This is the first in a series of pieces about the art of broadcasting sports. Few, I suppose, think of sports play-by-play broadcasting as an art. Many of us think of it as an opportunity to yell at the television. But broadcasting sports seems to me to be one of those things in life where the better you do it, the easier you make it look, the more everyone around you thinks they could do it just as well (or better). Catching fly balls is like this. Making short putts is like this. Running a successful company can be like this too.
Today: Bob Costas broadcasting baseball.
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WASHINGTON -- Bob Costas is thinking about a close play at first base. It is the morning after he called his first playoff baseball game in more than a decade, and he's still a bit buzzed from the experience. Costas hosts Olympics. He interviews presidents, and he interviews heroes, and he interviews villains. He collects Emmys the way most of us collect mismatched socks -- 23 of them so far. He speaks directly to the nation at halftime of television's most watched show, “Sunday Night Football.”
He still seems, to me at least, happiest just calling a baseball game ... especially with a broadcast partner he clicks with, like Jim Kaat.
"I could have handled it a little bit better," Costas is saying of the close play. It was the second inning of the Cardinals-Nationals series, Game 3, and Washington's Danny Espinosa dropped a bunt. Espinosa and the ball seemed to arrive on the same beat. Umpire Jim Joyce called the runner out. Costas, watching live, thought that Joyce got the call right and said so. On replay, though, Costas and everyone else saw that Espinosa had actually beaten the throw. Joyce had missed the call. Costas quickly reversed himself on the air -- "I would never try to cover up a mistake," he says -- but here, the morning after, he talks about how he might have done it better.
"It's a matter of craftsmanship," he says. "I did think Joyce got it right watching it live, but I didn't have to commit there. I could have said, 'Close play at first base, and Jim Joyce calls him out. Espinosa is outraged. The Washington fans think he was safe, but they could be seeing it with their hearts, let's see what the replay tells us.'"
Costas offers this new version of the call without the slightest break or gap or hesitation. The sentences come out of him fully formed, as if written in advance. This is a combination of natural talent and many years of broadcasting in countless different situations. It sounds perfectly natural -- that's the point, to sound natural -- but the vast majority of people cannot talk like this anymore than we can tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. Our off-the-cuff sentences are almost inevitably peppered with "uhs" and "you knows" and suspenseful pauses, and our narration often takes odd twists and turns that require Magellan like voyages to get back to the point. Most people who have tried (just for fun) to broadcast a baseball game into a tape recorder have felt the panic of the action getting away from them, the agony of not being able to think of a simple word, and the inevitable disappointment of how tinny the voice sounds on tape and how shallow the clichés that emerge in the flurry of the moment.
This is one of the wider gaps in life, this difference between how easy broadcasting a game looks and sounds … and how difficult it is to actually do well.
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About two hours before the game begins, Costas writes down the lineups on a giant white cardboard scorecard. In today's iPad world, not many announcers still use the big scorecard, and not many scribble down little facts about each player. Costas does both. He writes down batting averages, home runs, interesting little details. The scorecard is something from the past. Costas does broadcast baseball with the old masters (Vin Scully and Jack Buck and Harry Caray and Ernie Harwell and others) firmly in his mind. Costas thinks there are things that have been lost in modern baseball broadcasting: subtlety; story telling; a genuine effort to allow the rhythm of the game to emerge without overpowering it with bustle and replay and sound.
That probably does not surprise you. People tend to think Costas’ sensibilities are of another time. He has been called a baseball traditionalist so often by now that he lacks the strength to argue about it.
"People will use me as a symbol of a kind of stuck-in-the-1950s fan who doesn't want anything to change," he says. "They will say, 'You know, people like Bob Costas think …' and often, the position I'm supposed to hold in these scenarios is something I strongly disagree with. Are there things that were better about baseball years ago? Certainly. Are there things that are better now? Unquestionably."
Costas did grow up in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, that golden era when World Series games were played in the daytime, when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays roamed the outfield, when Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal pitched, when the Yankees always won. That part people know. Anyone who has followed Costas' career at all is probably aware that he carries a Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet, a reminder of what the game meant to him as a child and still means to him now.
