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THE ENGAGING AND EDIFYING EFQ INTERVIEW

Fixing the Game and Other Baseball Matters:
A Conversation with Bob Costas

By Judd Zulgad

Veteran NBC broadcaster Bob Costas has long been a favorite of baseball fans, as much for his keen knowledge of the game and its history as for his smooth on-air presence, thoughtful commentary, and likeable demeanor. For readers of this journal, Costas is often seen as one of the few people intimately involved with baseball at the major league level who hasn't missed all the destructive aspects that unbridled greed has unleashed on the national pastime. In a way, Costas is the "keeper of the flame" in baseball's inner circles, and it's no surprise that his name is often mentioned among baseball fans as someone who would make an ideal commissioner—provided that baseball team owners ever decide to hire a real one.

When his popular show Later . . . with Bob Costas went off the air a few years back, fans lost a wonderful forum in which the eight-time Emmy Award winner (for outstanding sports broadcasting) could discuss, among other topics, his commonsense ideas about baseball and how the game has been damaged in the last decade. Since the publication of his new book Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball (Broadway Books), however, Costas has been crisscrossing the country on a limited book tour, sharing his thoughts on fixing the game's problems with fans, pundits, fellow announcers, and sports reporters. (Costas will also begin hosting a new sports journalism program on HBO in early 2001.) It's apparent that his message has at least resonated with fans, as Fair Ball climbed as high as number two on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction titles during a week in May. Always a class act, Costas is donating all of his proceeds from the sale of the book to B.A.T. (the Baseball Assistance Team), the charitable organization that assists former ballplayers and other baseball people in need.

EFQ was able to sit in on this April 12, 2000 interview with Costas conducted by Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Judd Zulgad.

EFQ: What inspired the book?

BC: For a number of years, I've been talking about the issues facing baseball. Especially the on-field competitive issues relating to the playoff format, interleague play, division realignments, what the owners' approach should have been prior to the strike of 1994. But even when you wind up on shows like Nightline or Charlie Rose or Meet the Press—which certainly give you a better opportunity to express your point of view than sound-bite journalism does—even there, you can't flesh it all out.

So to me I thought, to get this off my chest, one way or the other, I need to collect it all in one place and flesh it all out. And if it affects baseball policy, great. If it stirs any discussion and debate that has any merit, great. But even if it doesn't, at least I got it off my chest and it's over with.

Was the book written in a sense to clear the air where you stand with baseball?

That was incidental, although it has always puzzled me how anyone who actually listened halfway carefully to what I was saying could say I was just a traditionalist or a purist. There is nothing wrong with being a traditionalist or a purist, but there is something wrong with mislabeling or characterizing somebody's point of view, especially when they are trying to make legitimate points. I don't think anyone could get five pages into this book and say with a straight face that my complaints about baseball are just a rant about "Oh, please don't change the dear old game." That has never been where I was coming from.

Do you still love the game as much as you once did?

I still love the game. I don't think I love it as much as I once did. I don't know, even if they did everything right, that you could ever completely recapture the circumstances that made it so charming and so endearing before.

What has been the reaction so far to the book?

I've really been gratified by the reaction. I've received a lot of positive feedback.

Have you talked to a lot of baseball people about it?

I know baseball people have the book. I sent personally inscribed copies to the folks at the players association and in the commissioner's office and [Commissioner] Bud Selig. I know the publisher sent all the team officials and broadcasters and whatnot copies. I have heard from some of the broadcasters and a lot of writers and a couple of team officials have called me and I've returned their calls, but we've missed each other. But no one from the players association or commissioner's office has as yet said anything.

As you worked on this book, did you find that your thoughts pretty much stayed true, or did you also change or tweak your philosophy as you went along?

Tweaking yes; basic philosophy pretty much stayed the same. It's not enough just to say, "Hey, I don't like the wild card." Because then people will say, "Well, why wouldn't you like it? It's new; you don't like it because it's new?" So, you have to make a case. A few people have said, "We knew Costas didn't like certain aspects of the game." Well, yeah, perhaps. But there is a difference between stating a bottom-line opinion and actually marshaling evidence and making a case that you hope is a well-reasoned and logical one that spells the whole thing out and might actually cause some people, who previously had a different position, to say, "Hey, wait a minute. I hadn't thought of it like that. Maybe he's right."

