ABOUT THE UPCOMING SEASON AND HIS COOPERSTOWN CALLING
by Kevin Kenney
Photo Courtesy of MLBN
About a month before the bats began cracking again around baseball’s spring-training camps, we asked Bob Costas, the legendary sportscaster and current lead play-by-player for MLB Network, to sit down for a few minutes to cast his eye forward on the upcoming season.
This was not to discuss WHIP or WAR or OPS, or any of the other alphabet-soup analytics so prevalent in the game today. While Costas is fluent in such arithmetic arcana, he is primarily a storyteller, a narrator of nuance and painter of pictures in the manner of the great baseball voices he grew up listening to and being influenced by.
Instead, we asked Costas, who turns 66 on March 22, to touch on some of the major story lines he expects to emerge in the 2018 baseball season.
And we’ll get to that.
But first, let us begin but not at the beginning.
Fast forward to the middle of the upcoming season, specifically July 28, when Costas himself will be a story line – the day he becomes a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, as this year’s winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence.
Over some 40 years on the national stage, with NBC, HBO, NFL Network and now with MLB Network, Costas has won an eye-popping 28 Emmy awards. But this latest honor, he told ESPN shortly after the Frick Award was announced at baseball’s Winter Meetings, “means the most.”
“I know I will be feeling a range of emotions in Cooperstown, and there is no way for anyone to guarantee they won’t choke up at a time like that,’’ Costas tells Cigar & Spirits Magazine, referring to the acceptance speech he’ll deliver as a newly minted Hall of Famer.
Bob with Tony Kubek Photo courtesy of NBC
“I have plenty of time to think about it, but I know I will want to thank those I worked with on baseball through the years, touch upon some childhood memories, and express in some way what it means to be welcomed into a fraternity that includes so many broadcasting legends I grew up admiring.’’
He’s a veteran of World Series, Olympic and countless other big-ticket broadcasts, but this speech, Costas says, will be high up on his list of personal highlights.
“Some of it will be written, but I’d like to leave myself enough room to ad lib as the occasion may call for, and to react spontaneously if that seems right in the moment,’’ he says.
“I certainly want to acknowledge, even if I didn’t know some of them personally, the great voices – most of them being radio voices of the game – who influenced me as a kid. Not so much to copy them, but just be inspired by them – to think, ‘Well, this would be a cool thing to do if I could do it myself.’’
Among those voices the Long Island, New York, native remembers absorbing over rabbit-eared black-and-white TV sets or static-y transistor radios were, “Vin Scully, Red Barber, Mel Allen, Lindsey Nelson, Ernie Harwell, Chuck Thompson, Jack Buck, Harry Caray and…
“I’m leaving some people out.’’
Costas also plans to mention Tony Kubek, the former New York Yankees star and NBC analyst. Kubek himself is a Frick Award winner (2009), and was Costas’s first long-term TV partner.
Fair Ball: standing on the field of the old Busch Stadium, St. Louis Photo by Suzy Gorman
“He was immensely helpful to me in the ’80’s when I was breaking in,’’ Costas recalls. “He helped me both in the booth and in the dugout, in the clubhouse, around the batting cage – introducing me to people and kind of vouching for me, that this kid’s OK, and he loves baseball and he knows the game. So I’m indebted to him.
“It’s interesting,’’ Costas adds, “a lot of people that I’ve worked with are already in the Hall of Fame, either as broadcasters or players.’’
That would include, Costas says, Bob Uecker, the famously self-deprecating Milwaukee Brewers announcer and former NBC colleague (and hilarious voice of the “Major League” movies).
With a chuckle, Costas says, “Despite his continual bitching that he’s not in as a player – he thought his .200 lifetime batting average should have qualified him – (Uecker) managed to make it as a broadcaster.’’
Costas also mentions Joe Morgan, a former NBC partner, as well as current MLB TV broadcasters John Smoltz and Jim Kaat – the first two inducted into the Hall as players, the latter (with 283 career wins), arguably an oversight for enshrinement.
“I’ve worked with a lot of quality people,’’ says Costas.
Cooperstown gets one more of those on July 28.
And now back to our regularly scheduled baseball season and to Costas’s thoughts, “in no particular order,” on what fans might expect to be its major themes.
Photo courtesy of Keeton Gale / Shutterstock.com
The New York Yankees
“One (story line) is going to be the Yankees, not just competitively, with Giancarlo Stanton in the same lineup as Aaron Judge, and Greg Bird presumably healthy for an entire season – not just what they will do competitively with that lineup and a reasonably deep starting rotation and an extremely deep bullpen,’’ Costas says.
“But will they become a sensation around baseball? What will this do to Yankee attendance, and even more interestingly, will they become an even greater road attraction than they have been since the (Joe) Torre days of the ’90s, when they were winning pennant after pennant and World Series after World Series?
“This could be not just a team that wins more games – they could be a team that is the talk of baseball. It could be must-see TV.
“And then you’ve also got the X-factor of, a team that came within a game of the World Series lets its manager (Joe Girardi) go and replaces him – and this is increasingly a trend – replaces him with someone who has no managerial experience in Aaron Boone.’’
Known as the Babe Ruth of Japan, Ohtani starred as a pitcher and a hitter for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League before signing this offseason with the Los Angeles Angels.
The Angels are looking for the flame-throwing right-hander, who turns 24 on July 5, to join their rotation and be their designated hitter on a least some non-pitching days. Such a significant hitting/pitching role was last done by Ruth himself … in 1919 (though Ruth played the field, not DH, in those pre-DH days.)
