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A fun guy, no kidding

May 12, 1986
May 12, 1986

Table of Contents
May 12, 1986

Kentucky Derby
Clemens
The Oilers
Offerdahl
Boxing
Television

A fun guy, no kidding

NBC's Bob Costas has succeeded by mixing solid reporting and wit

By William Taaffe

Bob Costas almost has it under control. The argyle sweaters and socks and the pleated corduroy trousers are neatly coordinated. The hair is nicely combed. The amazingly retentive memory is primed for each broadcast, and on the air, the words roll off the tongue, convincingly, in precisely the right order, with never a pause. Everything is in readiness for Costas to excel.

This is an article from the May 12, 1986 issue Original Layout

But for the near-perfect world of Bob Costas to become perfect, five things would have to happen:

•All artificial turf in the baseball stadiums of America would be summarily torn up and removed, and those responsible for laying it would be executed.

•One television station in every city would air reruns of The Honeymooners every night of the week.

•The immortal Drifters would sing There Goes My Baby as Bob and Randy Costas's first child is born (any day now). The immortal Chubby Checker sang The Twist at Bob and Randy's wedding in 1983.

•Any station delaying Late Night with David Letterman in favor of reruns of The Dating Game (as actually happened April 10 in Kansas City) would be put off the air.

•Costas would receive a lifetime supply of bratwurst with red sauce from Milwaukee's County Stadium.

The above wish list provides some clues as to where the 34-year-old Costas is coming from. It's easy to see where he is. From September until January he's the host of NBC's NFL pregame and wraparound show, which has made him—with his mix of reportage, iconoclastic wit and boyish charm—into a kind of Johnny Carson of autumn weekend afternoons. From April to October, he moves over to baseball as NBC's second-team play-by-play announcer on its Game of the Week. On occasion, he even pops up to call bizarre sports events—elevator races, for example—on the Letterman show.

Costas is obviously having fun being a success, but he is very sensitive about the image he conveys. He's a fascinating blend of the straight and the off-the-wall. In him, excess and exactitude are able to coexist. "I don't see anything wrong," he says, "with calling elevator races on the Letterman show and the next time out of the box calling a classic game at Wrigley Field or doing a serious, issue-oriented interview with Pete Rozelle, Peter Ueberroth or John Thompson."

Whether or not viewers fully understand Costas, it is now clear that he is the hot new sportscaster. Last month he became the youngest person ever to be honored as sportscaster of the year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, beating out such veterans and former winners as Vin Scully, Dick Enberg and Al Michaels.

You begin to understand the Costas boomlet by studying other sportscasters. He's the one not like the others; a natural who is somewhat embarrassed to admit that he didn't have to work his way up from the bushes as so many TV sports personalities did. "I would have been more than willing to pay my dues," he says, "but nobody ever made me." Costas merely relied on instincts developed from a youth abounding in sports, TV and rock-'n'-roll. Now, whether he's working in the studio or the broadcast booth, Costas is able to keep his viewers satisfied because he knows that most of them want some fun mixed in with their drama.

Men like Keith Jackson and Brent Musburger tend to take their assignments—and themselves—too seriously. Others, like John Madden and Al McGuire, are cast as comics, and their humor sometimes upstages the game. Costas usually plays it just right. He is expert enough to enhance any on-field action, but he's secure enough—and quick enough—to go for the laugh. Name another play-by-play man who would appear on the Letterman show in his NBC blazer to call an elevator race as if it were the Indy 500. Says Costas to a security guard serving as his expert analyst: "Harrison, I don't know about you, but it seems to me these elevators are running in tip-top shape."

NBC reportedly is paying Costas $550,000 a year (his salary will rise to $700,000 by 1988), partly because he's able to pull together an audience. He appeals to the Tommy Dorsey crowd because he can talk about the DiMaggios, worships the old ballparks and knows when to be reverent. On his first visit to Stan Musial's restaurant in St. Louis he left a tip of $3.31—after having a hamburger—in honor of The Man's lifetime batting average.

But he also pulls in the baby-boomers because he's one of them, and he knows when to be irreverent. After Ahmad Rashad made his now famous marriage proposal on NFL '85, for example, Costas cracked, "And now that it's become obvious we'll do anything to improve our ratings, Pete Axthelm will be seen in a secluded grotto with Dr. Ruth Westheimer." And Costas is a favorite of the MTV crowd. He may wear loafers, but he's no square. After all, how many genuine sportscasters can tick off the evil tendencies of Rowdy Roddy Piper and Brutus Beefcake?

"The people I admire," Costas says, "are those who have crafted careers and on-air personas on their own terms, not according to what the Great Broadcasters Handbook says or what the trend of the moment is. You know a guy I love? Charles Kuralt. He invented himself. No one sitting in a network executive's office said, 'Get me a rumpled guy who's bald and has a kind of avuncular demeanor.' He did what he did, which was something out of the ordinary. He didn't say, 'All right, this is what a broadcaster does; now how can I make myself like that?' He is himself, and that's what he sells."

In a promo for NFL '85 last year, Costas wore a baseball glove and tossed a ball in the air while saying, "Hi, I'm Bob Costas, former utility infielder for the Toledo Mud Hens and pitching coach for the 1962 New York Mets." Thousands of viewers thought he was serious, but Costas could care less. "I would much rather have 70 percent of the audience be delighted and 30 percent either not like it or not get it, than 100 percent of the audience say, 'Oh, he's all right, he's an O.K.-looking guy.' If you don't take a risk, you'll never be any good."

Costas is a perfectionist when it comes to both his work and the public's perception of him. "He probably wants to be an announcer for a living more than anybody I've ever met," says one of his friends, CBS producer Kevin O'Malley. Randy says that if her husband is misquoted or misrepresented, it drives him to despair. For example, Costas was miffed for a week when USA Today portrayed the sportscasters' awards banquet, a gracious affair at which he spoke, as a kind of heel-stomping, barnyard jokefest.