Have you found reactions like that so far?

I have had a lot of people comment to me on the chapter about the wild card and the playoff system. For example, I had a reporter from the New York Times say to me, "You know what? I can't think of a single cogent argument against anything you've said." I have had other people say, "I used to be pro wild card. I couldn't offer one point to refute what you said." And I'm sure there are also a lot of people saying, "Ah, shut up." And that's fine; that's the way it is.

You mention the Twins quite a bit in the book. Do you see the Twins as sort of the poster child for what you talk about in your book?

They were just an entry point. The Twins' situation is complicated. Based on their circumstances, not the actual size of the city, which I guess is about the fifteenth or sixteenth largest market, but based on their circumstances they are a small-market team. But it's complicated, too, by the way Carl Pohlad has run the ball club. Could they have had a better team even under these circumstances than they have had the past few years? Yes. But will this situation ever be right in Minneapolis, even with ideal ownership, even, for the sake of argument, with a new ballpark if the owners don't agree to comprehensive revenue sharing and if the players don't sign onto some sort of floor-to-ceiling cap? No.

All these individual solutions will not work. It has to be part of a comprehensive plan. It's like Kevin McClatchey said in Pittsburgh. They are going to get a new ballpark in 2001. Will that help their circumstances? Yeah, they won't be as down-and-out as they are now. So let's say they are able to spend fifty million dollars a year on salaries instead of thirty. That's going to give them a better ball club, but that's not going to give them a ball club that can compete with Atlanta or the Mets. And if there isn't some restraint at the top, then as additional revenue sources increase the payrolls of small- and middle-market teams, the gap between them and the larger teams will remain the same, just at higher levels.

So, unless you come at this from all the different directions, they will never have the model they need.

Do you see a long work stoppage next time this comes about?

I think it could be. All this talk, you hear it from both sides: "Baseball can't stand another work stoppage; baseball couldn't survive another work stoppage." Well, first of all, baseball will always survive. The question is in what kind of condition does it survive? I agree that a purposeless work stoppage would be a disaster and I agree that it's better to accomplish what baseball needs to accomplish with no work stoppage.

But if that's the only way and if a lockout, not a strike, but if a lockout accomplishes something worthwhile and the owners did it with a tough, clear vision of what the game should be, I wouldn't mind losing all or part of the 2002 season if it set the game right in the process. And the players have got to believe that the owners are at least willing to do that for the owners to have any power of persuasion over them in negotiations.

If you walk in saying from the beginning, "Baseball can't possibly have a work stoppage," the players are just going to look at you across the table and laugh. "Well, fine, okay. Maybe we'll give you a few window-dressing concessions, but that's it." If you are not willing to wield the hammer, you have no power in negotiations.

In your opinion did the NBA owners do it right then?

I think it was imperfect, but they did it as close to right as they could. Like I say in the book, everyone said, "Didn't they learn anything from baseball?" I thought they had the question backward. I thought the question should have been, "What will baseball learn from them?" They lost the first half of their season, not the back half. They lost the regular season, which especially in basketball is just a prelude to the playoffs.

Baseball lost the World Series. Plus, baseball had a whole history of work stoppages and strikes, which had alienated fans. Basketball had a little bit more goodwill on its side of the table. And they did it with an idea in mind. They did it with a purpose. When the players believed that the owners weren't bluffing, the players came around at least in the direction of the owners' position.

San Francisco is an interesting situation, where Magowan has basically built a ballpark that people really like. What's your feeling on these ballparks, on the stadium debate here [in Minneapolis/St. Paul]?

I don't know if every city can duplicate what San Francisco did, where it's like 95 percent private funds except for some infrastructure improvements. But I think the proportions can certainly change. That there can be a higher proportion of team investment, corporate investment as against public investment. I don't have any problem with public funds being used as part of the financing for a ballpark, but I think maybe the proportions on some of these recent parks have maybe been out of wack.

