The Poscast with Bob Costas
The guest on the latest Poscast is the great Bob Costas, and we talk about a bunch of things such as our mutual distaste for adding baseball playoff games, the best way for the NFL to handle preseason games, the future of sports television and, of course, Strat-o-matic baseball.
But having Bob Costas on the Poscast leads to two inevitable questions:
1. How silly is it for me to be hosting any show that has BOB COSTAS already on it?
2. Am I really going to tell my long-winded Bob Costas story again?
Best I can tell, it has been about three years since I've written my Costas story, which is not nearly long enough ago to tell it again. But I will tell it again anyway because it's probably the story that best explains my crazy career, and it's the story I like to share with young people who have big dreams. Beyond that, let's be honest, I don't really have that many stories. I've got to recycle.
I was an agate clerk for The Charlotte Observer in 1988. I was 21 years old and my job as agate clerk was to code the sports standings -- NHL, NBA and so on -- gather and code the various results off the wire (I was the guy who was responsible for getting the PBA bowling results in the paper), and take dictation of local sports results over the phone. I took a lot of dictation. It definitely improved my typing. I probably typed in the word "Corchiani" at least 75 times*.
*A little insider 1980s ACC humor there.
In any case, my job did not entail much writing or, to be technical about it, any writing. There's a reason the word "clerk" was on the end of the job description. I was writing many pretend columns that I would put into my computer basket -- blogging before blogs -- but as far as writing that anyone actually saw, no, I didn't get to do much of that.
And then I heard that Bob Costas was bringing a baseball team to nearby Salisbury, N.C. The National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame is in Salisbury, and Costas had been named national sportscaster of the year again. That was becoming a habit -- Costas has been named national sportscaster of the year more times than anyone else. He was trying to make the weekend more fun by bringing a team of celebrities to play against Catawba College -- a celebrity baseball team that included Mickey Mantle. And I desperately wanted to write about it.
This had nothing at all to do with Mantle. I idolized Bob Costas. I had been thrilled by his television work long before I became aware of the various sportswriters who would inspire me. I was only just beginning to read writing Frank Deford and Jim Murray and Gary Smith with an eye on HOW they wrote. I was only then beginning to read Bill Nack and Red Smith and Mike Lupica and Gary Smith and so many others with the idea of writing like them. I was still grasping for something and anything.
But already, I had this vague notion of writing the way Bob Costas talked. He was funny and smart and tough and he clearly liked sports. Though I couldn't put it into words then, that was what I wanted to do too. I begged the sports editor for the opportunity to write about Costas and his baseball team. I pleaded. I was desperate. The funny thing is, looking back, I'm sure nobody else wanted to go up to Salisbury on a weekend to write about a celebrity baseball game. But the sports editor, now a good friend, made a big show about saying that he wasn't sure I was ready for the assignment. He made me sweat it out for two or three weeks. Then, finally, a couple of days before the event, he agreed to send me. I was elated beyond reason. This -- I felt sure -- was my big break.
I showed up at the Holiday Inn on Holiday Inn Drive in Salisbury hours and hours before the game. The woman at the desk shrugged and said I could wait in the parking lot, if I wanted. And so I did. Celebrities began to show up -- Robert Klein was there, Jim Valvano was there, Bart Conner the gymnast was there (unless it was the other American gymnast of the time, Kurt Thomas -- I'm pretty sure it was Conner) and several others I cannot remember now. It was pretty thrilling and overwhelming for a kid who, up to that point, still considered an interview conducted with Tim "Dr. Dirt" Wilkinson, the tennis player, to be my most famous brush with greatness*.
*Unless it was the time we went to the park and learned about cross country skiing from the first American to win an Olympic medal Bill Koch.
Then Costas showed up with Mickey Mantle. I nervously approached ... Bob Costas. I had already written him several letters (and he always graciously wrote back). I do not know what my introduction was to him on that day ... I'm quite certain I babbled a whole lot of blabber about how much I admired him or something. I still tend to babble in those circumstances.*
*Don't worry, I won't tell the story about the time I met Jim Murray again. One recycled story at a time.
Bob could not have been nicer. I mean that literally. Well, maybe not LITERALLY, I suppose he could have given me a car or something, but save that, he was top-of-the-chart nice. He spent a long time with me. He invited me into the hotel lobby area where the celebrities were telling stories (Klein and Valvano were hilarious). He was so nice he invited me to sit on the bench during the game, which is how I ended up at 21 years old sitting next to Mickey Mantle in a dugout with the Mick in a full Yankees uniform. The Mick didn't look too good, to be honest -- he kind of looked like Tom Hanks in his first game as coach for the Rockford Peaches. But he was kind (or anyway, he didn't hack up chewing tobacco on my foot), and Bob was overwhelmingly kind, and the other people covering the game for various local newspaper, TV and radio outlets looked on jealously as I sat on the bench.
Of course, after having one of my heroes treat me so generously, I wanted to write the greatest story that had ever been written. Here's a hint for you young writers out there -- don't try to write the greatest story that had ever been written. It doesn't work unless you are, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald. With writing you have to try easy. You have to be quick without hurrying. You have to grip the golf club lightly. You also have to avoid the hammiest sports cliches. The point is that story was squashed to death.
I talked to Bob Costas on the phone a day later ... I just wanted to call and thank him for the kindness and, if I'm being honest, to hear him compliment me on the story I had worked so hard to write. Well, hey, you might have done the same. He was my hero, after all. And I feel sure that nobody, not any writer in the history of the world, not Shakespeare and not Fitzgerald, not Tolstoy and not Roth, not any writer who ever lived worked harder on a story about an exhibition baseball game in Salisbury, N.C.
