Baseball brings out love, hate in Costas

ON THE AIR

July 26, 1995|By MILTON KENT

For many who sit behind the microphones in a booth or pound out copy in a press box, covering baseball is a pleasant diversion or, at most, a means to an end, a stop on the way to something bigger.

That's not the case for Bob Costas, the signature voice of NBC Sports, who feels for baseball as passionately as anyone could and who rhapsodizes as eloquently about the game as anyone who has spoken or written about it.

With that passion and care as a backdrop, one can easily empathize with the pain and anger that Costas feels over the direction baseball has gone in the recent past.

"My feeling about baseball is this: I still love the game," said Costas from his St. Louis office. "I make a distinction about the game of baseball and the present institution of Major League Baseball. The former I still love. The latter I have contempt for."

In a 50-minute conversation earlier this week, Costas voiced his consternation on a number of subjects surrounding the game.

One topic that draws his specific ire is The Baseball Network, in which NBC, ABC and Major League Baseball are joint participants through the end of this year.

Costas said he had always believed that The Baseball Network concept -- in which coverage is presented regionally through the final 12 weeks of the regular season, and first-round playoff coverage is also regionalized -- was "a horrible idea," although he feels for TBN president Ken Schantzer, coordinating producer John Fillipelli and other Baseball Network employees who will be out of work.

Costas said The Baseball Network only benefited the networks and advertisers, and only in the short term. The concept, he said, keeps the game regionalized and prevents fans from seeing stars from other teams and other leagues.

"The fact is that 99 percent of people who still call themselves baseball fans have no idea what The Baseball Network is. It has no feel of specialness to it. It has no gloss of prestige to it, and it does no service to baseball fans," said Costas. "It just shows you the game you would ordinarily see anyway in a silly hodgepodge that does nothing to promote baseball as a national sport."

Costas acknowledges that baseball was encountering a downturn in national broadcast popularity toward the end of the run of the NBC Game of the Week, which died at the end of the 1989 season, but says that a tweaking of philosophy would have yielded respectable ratings that everyone in the game could have lived with.

He pointed out that even baseball's lowest-rated World Series, the 1993 Toronto-Philadelphia encounter, which drew a 17.3 Nielsen rating against heavy prime-time competition from the other networks, was just slightly behind the highest-ranked NBA championship series ever, that year's Chicago-Phoenix series, which got a 17.9 with no first-run competition and a load of promotion from the NBA and NBC.

Costas said the owners, rather than fighting for a good price for "the second-most-powerful television vehicle in all of sports, unless you count the Olympics," panicked and fiddled with the regular season and playoffs to make their product more attractive to television.

"They sold themselves short. They bastardized their entire regular season and playoff format in an effort to create another round of playoffs that most of the country won't even see. They sold their souls to television," said Costas.

"It's obvious that all sports are willing to prostitute themselves to television, but baseball turned out to be a cheap prostitute. Baseball turned out to be the least-expensive streetwalker of them all. They were willing to sell their game's soul and its competitive integrity for the smallest payoff of all."

Though Costas reserves a considerable amount of scorn for the owners, and a little anger at the players for their foot-dragging in the labor dispute, he does express support for Orioles owner Peter Angelos, saying he has been a "heroic figure" in the matter.

He agrees with Angelos that it is time for the media to stop bashing both sides, and says that the public and press could have rooted for the owners in the battle, had they made their case.

"It was time for the players to realize that they had been intransigent for too long and as part of a larger vision for baseball's future that would have included revenue sharing, a television strategy, a real partnership with the players, the players could have been convinced to make reasonable concessions," said Costas.

"But the owners weren't capable of making that case effectively, because they didn't know what case to make. The case they did make was heavy-handed, belligerent and ultimately found to be dishonest, so they lost. If they had listened to Angelos, and I'm not saying he was 100 percent right on everything . . . . they would have been a lot better off."

Costas said he will not broadcast baseball next season, focusing his energies on preparing to be host of the Olympics, but he expects that someday he again will call the game that stokes his passions.

"I just hope the game gets back on some sound footing, that the insanity stops and that an atmosphere can be created that allows people to realize again what used to interest them and appeal to them about baseball," said Costas.

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