And, as I say in the book, I don't think any public funds should go toward building ballparks for baseball teams until baseball presents a workable economic model. Because until they do, it's almost a case of throwing good money after bad. If they have a workable economic model so that fans in small and middle markets aren't just saying to themselves, "You know what? We're just putting a finger in the dike with a new stadium," but instead can actually say, "You know, a new stadium can be part of a reasonable baseball renaissance in this town. We will not only have a nice stadium, but we will have a team that has a chance to compete." Then you can ask [fans] with a straight face to flip part of the bill. But under these circumstances I don't think you can.

This book will probably do nothing to stop the talk of you someday maybe becoming commissioner of baseball, moving into the front office in baseball. Do you have any desire for the job?

It's very nice if someone likes my ideas and they talk about me for commissioner or something. But I have always flatly said, "(A) it won't happen; (B) I don't want it to happen; and (C) I'm not qualified." There is nothing coy about this at all. The analogy I use is if you think someone is a good political columnist, that doesn't mean that you think he or she should be senator or president.

So if someone thinks I'm a good commentator about baseball or they like my ideas, spread those ideas around. And if people in baseball want to use the ideas, they don't even have to give me credit. They can say they thought of it first. It's okay with me. I would just like to see the game be better. I enjoy my role as a broadcaster and that's what my role should be.

Editor's note: After Costas completed his interview with Zulgad, he participated in a panel discussion on baseball at Macalester College in Saint Paul attended by approximately five hundred interested fans. Other panel members included local sportswriters Sid Hartman and Jay Weiner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper and EFQ publisher Tom Goldstein. Here are excerpts from Costas's responses to questions posed by co-panelists and members of the audience. Some of the questions that were asked have been edited for clarity.

What do you think of the new powers that the office of the commissioner has, and is Bud Selig the right person to have those powers?

In theory, those new powers are fine. But giving somebody powers is not the same thing as automatically believing they're going to use those powers effectively. Baseball has instituted a number of changes since 1993, and Bud Selig and the owners take credit for those changes, as if mere changes are progress or steps forward. If the wild card is an example of their bright ideas, I'm not looking forward optimistically to what their revenue-sharing ideas will be.

Is revenue-sharing a good idea? You bet. But there are many ways to go about it. Is interleague play a good idea? Yeah, if it's properly formatted and if it's limited. But there are many ways to go about it, and they've already shown that they've chosen, at least initially, the wrong way to go about it. Is some divisional realignment required when you've expanded to thirty teams? Yeah. Is the divisional realignment they're suggesting for next year a good one? Forget about a good one: It doesn't even qualify on the most generous assessment of sanity. If they wanted to wear a neon sign that says "We're clueless and shameless," they couldn't do a better job. So given the track record, it's fine to grant unlimited powers, but you hope those powers will be used wisely. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I like Bud Selig very much personally. I don't think he's the most dynamic leader that the sport could have. And he is associated, rightly in the minds of the fans, with the disaster of the strike of 1994. Although the owners like him and think that he is effective in their inner circles, perhaps they could find someone who inspires more confidence with the public at large.

Don't you think the wild card helps keep teams in the pennant race? Otherwise, most teams would close their doors on September 1.

Under the wild card system, there have been forty playoff teams since 1995. None of those teams have been from what would be called a small market. That's a pattern that defies coincidence. The wild card doesn't offer teams like Minnesota or Kansas City or even Oakland—which flirted with it last year—a real chance. It simply offers another passage into the playoffs for the Yankees, or Boston, or Cleveland, or for a big-market team like Colorado. It also offers another opportunity for teams like the Dodgers and Padres, who tied for first place in 1996 and played each other on the final day of the season. Ordinarily such a contest would have been the very definition of baseball drama for a century, but [with the current playoff system] it was played like an exhibition game, like a farce.

The wild card and pennant races are incompatible. You can't have them both. If you could add the wild card somehow and still retain the essence, both in integrity and drama of pennant races, that would be fine. But a pennant race is different than mere playoff qualifying. What baseball has always had until the last few years is different than what the NBA and the NHL and the NFL have had, and baseball threw it out the window with a cheap, cynical gimmick.