Costas was getting ready for the dinner in Salisbury and so he did not have time to talk, but he said he did in fact want to talk with me about the story. He said he would call me back. I did not expect him to actually call back but I was thrilled that he said so.
He did call back just a couple of days later. I was in the office working my agate shift. Please take a second and imagine the thrill. I'm in the office, coding hockey results or something, and the phone rings, and someone says: "Joe, Bob Costas is on the line for you." Everyone in the office turned (at least in my memory). I picked up the phone, and Bob sounded cheery. He said something to effect of, "Well, I told you I would call back." There was a second or two or small talk, and then there was silence, and this caused me to say: "Well, you said you wanted to tell me what you thought of the story ..."
And Bob Costas the 10 little words that will echo in my brain forever: "Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but you asked."
Not good. Bob then proceeded to tell me EXACTLY what he thought of the story, and though I'm sure he was exceedingly polite and typically well-spoken, well, there was no mistaking that beat-down. You know those cartoon moments where one character gets so pummeled that someone else has to come with a broom and dustbin and sweep them off the floor? Yeah. That was me. I don't remember much of what was said because it occurred to me at some point several words in that Bob really DID NOT like the story, that he thought it tragically overwritten, that I had clearly overshot, and once I realized that Bob Costas really disliked what I had written, well, all I heard were helicopters.
Looking back, I'm sure that what Bob said wasn't that harsh. I'm sure it was constructive criticism and I'm sure it was cushioned with kind words. I'm sure that if he told me the same thing today, I would see it very differently. But I was not in a place where I could see it that way then. I was a 21-year-old kid who idolized Bob Costas, who had no idea what the future held, had no sense of perspective, had sort of expected to be complimented ... and that call made me feel like my career had ended before it began. I'm not exaggerating in the slightest. I hung up the phone and looked around the room and thought, "OK, now what am I going to do with my life? Bob Costas just told me I'm not cut out for this line of work. BOB COSTAS ...
And this: "Maybe I could work in a zoo." I had always thought I would be good working in a zoo.
I did not know what to do. I did something then that still surprised me to this day: I wrote Bob Costas a long letter. I can't say where that impulse came from. I, of course, do not remember any of the specifics of what I wrote in that letter, but I can only imagine that the over-writing in that thing made the Salisbury baseball story look like a build your own grill instruction manual by comparison. I know I wrote in there about some of my ambitions (as I understood them then), and about the sort of writer I hoped to become and, well, as I've said before, if that letter ever went public I feel sure I would never leave my house again.
And then: Life went on. I didn't go for any zoo jobs. I kept coding agate. In the summer of 1988, the Charlotte Observer offered me my first writing job: I was to write sports in the bureau in Rock Hill, S.C. The job was the best thing that had yet happened to me, though of course I didn't know it at the time. I just wrote, nonstop. I think I had 700 bylines that year. I wrote a community softball notebook. I wrote a notebook about local cycling. I wrote a notebook about high school volleyball, high school tennis, high school track and so on. We covered the high school football and baseball teams like they were SEC colleges -- to this day I can name all the high schools in the York-Lancaster-Chester area at the time (Fort Mill, Rock Hill, Northwestern, Indian Land, Lancaster, Chester, Lewisville, Great Falls). I can't say I loved it all. But it was life changing for me. I didn't have time to worry about the particulars -- there was always more to do.
I was on the phone with the Indian Land volleyball coach -- at least that's how I remember it -- when I was told that there was a call for me. I told them to put the call on hold where it stayed for a few minutes. When I finished my in-depth interview with the coach, I picked up the phone. And it was Bob Costas.
He told me that he had gotten my letter, and it had told him more about me than any story ever could. He told me he had pinned the letter on his refrigerator door. He told me that someday, when I was working at the New York Times (or Sports Illustrated -- Bob seems to remember it as Sports Illustrated) he would tell people he knew me when.
I cannot begin to explain what that call meant to me. My crazy life has been overcrowded with lucky breaks -- breaks I did not fully (or, in some cases, even partially) appreciate at the time. Everything broke right. I worked for great editors at precisely the right time in my career. I ran into great stories, often by accident. I met amazing people who offered a kind word or perfectly timed advice or a brilliant lesson. I have made great friends in this business, and we have challenged each other and pushed each other and inspired each other and mocked each other just when we needed it most.
And that call from Bob Costas on that afternoon ... well, I can only explain it this way. I try to teach my daughters a lot of things. Right now I'm trying to teach my oldest her 8 multiplication table ("Figure 8 ... it would be great ... if I could skate ... "), and I'm trying to teach my youngest that chocolate chips do not make a viable meal, but the biggest thing I want to teach them both is that it is possible. Whatever it is. The world, I believe, is best enjoyed and most affected by those people who believe in possibility, who strive for it, who shake off the doubters and their own self doubt, who laugh with the critics and keep moving forward, who follow their own curiosities until they are filled, who see themselves accomplishing the best they can imagine.
I did not have that confidence. In some ways I still don't. I did not see myself achieving great things, or good things, and I wasn't feeling too good about accomplishing even average things. Bob Costas helped trigger some of that confidence in me. It's funny: We live in a time, I suspect, where cynicism often trumps enthusiasm, where it's easier to rip than praise, where saying that someone is great at what he or she does will draw much more negative reaction than saying someone is terrible at what he or she does. Maybe it's not the time we live in. Maybe it's always like that. I've tried, I hope, to avoid that trap for the most part. I think Bob Costas has, for more than a quarter century now, been great at what he does. I think he's a five-tool guy, great at play-by-play, at commentary, at hosting, at interviews, at news-reporting. I've been inspired by his work. He has made sports so much more entertaining and interesting for me through the years.
And when he called me to say, "You're going to make it," well, I had this strange thought in my head: Maybe I am going to make it. I mean this wasn't just anybody saying it. This was Bob Costas.