“If in fact he plays a significant number of games as a DH, in addition to being part of their starting rotation – that hasn’t been seen in our lifetime,’’ Costas says.
“I think that that’ll be extremely interesting, to see if he can sustain it in the American major leagues, and how well he does.’’
Photo courtesy of Photo Works / Shutterstock.com
The San Francisco Giants
“Another storyline is the Giants, trying to regroup after a disastrous season a year ago,’’ Costas says.
“You know, they’re not that far removed from winning three World Series in a five-season stretch, and then they sunk 40 games behind the Dodgers.
“But they’ve retooled for another run by adding Evan Longoria (from Tampa Bay) at third and Andrew McCutchen (from Pittsburgh) in the outfield – now has plenty of help in that lineup.
“And (pitcher Madison) Bumgarner should be healthy for the full season – hopefully he isn’t riding around on a dirtbike again, or whatever it was that he was on when he injured himself. So they’ve got Bumgarner and (Johnny) Cueto at the top of their rotation…
“Some teams respond when they have a terrible year by saying, ‘OK, we’ve got to tear it down and build it up, build it back up.’ (The Giants are) gambling that they have enough for another run.
“But the thing to consider is, three teams in their division made the playoffs – the Dodgers made it to the seventh game of the World Series, and the two wild cards in the National League were the D’backs and the Rockies. So it’s a tough challenge.’’
Photo courtesy of Keeton Gale / Shutterstock.com
The Washington Nationals
“It seems that we talk about this every year – the window for the Washington Nationals, it’s getting closer to closing,’’ says Costas.
“They’ve been consistently excellent – they won 97 games last year and yet fired their manager Dusty Baker.
“By the way, three teams that made the playoffs last year – the Red Sox, Yankees and the Nats – parted ways with their managers, which shows you kind of the changing philosophy of a lot of front offices. And in every case, they brought in people who had not managed in the major leagues before to replace seasoned and successful managers.
“But anyway, you look at the Nats, and they still have a very strong starting rotation, but Bryce Harper can walk (as a free agent) after this year. So could Daniel Murphy. Ryan Zimmerman had a good year last year (but) he’s in his mid-30’s. Eventually, they’re going to have to get past the Division Series to really feel as if they maximized all the talent they had during this run.
“And that brings us to another possibility. When you look at a guy like Bryce Harper, or (Toronto’s) Josh Donaldson, or (Baltimore’s) Manny Machado – if their teams are not in contention, is it possible that these guys could be dealt, even as a rental, to a contending team? Big-name guys could be dealt at the (trade) deadline to a contending team if their own teams aren’t contending.’’
Photo courtesy of Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com
The Houston Astros
“You look at the team that won the World Series, the Astros – they had no significant losses from their roster, and they’ve added yet another pitcher, an excellent pitcher, in Gerrit Cole, and they didn’t have to give that much up for him to get him from the Pirates,’’ says Costas.
“So are the Astros poised for a long run? Of course, the difference is – and this was what made it so remarkable when Torre’s Yankees did it in the late ’90s and at the beginning of the century – it’s one thing to say you’re going to be a contender for a long time – that seems certain when you talk about the Astros.
“But the postseason is such a gauntlet to run, that even if you win the division – you’re talking about three rounds to be the world champion. You’re talking about a crapshoot best-of-five, then a best of seven. And the Yankees took them to the limit last year. And then a World Series, and the Dodgers took them to the limit last year.
“So, you could be the best team in baseball over the course of a season and still get tripped up. But we could be looking at a long-term contender in the Astros – the way they’ve been constructed, and they have the core of their team for a foreseeable period of time. They could be an ongoing force.’’
Photo courtesy of Photo Works / Shutterstock.com
The Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers
Another story line to watch, says Costas, “is flagship franchises that haven’t flown the (championship) flag in a long time – the Indians and the Dodgers.”
“The Dodgers got back to the World Series for the first time since ’88, but they still haven’t won it since ’88,’’ he says. “They bring back a very, very strong team – that should be the favorite to win again.
“And the question is, can they make it through the extended postseason? Obviously, they were good enough to win the whole thing last year, they could have won the whole thing last year…
“The other would be Cleveland, which now, since the Cubs and Red Sox have won in this century, the longest drought of an established team is Cleveland. And although that drought has lasted since 1948, it’s not as if, especially in this last generation, they haven’t come close a bunch of times.
“They get to the World Series in ’95, they get to extra innings of Game 7 in ’97, they’ve got a 3-1 lead on the Red Sox in 2007 in the LCS, and that slips away, they go to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. They have a 22-game winning streak late last season, and everybody thought they were the hottest team going into the postseason. They take a 2-0 lead on the Yankees, and the Yankees come back and knock them out in the first round.
“So, they have a terrific team, but (reliever) Andrew Miller can be a free agent after this year, and he’s a very important component for them in that bullpen. So again, they’ve been knocking on the door for a long time. The question is when they knock it down.’’
The Big Picture
“The thing I keep coming back to,’’ says Costas, “is there are a lot of quality teams in baseball now.
“Minnesota made the playoffs without an overwhelmingly good record, and Colorado, too.
“When you look at, after the wild-card game is over, when you look at the field of eight that would be left between the two leagues – last year, that was about as strong a group as I could remember, where it wouldn’t shock you if any of them made it to the World Series.
“That’s the problem when you talk about building a team that should excel over the course of a long season – as the Astros have, the Cubs still have it, the Nats have it, the Indians have it, the Dodgers, the Yankees have it.
“But once you get to the postseason, any team could win or lose any matchup.’’