You've alluded to the possibility of a work stoppage in 2002 and have suggested that it might even be a good thing if it means that baseball finally develops a workable economic model. What if the owners have no interest in being reasonable and simply want to break the players union and create a new salary structure with just a small number of high-paid players and the rest earning a much lower salary than now?

Insofar as they haven't been able to make an inch's worth of progress against the union in the past, thinking they'll be able to completely defeat them this time around is irrational even for the owners. I think the owners' best chance is to come forward with a comprehensive plan for baseball that calls upon the owners to sacrifice and for the players to sacrifice proportionately less than what the owners are prepared to do.

I don't think you can ask the players for a single concession unless it is part of a vision for the game that includes comprehensive revenue-sharing and a plan that actually would allow the players to earn more money as a group—although it might bring superstars' salaries down.

If they [the owners] just try to force a salary cap on the players, without the other moves that should be part of baseball getting itself straight, then I don't think they'll have any support from the press; and I think the fans will be sophisticated enough to know what's going on—and it may be possible, even with baseball's antitrust exemption, that if they have not put forth a reasonable bargaining position, and are just trying to strong-arm the players, the players may have some recourse beyond collective bargaining.

With Don Fehr running the Players Association, will any plan ever get to first base?

It's obvious that this union is very strong and very successful, partly because of their own competence and partly because of the owners' incompetence through the years. But I don't think they've ever truly been tested. Yes, they're very ideological, to the point of being dogmatic; but if the owners lock the players out in 2002, and do it from an honest and reasonable position, and then just sit there and wait; after a while, all of the points you would make in a debate at the Harvard School of Economics would become less important than the rank and file saying to Don Fehr and Gene Orza, "Wait a minute, you mean I'm giving up the whole five or six million this year, and no end in sight?" Or the guys who aren't making five or six million, the guys making five hundred thousand who two years ago were playing Double A ball in Hunstville, Alabama, and it's only been a year and a half that they're making any kind of big league money, and they've already bought three cars and a house for their mother, and now the paychecks aren't coming in. Or guys who are maybe set for life but are saying, "You know what, I need four hundred homers to have a shot at the Hall of Fame, and you're throwing another year of my career out the window?" Not for the real principles that Curt Flood fought for, not for the real situation of the seventies and early eighties where superstars sacrificed for the rank and file, but for the reverse, where the last time around [1994] the scrubs of the world were on strike so that Shawn Green could someday make twelve million instead of nine million. It's turned upside down. The rank and file guys are jeopardizing their careers—or at least their paychecks—so that superstars can make more money. And under those circumstances, if the owners have a reasonable plan and just sit and wait, I would think that the players would have to eventually come around.

What about the proliferation of high-scoring games?

When I was a kid, and even fifteen years ago, if you saw a twelve-ten game, you'd say "Wow, I saw the wildest game." Turn on Baseball Tonight, they're half a dozen twelve-ten games every night in Major League Baseball. I don't know that you can compare the circumstances in which McGwire, Sosa, and Griffey—great as they are—are doing what they're doing to the baseball that was played by Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, and Hank Aaron. They're just too many guys hitting too many home runs. And you have to believe that baseball likes it that way, because they're trying to market their game to a short-attention-span culture that may have wandered away from the game. I'm not smart enough to know what's down the road twenty to thirty years from now, but drive past a baseball diamond; unless there's an organized game going on, a Little League game or a school game with uniforms, you don't see kids doing what we did when we were kids—you'd just hop on your bike, throw your glove over the handlebars, and you'd go out and play baseball all day. And if you couldn't find nine guys to a side, then you couldn't hit the ball to right field. . . . So I worry about that.

What about the turnaround of a lot of the teams of the early nineties: The Twins and the Pirates, for example, were winning multiple division titles, while two of the best teams in baseball right now—the Braves and Yankees—were last-place teams in 1990. What happened?

Historically, there was always an advantage for the large-market teams, but that advantage was not so large that it was unbridgeable if a team was smart and they had a little bit of luck. Beginning in the early nineties, it really exploded into gigantic differences in revenue . . . and a salary structure that was already a concern to owners and to fans spiraled wildly out of control.