What they might not know as well is that Costas spent much of his baseball life sitting in the family car on Long Island listening to baseball games, not out of some romantic connection, but because his father John needed to know the scores. John was an engineer, and he was a man with great charisma. He also was, in his son's words, an "inveterate, bet-the-mortgage gambler."
So baseball for young Bob Costas was not often about the sun-splashed innocence of the Mick hitting home runs from both sides of the plate or the aging Stan Musial in his deep crouch cracking another ball into the gap. It was, instead, about the changing mood of his father as Bob broke the news, good and bad. Baseball was about the power of young Bob Costas' words and how he conveyed them and how much it mattered.
Those words mattered a lot. The mood in the Costas home was wildly different depending on how John's bets came in. There would be some dark weeks when the bets did not come in. Some time ago, Bob told me this story: John Costas died suddenly when Bob was a senior in high school, and at the funeral a man walked up to Bob and handed him an envelope. "Your father was up when he died," the man said. "Give this to your mother." There was six grand inside.
A few weeks later, Bob Costas went to Syracuse and began his breakneck climb to becoming the most important sports broadcaster in America.
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Costas enjoys the preparation for a game. He has often talked about a dream -- one he insists he still has, even after hosting all the Olympics and winning all the awards -- of broadcasting a full season of minor league baseball somewhere. The draw for him is the preparation, it is getting to know all the players and the manager, it is working through the daily stats and stories, it is about immersing himself in baseball.
Doing a one-off playoff game like St. Louis vs. Washington does not give him that opportunity. Costas knows in the hours leading up to the game that he has way too much information for a single game. He began reading and studying for the game three days earlier, as soon as he was done with his Sunday night NFL game. Researchers -- particularly his son Keith, who works for the MLB Network -- sent him clippings and links and compelling statistics (and, for that matter, not so compelling statistics … more on this in a second).
Costas knew coming in that the biggest storyline would likely be Nationals pitcher Edwin Jackson, a spectacularly inconsistent pitcher who would often pitch brilliantly and often pitch terribly and rarely, it seemed, find the middle. Jackson was the likely big story line because of his inconsistency, because the Nationals desperately needed a victory (the series was tied 1-1) and because the Nationals had decided toward the end of the season to shut down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg (a year after he'd had Tommy John surgery), perhaps the most controversial shutdown in baseball history. The Jackson start and the Strasburg decision were not DIRECTLY related -- even if Strasburg had been available, Jackson likely would have made a start -- but they were close enough.
Costas wanted a way to express Jackson's inconsistencies to his audience in a simple way. There was Jackson's career won-loss record, 70-71, which might tell its own story. There were Jackson's previous two starts against the Cardinals: The first start, Jackson pitched eight innings and allowed one run; in the latter start, Jackson was pulled in the second inning after allowing nine runs. Costas also talked to various Nationals people about Jackson's inconsistencies.
Costas does have interest in some of the advanced statistics that are available today -- Keith is particularly interested in statistics like WAR and fielding-independent pitching and such -- but he admits that it's difficult to get them into broadcasts. They take time to explain, and explanations can interrupt the flow. One of the particular challenges of calling baseball on television is finding that balance between talking too much and talking too little. This isn't as true in other sports like football and basketball and hockey, where the action itself carries the broadcaster through much of the game.
Think of the lead-in to any NFL play:
"Second and 10 from the 49ers’ 43. San Francisco showing blitz, and Rodgers is changing the play at the line. Rodgers back, he's in trouble, he steps up, fires, and overthrows his intended receiver Jordy Nelson. Aldon Smith applying the pressure there."
Then, there is a 30-second or so pause from the action for the color commentator to relive the play, or analyze the replay, or tell a quick story about Aldon Smith, or make a strategic point, and the game goes on.
Baseball is not like that. It is a game of intermittent silences, both an opportunity and a test for a broadcaster. Talk too much, and you can strip away much of what makes baseball great … nobody likes sitting next to a blabbermouth for an entire baseball game. And yet, as Costas says, talk too little and you don’t serve anyone. "People want a soundtrack for the game," Costas says.
