Mention the name, Bob Costas, and there are few in America, let alone the sports world, that don’t know him. But, it’s after the acknowledgment of the man that the view shifts. Some may see him as a broadcaster. Some see him and think of the Olympics. Some see him as a personality that transcends sports into the world of one-on-one interviews from his show on MSNBC, “Internight”, or the “Bob Costas Interview” on “Dateline NBC” and “Today”, or his show “On the Record” on HBO and yes, some see him as a baseball luminary and scholar.
His book, “Fair Ball – a Fan’s Case for Baseball” has been a best seller, and he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the position of Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
What was discovered in conversation with the man, is that his knack for reaching people through the one-way medium of television or print, is not limited to the media, but rather something natural and unscripted.
Growing up in New York as a diehard Mantle fan, he has become a statesman for what the game of baseball means historically (Ken Burns “Baseball”) and in his knowledge of the game from a business perspective (key interview subject for a recent “Outside The Lines” on ESPN, and the aforementioned “Fair Ball”).
In this extensive interview with OSC, Costas touches on the relocation of the Expos, ballpark development, marketing MLB, the power structure between MLB and the Players’ Union, whether he’s interested in being Commissioner of Major League Baseball, the effect of an MLB team in DC on the Orioles, and how MLB in Portland could possibly realign the League for the better. – Maury Brown
Team Payroll and the Wildcard System
OSC: We just witnessed a young Marlins team beat a vaunted Yankees team in the World Series. Given the fact that the Marlins payroll was 1/3 the size of the Yankees, is there too much emphasis placed on team payroll as a barometer for winning?
Costas: No, there isn’t too much emphasis placed on it.
With the Wildcard and three divisions and always the possibility of catching lightning in a bottle, it doesn’t follow that the teams with the highest payrolls will always be in the World Series, or the teams with the relatively low payrolls can’t upset the apple cart, but over time that’s the way it plays out.
If you have poor management and a high payroll, you might get nothing. If you have a relatively low payroll and good management, and a lot of luck, you might do well for a period of time. But, all things being even close to equal, high payrolls make a huge difference.
If Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s, had an identical twin brother, and you made one of them the GM of the Braves; or the Dodgers; or the Yankees; or the Mets; or the Red Sox, and you left the other Billy Beane in Oakland, over a 5-year spread the other Billy Beane would have more to play with.
OSC: Since we’re talking about Billy Beane, will his stock be diluted if he moves to a franchise with a higher payroll structure?
Costas: Yeah, because then he could never exceed expectations. He can only meet expectations.
OSC: Given the fact that we’ve had two Wildcard teams win the World Series back-to-back, do you see the Wildcard system as a way for teams that performed marginally in the regular season to capture lightning in a bottle and make the regular season less dramatic?
Costas: Yeah, there’s no question about it.
The Wildcard can sometimes yield good story lines. There’s no question that the Florida Marlins were a good story line. And sometimes a team that’s a Wildcard is playing as well as anybody, or better, come August or September.
So, the objection of the Wildcard was never that a Wildcard team wasn’t good enough to be in the post-season tournament or couldn’t win it.
The objection, for thoughtful fans was, that it destroyed the concept of a pennant race. As long as you have a Wildcard you can’t have a true pennant race, because there’s not an “all or nothing” aspect to finishing first in your Division, unless the pace of the Division is so slow that first place team would have lesser record than the Wildcard.
Otherwise, the Wildcard undermines the excitement of a close divisional race that goes to the wire. And, it actually penalizes teams that win their divisions in a blow-out, like the Braves or the Giants, because they get no significant advantage once the playoffs start over a mediocre division winners or the Wildcard. That’s the real objection.
The contrast between that, and let’s say, football – could Wildcard team go to the Super Bowl? Yeah, and God bless them if they do, because they have to go a tougher road – they have to play an extra game – they’re on the road all the time. Whereas teams that do better during the regular season get a first-round bye, perhaps, which is a huge advantage. Then they have homefield throughout the Playoffs, and since Playoff round in football is only one game, that homefield is 100%. It’s not one extra game out of 5, or 1 extra game out of 7.