The son of a Greek-American father and an Irish-American mother, Costas developed his love of baseball growing up mostly in Commack, Long Island. This was just after the Dodgers and Giants left New York and when Mickey Mantle reigned triumphant. Baseball served as a significant bond between Costas and his father, who died of a heart attack in 1970 at age 42. Costas still has in his wallet a 1958 bubble gum card of Mantle ("AH right-thinking Americans should carry a religious artifact on their person at all times," he says), and it was the Mick whom Costas chose to introduce him at the awards banquet.

During his senior year at Commack High South, Costas and his friends amused themselves, if not always others, by bestowing "Pervert and Moron Awards" on classmates, designating them as "Greaser of the Year" and the like. "Bobby had a sort of lovable arrogance," says an old school pal, Lloyd Berkowitz. "He was always making jokes about other people—his friends mostly. But he could take it as well as he dished it out."

He refined his mock-serious approach first at Syracuse, cradle of sportscasters (Marv Albert, Dick Stockton, Len Berman, Marty Glickman), and then, beginning in 1974, at KMOX radio in St. Louis. Costas, who lives in New York City, calls about 20 weekday Cardinal games, does a syndicated KMOX sport flashback series and hosts an occasional call-in show.

NBC hired Costas in 1980 and put him to work on regional NFL games. But the real Costas was yearning to breathe free. Before the 1983 Super Bowl in Pasadena, he interviewed Mr. T and couldn't resist whimsy. "Mr. T," he said, "I believe I speak for all Americans when I ask this question: When are you going to cash in this angry-young-man act, ditch the hardware and slip into a nice three-piece suit and a pair of Thorn McAns?"

Letterman discovered Costas when he couldn't locate Albert, Don Criqui or another sportscaster to lend an air of NBC Sports authenticity to his elevator races. After Costas's dramatic call, Letterman invited him onto the set and asked what was next on his agenda. "Well," Costas said, "I've got to hop a plane for the West Coast, where I'm going to work the Don Cornelius Pro-Am." Letterman broke up at the mention of the Soul Train host, and since then Costas has been back on Late Night covering swivel-chair races and taxi-cab races.

Costas has the confidence—or is it gall—to occasionally pass himself off as an expert, even when he's not. Take hockey. He had never called a game when he landed a minor league job in Syracuse by sending the station some basketball tapes. ("I don't happen to have any of my hockey tapes available right now," he said.) Or take basketball. He had worked only 10 college games when he became KMOX's play-by-play man for the ABA Spirits of St. Louis. To land the job, Costas doctored a tape of his call of a Syracuse-Rutgers game, splicing out dull moments, turning down the treble and boosting the bass so that he would sound older.

It was much the same with baseball. Just a few weeks ago, NBC executive producer Mike Weisman, who then was coordinating producer of baseball coverage, was stunned to learn that when he assigned Costas to announce the NBC backup games in 1983 with Tony Kubek, Costas had worked only four games in his life—and two of them minor league ones at that. When Costas began broadcasting Cardinal games on KMOX last month, he was making his major league baseball radio debut.

Costas was also green as clover when he took over the NFL '84 show. In 1982 when he was first asked to join the pregame show, Costas was reluctant to come into the studio, partly because he was afraid to fail and partly because he would miss some September and October baseball games. "Finally, when he said yes [in 1983]," Weisman recalls, "I was all excited. Then a week later he says, 'You know, Mike, I've never worked in a television studio before.' " Weisman was flabbergasted, not to mention apprehensive. "Before the football season I brought him into the studio to do three-minute breaks between [boxing, Sports World and other] shows. I told Bob I did it to reassure him, but I actually did it to reassure myself."

So nimble, self-assured and versatile is Costas, he probably could handle any sort of role—host of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, anchor of the NBC Nightly News—and be at home.

"If there's one thing he has to be careful about, it's overconfidence," says NFL studio producer John Filippelli. "If he ever came to the point where he began to believe all his press, that could be the beginning of the end."

Says Weisman, "I still think he's too talkative. Instead of letting a good point sink in, he tends to hit the audience with another good point and another good point and another. He also has to realize that he doesn't always have to be funny."

A lesser talent than Costas would not have got off as easily as he did in 1983, when he walked off the scene during the telecast of the Arlington Million horse race. Costas, who doesn't know a furlong from a fetlock, hadn't wanted to work the show in the first place. When the producer asked him to "wing it" while NBC's racing experts lined up postrace interviews, Costas did so for a while, but finally he became annoyed ("I was done trying to kid the audience") and abruptly said, "And now let's go back to Bill Macatee in New York." He then removed his headset and walked away, while viewers watched a replay of the finish and the credits being rolled. NBC officials were upset at Costas's pouting on the air, but they also apologized for putting him on the spot.

"If he had a choice between NFL '86 and Letterman, he'd take the Letterman show," says NBC Sports publicist Kevin Monaghan. "But if the choice was between Letterman and the backup Game of the Week, he'd take the baseball."

And he would be sure to keep the fun in the game. "What is more ridiculous than taking sports terribly seriously?" Costas says. "There are issues that should be taken seriously, sure there are. But there's plenty of room for smiles, laughs, winks and high jinks."

Give that man a bratwurst.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRACostas appeals to both the Tommy Dorsey and the MTV crowds, so who knows what selections you'll find in his living-room jukebox?PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe 34-year-old Costas probably really wasn't the pitching coach for the 1962 Mets.PHOTOCostas doesn't travel without the Mick.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAny day now, the Costases will be a threesome.