“You might hear someone say that you don’t need to say anything on television because the pictures are there. But saying, ‘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 ...’ that’s how baseball sounds.”
It really is a matter of music. As Costas says, the great announcers were great for a reason, and not necessarily the reason people think.
• People talk about the minimalist joys of Pat Summerall -- “Montana. Rice. Touchdown.” -- and it did sound beautiful, but that doesn’t mean it would work for anyone else. Perhaps it worked so well because Summerall had such a resonant voice, and he was always doing the big game, and his partner, John Madden, filled the empty spaces.
• People talk about the tell-it-like-it-is ferocity of Howard Cosell, and it too worked in ways not since duplicated. But perhaps much of his success emerged from the era, when sports broadcasting was tame and the times were turbulent.
• People talk about the joy of Vin Scully, but would his storytelling style work for anyone else? Probably not. Vin is in a once-in-a-century announcer. His voice is euphonic, his words are poetic, he has a half-century of stories to tell and his broadcasts are set up with him as the star (even though he never acts the star). The same words from someone else could sound like a lawnmower eating a stick.
For Costas, the rhythm of the broadcast cannot be set before the game begins. He has no idea how he will announce a game coming in. Certainly, there are standards and principles. But everything else depends. Maybe it will be a great game, filled with late-inning tension, and the words will need to be sparse and weighty with the pictures and sounds offering much of the excitement. Maybe it will be a terrible game, a blowout, and the silences will be filled with stories, history, a debate with partner Jim Kaat. Maybe, probably, it will be a little bit of both.
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Costas likes spending quiet time up in the booth before the game just getting the basics down -- pronunciation of names, basic statistics, the defensive positions for each team. He has a strong memory for such details, but he tries not to take that for granted. He used to go down on the field during batting practice, talk with some of the players, see if he might get a detail he could use. He found that batting practice isn’t often the place for those last-second details, though, and also found that he likes preparing quietly, going over the lineup and a few storylines once more before the game begins.
One thing he always does before the game -- all network announcers do this -- is spend a little time with each manager. For this game, it means talking with Washington's Davey Johnson and St. Louis' Mike Matheny. They are very different men, and the meetings are very different. With Johnson, the talk is looser … lots of stories going back and forth, some having to do with the Nationals, most not, including a classic Satchel Paige story. Johnson faced Paige at some point, probably in an exhibition game, and he said he asked Paige why he called his fastball a "bee ball." Paige smiled broadly and said, "because it be where I want it to be."
With Matheny, the conversation is more structured. Matheny and Costas have spoken numerous times before, and while Costas wants to know some specifics about the game and potential strategies, he really wants to talk with Matheny about catchers blocking the plate. Matheny's 13-year career was ended after a series of concussions left him often disoriented and bewildered. He tells a chilling story of forgetting what pitch he had called just seconds after he called it. He says that, though he would have fought against it as a player, as a manager he has come to believe that baseball must do more to protect catchers on plays at the plate.
Costas files all this away. "I know, doing just one game, that there won't be time to talk about everything," he says. "When you are doing a series, you know that at some point it will come up. But in one game, the opportunity might not present itself. If there's a play at the plate, Mike's story is compelling and could launch an interesting conversation about whether or not catchers should be better protected. But it's important not to force it."
That's more or less what Costas says is his overall philosophy of broadcasting. Don't force it. Let the game dictate.
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In the first inning, Washington's Bryce Harper hits a fly ball that throws off Costas' perspective. The ball cracks off the bat, and Costas thinks it has a chance to be a home run, and his voice rises accordingly. He is not alone -- seemingly everyone in the crowd reacts the same way. The sound, the trajectory of the ball, the fact that Bryce Harper has so much raw power made it seem like a sure thing.
