Bob Costas used to be good at baseball. Once upon a time, he was a distant third in NBC's stable of Game Of The Week announcers, but only because the first two were Vin Scully and Marv Albert. Once Game Of The Week went elsewhere, Costas continued to shine as NBC's man in the booth for the MLB postseason. But when NBC ditched baseball altogether after the 2000 season, Costas was forced to ply his trade at events like the Olympics and Wimbledon. Ever since then, he's looked vaguely uncomfortable on camera.
My assumption was that Costas looked off for the last decade-plus because he would much rather be doing baseball play-by-play than selling snowboarding and backhands. But he's also been associated with the MLB Network for several years, and that has not eased his visible discomfort in any way. So I now assume that he simply hates the raw displays of emotion that are part and parcel with modern sports.
This theory was cemented on Sunday, when Costas shared some sports highlights during a U.S. Open broadcast. One of these highlights showed the Mets defeating the Cubs on a walkoff three-run homer from Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Upon observing the Mets greeting Kirk at home plate with much jumping and fanfare, Costas cracked, "a team fourteen games under .500 celebrates as if it just won the seventh game of the World Series. Another indication of the ongoing decline of western civilization." The line was delivered not in a stentorian What's become of our once great nation? manner, but rather with Costas' trademark smugness and the rising cadences he confuses for wit.
As walkoff celebrations go, I'd say the Mets' was at the baseline in terms of exuberance. There was much hooting and hollering, but no running around the field and no injuries. That Costas was so upset by this tells me two things. The first is that despite his position at MLBN, he mustn't watch a lot baseball anymore, because this is how walkoff wins are marked now, and have been for some time. Walkoff celebrations are thrown by teams soaring in first and teams mired in last.
I'm aware that when Costas was a lad, baseball players were supposed to conduct themselves within the emotional spectrum of Gary Cooper and a piece of driftwood, but times have changed. Baseball was supplanted as the nation's favorite sport by football decades ago. Why? Well, gambling, mostly. But also because in football, the raw emotion that fans feel is fully exhibited by the players as well. Every single play is gets its own dance, or a chest thump, or a war whoop. This hews a lot closer to what fans feel they would do if they could only play the game themselves. The stoic professionalism we associate with the classical baseball player (think Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams) does not.
There are still unspoken dictates against enjoying yourself too much on a baseball diamond (just ask Jordany Valdespin), but baseball is slowly shedding its armor. The now-ubiquitous walkoff celebration is the most visible example. Yes, in the grand scheme of an 162-game schedule, one win is ultimately meaningless, particularly if you're not a very good team. But who, apart from Bob Costas, wants to watch a sport where we concede that what we're watching doesn't matter?
The second thing Costas's remarks tell me is that he just wanted to take a shot at the Mets. I realize that thinking any announcer has it in for your favorite team is the thinnest conspiracy theory gruel there is, since it's almost never true and would do the announcer no good even if it was. (As if broadcasters had some influence over the games they call.) But when the Mets are truly awful, as they are lately, they present the kind of easy punchline that bad comedians like Costas can't resist.
Large numbers of people have an idea in their head about the Mets, even if they haven't watched baseball in years. Outside of Mets fans, that idea of the team tends to be negative. I'm not sure why that is. As a lifelong New Yorker, I understand Yankee fans not liking the Mets, but remain baffled by people from thousands of miles away who profess contempt for them. I could hazard some guesses, but the why almost doesn't matter, because it's true all the same. People simply like to Nelson Muntz at the Mets when they fail. (They would do the same against the Yankees, I suspect, but are rarely afforded the opportunity.)
The Marlins and Astros are both worse than the Mets this year (on paper, at least), but joking about their ineptitude would strike most viewers as cruel. These are also two teams that do not resonate in the public consciousness the way the Mets do. Someone watching the U.S. Open might not even know the Marlins exist, but he will surely have heard of the Mets, and the odds are he won't like seeing them celebrate a win. Costas, a seasoned broadcast veteran, knows he must reflect the viewers' contempt.
Having heard Costas make these remarks, I'm more sad than angry, because again, he was once one of the best baseball announcers in the business. Go watch game 5 of the 1999 NLCS and hear him call a game that lasted almost six hours and not lose a step the whole way (with Joe Morgan in the booth with him, no less). His call of the fateful bottom of the 15th inning is truly great.
Now when you hear Costas call an occasional game for MLBN, you can tell he's lost the broadcasting chops that made such work possible. So maybe it's for the best he left baseball, or baseball left him. Better he stick to golf, with its manicured expanses and petulant demands for silence.