Costas on baseball's return: 'I'll believe it when I see it'

©St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Bob Costas attends the Friar's Club Entertainment Icon Award at The Ziegfeld Ballroom in New York on November 12, 2018. - Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/TNS

Bob Costas has covered Major League Baseball at the network television level for 40 years, watching the sport go through labor strife, the steroids era and the current transformation of the game from traditional strategy to defensive shifts, a “swing for the fences” mentality and meandering play.

Now, with MLB players and owners feuding over money amid a pandemic that has led to record unemployment in America and the shutdown of all major U.S. sports leagues since mid-March, he sounds frustrated by the lack of progress between the sides in baseball.

“I’m less optimistic today than I was a few days ago,” he said this week about an agreement being reached. In fact, he said he has reached the “I’ll believe it when I see it” stage.

While the NHL, NBA and Major League Soccer in recent days have outlined plans to return now that the number of coronavirus cases are subsiding, baseball still is bogged down on a squabble over money dividing the players and owners. The latest major development came Wednesday, when owners rejected the players’ proposal for a 114-game season. Owners have pitched a much shorter schedule.

Consider that the NHL and NBA could be having their marquee events, the playoffs, in high gear at what normally would be the heart of the baseball season. And baseball would be idle, entirely ceding a stage it normally would have held exclusively.

“If they can’t start at all — not because of extenuating circumstances (such as a large rise in COVID-19 infections) — but if baseball is off the radar screen for 18 or 19 months until returning next year, that’s going to really hurt” the game, Costas said. “The resentment would be legitimate.”

Costas’ broadcasting career began in St. Louis, where he continued to live for many years after relinquishing his job at KMOX (1120 AM) when he became established, then later flourished, at NBC. He keenly is aware of the relationship between the Cardinals and the region, and says whenever baseball returns, how it does in this market will be an important indicator of the sport’s health.

“St. Louis will be a very good test case,” he said, noting that “baseball is close to primacy” in a market that has only one other major pro sports team — albeit the reigning Stanley Cup champion Blues.

He said there will be three key factors in St. Louis to measuring how baseball’s return will be gauged.

— Public opinion, including talk shows.

— Ticket sales, once fans are allowed to attend.

— Television ratings.

Meanwhile, Costas has a recommendation to the players and owners — stop leaking information, which sometimes is done to try to make the other side look bad.

“They’ve got to keep a lid on this,” he said. “ … You can win the battle but lose the war.”

Costas has homes in his native New York City as well as Newport Beach, Calif., and has been at the latter since the virus-fueled shutdown hit.

“We didn’t have to figure out whether to stay or leave,” he said. “We’re waiting it out.”

Although he hasn’t had any baseball games to call on MLB Network, for which he was supposed to be doing about one a week, he has been active on the airwaves. He has made appearances on ESPN and CNN in addition to MLB Network, and is popular on the radio and podcast interview circuit.

“I’ve been busy,” he said, but adding that the amount of “work” he puts in for these appearances does not approach the level of preparation he does for a game broadcast.

He also has been passing time like many of us have done — channel surfing on television. But unlike most of us, he occasionally stumbles onto prominent games he has broadcast as networks have been going to the archives to help fill the vast amount of airtime that would have been occupied by live events.

Watching oneself call a game on a long-ago national stage is something to which only a tiny group of people can relate. Costas said he recently was taking with Al Michaels, who said, “Everywhere I turn, it’s me!” St. Louisan Joe Buck is among those who can say the same thing.

So can Costas, who was featured prominently in the highly successful “The Last Dance” 10-part series about the Michael Jordan-led 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty that recently ran on ESPN. Costas did the play-by-play for NBC on many of that team’s key games. And he recently came across an MLB Network block of three baseball contests he had called and hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.

“It was like an out-of-body experience,” he said of coming across those games. “I said things I didn’t even remember.”

Next up for Costas is a series of shows about iconic former baseball announcers, including the Cardinals’ Jack Buck and Harry Caray, that is to begin Monday with a piece on the Dodgers’ Vin Scully. The air dates for the subsequent episodes are not finalized, though they might be ready to be shown before the end of this month.

“Then hopefully we’ll be back to baseball,” Costas said.

But he isn’t confident about that possibility.

“I’m in a wait-and-see mode,” he said.

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©2020 St. Louis Post-Dispatch