’t want the emphasis here to be on ‘what’s wrong with baseball?’ Just think about the last several postseasons. In 2014, it’s a seven-game World Series, the tying run on third base with two out in the ninth inning. In 2016, the Cubs break through and win a World Series for the first time in 108 years, and the seventh game goes extra innings and ends with the Indians rallying in the bottom of the 10th. Last year, it’s a World Series that not only goes seven games but has some of the craziest games — Games 2 and 5 — that you’ll ever see.
I still enjoy the game immensely. I was watching a Dodgers-Angels game recently where [Yasiel] Puig hits a long home run, and [Shohei] Ohtani comes off the bench and wins the game with a home run. There’s so much to like about the game. I still get the feeling of just walking into a ballpark, that’s a nice comfortable place to be for me. I think the enjoyment I feel when I’m in a ballpark or when I’m broadcasting a game is palpable. People tell me they can sense it. And I’d rather be doing this than anything else right now in my career.