Thirty years ago -- maybe even a little bit longer ago than that -- I was just a lost kid. Others my age, all of them, seemed so sure about themselves, about their talents, about their futures. I knew nothing about myself, had no discernible talent, and the future seemed as bleak and hopeless as Cleveland baseball in 1980s September. I had an electric Smith Corona typewriter, a birthday gift from my past, and I sat behind that typewriter and decided to write a letter to someone I had never met but was convinced could save me.
I began the letter like this: "Dear Mr. Costas."
On Wednesday, Bob Costas won the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award, the highest award for any baseball announcer. Bob has won countless awards, a billion Emmys, a million National Sportscaster of the Year Awards, the Walter Cronkite Award and he's been inducted into the Sports Media Hall of Fame. Heck, he's hosted 12 Olympic Games, which is the sportscasting equivalent of winning 12 Academy Awards.
But as soon as the Ford C. Frick Award was announced, I knew that it would mean more to him than any of the other honors. And it does.
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"This is at the top of the list," Costas said. "No disrespect to any other award that I've been lucky enough to receive, they all mean a great deal to me. This one means the most because of my love of baseball, and because when you realize that in some sense, even if you're coming off the bench, in some sense, you're on the same team as Jack Buck, as Vin Scully, as Ernie Harwell, as Red Barber, as Harry Caray, as Mel Allen, as Dick Enberg …"
He kept going with names for a while because, well, that's his world. Sure, Bob Costas has been the broadcaster of his generation. He has brought us everything from the Super Bowl to the NBA Finals, hosted everything from NASCAR to the Triple Crown, called elevator races on "Late Night with David Letterman," interviewed more or less every important person in and out of sports.
But ever since I was that kid typing an awkward letter, I've known that Bob is at his best, his truest self, when he's on the microphone at a baseball game.
Why? Well, I think there are a couple of reasons, one which he mentioned: Bob truly loves baseball. That's his sport. He loves the history of baseball, the numbers of baseball, the cadence and tempo and quirks of baseball. He can talk for a half hour straight about the chalky gum that used to come in packs of baseball cards. He can give give you a 90-minute soliloquy on the time that Gary Geiger saved his Strat-o-Matic baseball team in the early 1960s. He can offer fiery thoughts on ways that baseball can improve, or recite obscure baseball statistics that just stick in his head, or just keep you spellbound as he recalls being a kid, sitting in his father's car on a drive on Long Island, turning the radio dial and listening to those voices, all those voices that he knew would help him find his calling.
But to love something, even that deeply, is not enough, it's not nearly enough. Bob's gift is his ability to convey that love, to transfer it across a television screen. You hear it. When I was a kid, I didn't know the story about him sitting in his father's car, and yet I did somehow because I could hear it in his voice. I, too, would sit in my parents' car and listen to baseball on the radio. Maybe you did too, or maybe, as technology improved, you would scan through your At Bat app. Whatever, there is something in the way Bob has called baseball games all these years that all of us driven baseball fans can still hear.
If I had to pick a word to describe that thing, it is "musical." Bob has a musician's timing. He says the right words in the right voice right on the beat. Sure it helps that he's freakishly dexterous with words. That's his crazy gift. Once, long ago, I wrote down every word he said in a broadcast and then read it afterward as if it was a game story. It was remarkable. No word was out of place. Every sentence was complete and already edited.
As someone who is constantly erasing one word, replacing it with another, moving paragraphs up and down, stopping and starting over, I have no idea how he does this. I once asked Bob if he ever had that all-too-human moment when he is in a conversation, says something, and then an hour or a day or even a week later thinks, "Oh, I should have said that!"
He modestly said he has had that feeling, but to be honest, I don't think he quite knew what I was talking about.
Beyond that deftness with words, though, Bob's brilliance is that timing. He senses when a game needs a splash of history, when it needs a funny story, when it needs him to back out and let the drama build, and when it needs deeper explanation. Caray was your favorite uncle taking you to a bar to watch a game. Scully was the poet laureate who helped you see what is beautiful about the game. And Bob, well, he's the bandleader; he just knows when to pick things up, slow them down, add a little saxophone, give us more drums.
"People want a soundtrack for the game," he told me once. "You might hear someone say, 'Oh, you don't need to say anything on television, because the pictures are there.' But that isn't right. The words go with the music."
And then he said these simple words: "Beltran hits a ground ball to third, Ryan Zimmerman backhands it, throws across to first, in time, and that's the end of the inning …"
And because he's Bob Costas, it sounded like there was a game going on.
For me -- and I suspect he will agree with this -- Bob never quite did enough baseball. He was the second announcer on NBC's Game of the Week in the 1980s, behind Scully, and he called some playoff and World Series games in the '90s, but NBC stopped broadcasting baseball then.
Anyway, he was too good at everything else. He was needed in Beijing or at Churchill Downs, he had to be at Michael Jordan's remarkable last game with the Bulls and at the chair interviewing presidents and newsmakers and celebrities and, memorably, Ozzy Osbourne.
But I know he missed baseball. Bob had this dream he often told me about -- and maybe it's still kicking around in there -- to spend one summer simply calling every game for a Minor League baseball team in Louisville or Memphis or Des Moines or wherever. He would tell me that he was serious about it, and I know he was, but he is Bob Costas, and there was always an Olympics or a Super Bowl to host.
Now he calls some games for MLB Network, and each time, he perks up like it's the good old days. "I love it as much as I ever did," he says, an amazing thing for a man who has done everything in sports to feel. But it's obviously true. That joy for baseball that moved me to write him when I was a kid, absolutely, you still hear it in his voice now.
I should add that all those years ago, Bob Costas wrote back to me. Later, he sat down and talked baseball and life with me for hours. Later still, we became friends. Countless times through the years, we have talked about baseball, what's so wonderful about it, what we might do to improve it, the connections between, say, Jose Altuve and Joe Morgan or Michael Trout and Willie Mays or Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax.
It's great to know Bob, to talk with him, but I still get the biggest kick listening to him call the game.