Now, they’re (MLB) never going to change this playoff format, at least not in the next couple of years. Because, by luck, this playoff format this year, coughed up the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Yankees, and a great story line with the Marlins; and all the Series went the limit; and they all had compelling story lines. And so, if they fiddled with the format, the superficial reaction would be, “Hey, why are you messing up a good thing?” But, it’s exactly the same format that produced relatively uninteresting post-seasons in the past, and relatively low ratings on television in the past.
What they (MLB) really should do, is seed the playoffs in a way that makes sense. Not eliminate the Wildcard necessarily, but create a distinction between being the Wildcard and being a team that wins its Division.
The Relocation of the Expos
OSC: If indeed MLB relocates the Montreal Expos, as MLB is currently looking to do, the Expos appear to be going into either a brand new market, or a market that hasn’t seen MLB in 30 years. Sports economists, like Andrew Zimbalist, believe that stadiums in existing markets are not economic drivers.
Since the placement of a team in one of these new markets is essentially a different paradigm, is it possible that those views may not be correct in this situation?
Costas: I think that there are not enough test cases to measure this second circumstance that you outline. I respect Zimbalist, but if that is actually his view, I disagree with it to this extent.
I think that new stadiums in existing markets, of late, are less of an economic driver than they have been. You don’t get the same proportionate jump that Baltimore got with Camden Yards or that Cleveland got with Jacobs Field, but certainly Pittsburgh is in a better position than they were. Is it a panacea? No.
But Pittsburgh is in a better position than they were. Milwaukee is in a better position than they were. I just don’t think that it’s going to be as much of a leg up as it was in the past, especially because the novelty of these new stadiums wears off quicker.
When Baltimore got it; when Jacobs Field got it; when Colorado got their new stadium, they stood out on the landscape. Now they are becoming more and more common place. Plus, when Baltimore and Cleveland got their stadiums, it was before the huge explosion of cable revenue negated some of that advantage. So, when Baltimore got the stadium and Cleveland got theirs, they made up a huge amount of the gulf between them and the Yankees. Then, the gulf exploded again when the Yankees tapped into the additional cable revenues that Cleveland and Baltimore and almost every market have available to them. So would Kansas City be better off with a new stadium? Yeah, they’d be better off. Would they be in the same league as the Yankees? No.
OSC: The Expos played 22 games in Puerto Rico last season, and in conjunction with those games, the team played Interleague in the AL West setting up a marathon travel arrangement. There seems to be a good chance that another 22 games will be played in Puerto Rico again this season.
If done correctly, is the extra payroll incentive enough to keep the team competitive without draining the team due to travel?
Costas: Well, you almost have to. It’s a trade off.
In order to maintain some level of interest, as you say, you come up with the revenues that could drive their payrolls up a little bit, you have to make that sacrifice. Otherwise, to go through another dreary season in Montreal, and if playing those games in Puerto Rico means you have a chance to keep Vladimir Guerrero, I think they’re better off with Vladimir Guerrero and some jet lag, than without Guerrero and no jet lag.
Obviously, the whole thing is a temporary situation that has gone on way too long. They have to solve this thing, and it is very clear they are treading water because they don’t want to make a rash move, and for the long run, settle for something that isn’t their best possible deal. They’d rather take another hit for a year, or even two, in Montreal until the perfect situation develops someplace else.
OSC: How does Portland factor into this situation?
Costas: One thing, I think, is an ideal scenario — and I am not in a position to evaluate the merits of all the pitches that will be made to baseball for the Expos — but, let’s say economically that the Portland bid makes sense. If the Portland bid makes sense, it fits in a more logical way, in terms of baseball alignments, with the Expos moving into the American League West, which has only 4 teams, and becoming a Portland entry into the American League West. So, now you balance that Division, in that they are all geographically approximate to Seattle, and Oakland – and it just makes sense. And at the same time, you would take a team out of the National League Central, either Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh – probably Pittsburgh, and move them into the National League East. So, that six team Division (the NL Central) would again be five, and that team would replace the Expos and you’d have three geographically sensible, five team Divisions in each League.
OSC: While we’re touching on this subject, do you feel that there’s any merit to the argument that Peter Angelos makes that a team in the DC area dilutes both markets?
Costas: I do. But obviously there’s a self-interest argument there. But, it’s also valid. When they’re that close together, and especially if one or both of those teams isn’t very good, then one or both will suffer.
