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Costas' first love sparked long journey to Hall

Acclaimed broadcaster chosen to receive Ford C. Frick Award
January 12, 2018

In "Julius Caesar," William Shakespeare wrote of "a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood," could propel a person far. Missed, the tide might lead him to curse what might have been, "bound in shallows and in miseries." A tide can take you far away from

In "Julius Caesar," William Shakespeare wrote of "a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood," could propel a person far. Missed, the tide might lead him to curse what might have been, "bound in shallows and in miseries." A tide can take you far away from home. With luck, it can bring you back.
Like any good baby boomer, Bob Costas grew up feeling that baseball was all-important. He hoped to air it -- and did with art and verve. In 1989, a tide over which he had no control carried him from his first love to a future he had not envisioned. For a time, it seemed that Bob would never again realize his childhood dream -- but instead retire owning NBC.
Then, another unimagined tide ferried him back to his boyhood shore -- first to MLB Network and now to the National Baseball Hall of Fame's 2018 Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence. On July 28, the Hall will welcome the Voice who at 10 was "good-field, no-hit, and you know about guys who can't even hit their weight. That was true of me, and I weighed 118 pounds."
Complete Hall of Fame coverage
Costas becomes the 42nd Frick recipient, joining Mel and Red and Vin and Harry and many others that tens of millions knew on a first-name basis. Growing up on New York's Long Island Bob followed baseball by radio, or black-and-white TV. At five, he went with his dad, John, to Ebbets Field in 1957. "I walk in," Bob said, "and see this green diamond, like the Emerald City." Two years later, he sat with a cousin at Yankee Stadium. Each inning they crept closer, like Dorothy spying Oz.

In 1960, the family left for California, radio baseball its escort. "In Ohio, we'd pick up Waite Hoyt, later [Milwaukee's] Earl Gillespie, [St. Louis'] Jack Buck and Harry Caray."
Nevada spawned Vin Scully. "Dad said, 'That's the Dodgers. We're almost there.'" The Yankees in the World Series made L.A. seem like home. Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 blast retired Costas to his room, eyes welling, "as I take a vow not to speak until Opening Day, 1961." He did keep mute for a day -- "protesting this injustice."
A greater bug was his dad, betting up to $10,000 daily. Returning East in 1961, Bob got nightly scores in his pop's car for him by turning the dial: "Calibrating it like a safecracker." Phils-Braves could lose their house; Cubs-Cards, reclaim it. "If his teams were losing, I'd stay outside. Winning, I'd race inside to tell Dad what was happening." Happening was love. The voices of the game drew the boomer to the game, Bob "falling asleep with a transistor under the pillow."
Into the 1980s, Costas carried a dog-eared 1958 Mickey Mantle All-Star card in his wallet, saying, "I believe you should carry a religious artifact with you at all times." By then, he had graduated from Syracuse University, worked at KMOX St. Louis and joined NBC. Bob anchored the 1982-89 backup "Game of the Week" -- Scully did the primary -- and his tiara was Cubs vs. Cardinals on June 23, 1984. Down, 9-3, Chicago rallied, with Ryne Sandberg homering twice to the "identical spot. The same fan could have caught it."
"That's the real Roy Hobbs ('The Natural' had just been released) because this can't be happening!" Bob cried. "We're sitting here, and it doesn't make any difference it's 1984 or '54 -- just freeze this and don't change a thing!" The "Sandberg Game" is still the set to which Costas is most connected. Then, in 1988, he showed why no network ever treated a sport with more respect than NBC did baseball in the 1980s.
That Oct. 15, Kirk Gibson jaw-dropped his ninth-inning thunderbolt to edge Oakland, 5-4, in the World Series opener. NBC's next-day pregame likened him to Robert Redford as Hobbs. Two network producers got that film, "stayed up all night at Paramount Studios, then took our piece by police escort to Dodger Stadium," said Costas, ad-libbing script by air-time. "Look at that and tell me what's wrong with baseball on TV when it's done by people who care."

In December, CBS TV paid $1.04 billion for 1990-93 big league exclusivity, ending sport's longest-running TV partnerships, cutting regular-season national coverage, and stunning Bob. "Whatever else I did, I'd never have left 'Game of the Week,'" he told me the night of its demise. Costas was "ready to do baseball on a full-time basis anywhere, even if I have to give up everything else." 
In a 1993 Smithsonian Institution program, Buck called Bob "history's most successful sportscaster" -- an apt critique. Costas then transcended his multiple Olympics and Emmys and Sportscaster of the Year awards by airing "Dateline" and "Later with Bob Costas" and "On the Record" and "Costas Now," finding the wider world's water fine. With NBC's coverage of the pastime sporadic and ultimately nonexistent, to some Bob's baseball lineage dimmed.
Then, in 2009, the first 24/7 baseball network debuted. Leaving HBO, Costas joined MLB Network, enthused about his programming: "historical pieces, documentary-style programming, interviews, and play-by-play -- all baseball," going back to his future.
MLB Network's first night aired the telecast of Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Costas interviewed Larsen and catcher Yogi Berra in-studio throughout the show. Costas hosted the documentary "MLB Network Presents," voiced "MLB Network Showcase," graced "MLB Tonight" and gave the network sheen. Now ahead: his induction speech. Knowing Bob and having written too many talks to recall, I suspect his will be personal, perhaps even wistful about tides and shores.
Shakespeare died a century and a half before British and American soldiers played rounders and other baseball antecedents in the Revolutionary War. Yet his phrase from "Julius Caesar" is as contemporary as the Frick Award: "All the voyage of their life." With a fine sense of symmetry, Bob Costas's voyage has arrived where it belongs.

Curt Smith is the author of 16 books, including the classic "Voices of The Game." A former speechwriter to President George H. W. Bush, he blogs at curtsmith.mlblogs.com and is a Gate House Media columnist, Associated Press "Best in New York State" radio commentator, and Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. This spring his newest book, "The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House," will be published.