In 1989, after winning the Cy Young Award and leading his team to the World Series, Orel Hershiser became baseball's highest paid player—at about $2.3 million a year. A decade later that wouldn't buy you a good utility infielder. And this stuff is just exploding to the point where it's agate type that some guy who was 812 last year with an ERA of 5.62 just signed with Texas for $6 million a year. So we're talking about a gap where I don't care how smart you are; the Montreals used to be able to figure out how to do it with baling wire. Kansas City was one of the best organizations in all of baseball—and since the advent of free agency, they won six or seven division titles in the George Brett era. You take a look at Oakland, best team in the majors—late eighties, early nineties. . . . Pittsburgh won three straight division titles at the beginning of the nineties. Now that's undoable. If you made Branch Rickey and Albert Einstein the co-GMs of the Pittsburgh Pirates, they still couldn't win the division.

Now some people point out the Cincinnati Reds and say, "Oh well, you're saying the sky is falling, but look at the Reds." Wait a minute: The Reds caught lightning in a bottle last year, and it was a great job by their general manager, Jim Bowden. Greg Vaughn immediately leaves, they had to change their team around, but in an aberration, they got a shot at Ken Griffey Jr. Now, you can say to all the other small-market clubs you can do that, too, provided the best player of his generation, (A) is from your town; (B) your father played for and now coaches that team and you're willing to designate him as your manager-in-waiting; (C) he's willing to take tens of millions of dollars less than his market value in order to come to your city; (D) he's willing to defer even a significant portion of that reduced compensation; and (E) he's one of the very few players who isn't just a great player statistically, but actually makes a difference at the gate. Now if they can replicate all those circumstances, then yeah, maybe they can surmount their small-market condition.

A team like Oakland, which people liked to point out last year, is only a contender because of the gimmicks of baseball in the late nineties and at the turn of the century. Oakland's not a real contending team; they're a so-so team in a four-team division that had the illusion of taking a shot at the wild card. Hook them in the same division as the Yankees, the Indians, the Red Sox—they won't see the postseason under these conditions any time soon.

Can you comment about the length of games today—what do you think can be done on the field to improve that aspect of the game?

Baseball always should have a pleasing, leisurely pace, but not the present, often lethargic pace, where even three-two nine-inning games take three and a half hours. That just should not be the case, and it tests the patience even of someone who loves the game like I do. Part of it is that commercial time has been added between innings. Another part of it is that now, for at least two generations, everybody who plays sports has grown up watching television, and so they all are posing all the time—walking around, striking poses. Watch a game on the Classic Sports Network. Watch Bob Gibson work. In the great line of Vin Scully, "He pitched like he was double parked." He was out there and he had a purpose: "Gimme the ball, I know what I'm going to do with it. Let's go." Baseball ought to enforce a rule when the bases are empty that you've got to throw a pitch every twenty to twenty five seconds; make the hitters get back into the batter's box; and most importantly, call a rule-book strike zone. From the letters to the top-of-the-knees. Pitchers will get ahead on the count, and they won't even have to get ahead on the count, because if batters know that they can't go up there confident that they can work the count to two and oh and three and one and sit on their pitch, they're going to swing at the first or second pitch and the game is going to move along.

What about the apparent decline in basic fundamentals among the current ballplayers?

Without diminishing the greatness of the ballplayers today, baseball is a game of subtle skills, not mere raw athleticism, although athleticism absolutely matters. But there is a difference between being a great athlete and being a great baseball player who knows how to play the game. I think that players—especially good players—spend less time in the minor leagues because you've got to stock thirty teams; they don't learn their craft as ballplayers of an earlier generation who may have been less gifted physically.

Are the Cubs going to win it this year?

That very same question has been posed as long as I've been a broadcaster, and much longer than that. You've seen the list of things that have happened since the Cubs last won the World Series, including Harry Caray born and died; Halley's Comet appearing twice; the invention of television and radio. So my standard answer is that waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series is like leaving a porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa

—EFQ

JUDD ZULGAD is the TV-radio reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

© 2000 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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