As it turns out, the ball dies in the outfield … and Costas says on the air that it looked a lot better coming off the bat. Off the air, he talks again about craftsmanship. "I wouldn't say I made a mistake on that ball because everyone thought it was a home run," he says. "But that’s a good example. It might have been better if I had said, 'Harper swings and hits a long fly ball to right. Back goes Carlos Beltran …' and by the time I go through all that it would be clear that the ball wasn't hit as well as it looked, and I could have said, 'and Beltran has room. The ball looked and sounded good coming off the bat, but in the end it's out number two."
This is the constant challenge … to allow the voice to rise and fall and foreshadow what will happen but to do so without committing too soon. Costas offers an example of Cincinnati third baseman Scott Rolen. He is, Costas knows off the top of his head, an eight-time Gold Glove winner. This would be in his mind when a ground ball gets hit to Rolen. But it's a very different thing to say, "The eight-time Gold Glove winner makes another dazzling play," and "Eight gold gloves didn't help Scott Rolen on that play." It’s important not to jump ahead.
The best broadcasts for Costas are instinctive, where he feels like he is in sync with the action. Some of this comes from repetition, though repetition is not something Bob Costas gets much these days. He was widely viewed as the best young baseball broadcaster in the game -- the heir to Vin Scully -- but his career went a different way, to different heights, and he's the Olympic host, the Kentucky Derby host, the man who interviewed Jerry Sandusky and Mark McGwire, the “Sunday Night Football” interviewer and essayist and so on. Costas' baseball announcing comes in limited numbers on the MLB Network. And so, he has to find that baseball rhythm on the fly.
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As the broadcast goes on, Costas does begin to find that rhythm. He does find himself a touch fooled on a fly ball to right-center ("I thought that was hit better than it was," he says) but as it usually does for the best announcers, the game begins to slow down for him. His calls get snappier. He is able to add a few Costas flourishes (Jackson did get knocked around, leading Costas at one point to say, “Jackson’s on the ropes and Strasburg’s on the shelf”).
The real trouble is … the game is lousy. Jackson's troubles drain just about all the life out of what had been an exuberant Nationals crowd there to see the first playoff game in Washington in almost 80 years. The Nationals waste a scoring chance, the Cardinals pour it on, and Costas finds the last few innings filled with relatively unimportant action on the field and lots of time to fill.
This, though, can be Costas at his best. He and partner Jim Kaat talk about Nationals history, they talk a lot about Strasburg (Kaat had been particularly critical of the Nationals decision), they do broach the subject of Mike Matheny and protecting catchers. They talk about how the short series have affected the baseball (the Nationals finished 10 games better than the Cardinals over the 162-game season but, after this drubbing, they would be just one loss away from elimination and in two days would be eliminated). They also show Kaat's 1960 baseball card, when he was "rookie star"* and talk about that.
*Other 1960 rookie stars included Art Mahaffey, Al Spangler, Al Stieglitz, Lou Klimchock, Dan Dobbek, Ed Hobaugh, Duke Carmel, and also Frank Howard and Carl Yastrzemski.
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It is a good broadcast. Costas can feel this when it's done. And as soon as the broadcast is over, he is flooded with text messages and emails from people around the country saying how much they enjoyed hearing Costas do an important baseball game again. Many of them talk about much fun Costas seemed to be having calling an afternoon baseball game in October.
He likes this compliment in particular because he WAS having fun, and part of the purpose of announcing baseball is transmitting that fun for everyone else to feel. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? People have strong opinions about sports announcers. Usually harsh ones. The networks are usually barraged with complaints that a broadcaster favored one team over another (often, these complaints will be evenly split). Twitter is often ablaze with live commentary about the commentary, and this is usually snarky and nitpicking (I say this as one of the Twitter nitpickers; I can't help it). In a time when a 60-percent approval rating is viewed as a historic landslide, a national sports announcer knows he or she will irritate or anger or irk a lot of people.
But, in the end, despite all that, the best announcers make the game sound fun and at the same time they make the game sound like it matters. It’s not something they can do by merely shouting -- putting lots of exclamation points in your speech -- or by running roughshod over the game with funny stories or interesting tidbits or strong opinion. No, it’s harder than that.