OSC: If a city comes up with most of the public funding for a stadium, would you consider that a decisive consideration for the relocation of the Expos?
Costas: I don’t know if alone it’s decisive, but I think it’s primary.
Marketing MLB, and the health of baseball
OSC: MLB used a new marketing campaign this past season that said, “I live for this”. This seems somewhat online with the NBA’s use of the catch phrase, “I love this game”.
What can MLB do to foster marketing growth in small to mid-markets, while retaining its individuality?
Costas: I used to think that, because of my regard for the idea of a pennant race, or the integrity of the regular season — I used to think that the way they had scrambled things in the mid 90’s and tossed in the Wildcard was an entirely negative thing.
Now, I am not sure it is an entirely negative thing because you have to leave in the reality of modern baseball. And to hold up the Marlins; to hold up Kansas City or Minnesota, who happen to be luckily situated in a division that wouldn’t exist without three divisions. So, you can say they had a chance and they were in the race for a while. Whereas if you stuck them in a division that had Oakland or Seattle or the Yankees or Boston they had no chance.
One of the things they can sell, to these smaller markets, is that the Wildcard, and at least certain divisional line-ups, give most teams a shot. I don’t know what you tell Tampa Bay in the same division as the Yankees, or what you tell Toronto, but you can sell it on that basis and they can sell baseball over all on the basis of what happened in this postseason.[MLB needs] to seize upon the momentum of this postseason and how great it was. And if they are smart, they will try to sell it with a combination of how this year was “modern baseball” meeting “traditional baseball”. The histories of the Red Sox and the Cubs; the tradition of the Yankees, but yet the excitement of multiple rounds of playoffs — and the Marlins in, and new blood in — it was sort of old meets new, with the best of both worlds. That should be their approach.
OSC: There was a point in the League’s history when the pendulum was swung all the way in favor of ownership, with the players having very little power. Then in 1975, Messersmith and McNally, along with Marvin Miller changed the face of baseball, and the pendulum has been moving in favor of the players’ union ever since.
Recently there has been the appearance of fiscal restraint on the part of ownership, and the union in concert with the League, agreed to expanded revenue sharing on both the local level and within the Central fund.
Is this good will something that can be sustained for more than the length of this CBA?
Costas: I think it depends, quite a bit, on the personalities involved.
I think that Don Fehr and Gene Orza have been brilliant and they’ve always operated with honesty — they can’t be accused of some of the dishonest or contradictory stances that have been taken by ownership in the past.
But, there’s a difference in being “capable” and being “honest” and being “reasonable”. And as great as they have been over time with their membership basically they are connected to the whole mentality and the whole paradigm that was set forth by Marvin Miller back in the days that you mentioned when the players really were taken advantage of.
I think even the little bit they conceded this time around — that gave ownership a small victory. They conceded it very, very reluctantly. And they knew two things, that most of the membership did not have the stomach for another strike. And, that even if they won in the strike and got favorable terms when the strike eventually ended, the damage that would be done to baseball in the public mind would so depress baseball’s revenues that it would diminish the amount of those revenues that would flow to the membership.
I think that’s the reason they did not go on strike.
Not because they thought the owners had a legitimate point, or they really cared about reforming the game in a reasonable way; just because they didn’t have a stronger hand to play as in the past.
That’s why I’ve always said, even though Commissioner Selig has to be credited with a lot of things — he’s been an active commissioner — some people take shots at him but he has a lot of accomplishments behind him. But I still think the game will be better off when you have entirely different faces representing both the owners and the players, who don’t carry the baggage of all the past battles and some of the grudges and some of the premises that are no longer valid. You need people who can look at it with a fresh eye, and still represent their constituencies, but at the same time not feel like it’s a capitulation to say, “Hey, this is what’s good for the game overall.”
OSC: Beyond the ratings, and the overall popularity of the sport, Baseball was once viewed as microcosm for our Nation in terms of temperament and its dynamic. Things have obviously changed in the 100+ years that game has existed.
Has the NFL and the NBA supplanted MLB in terms of the pace in which the games are played, and in some ways mirrored American society?
Costas: Well, there is no doubt about that, we’re a “short attention span” culture, and regular season baseball, at least, doesn’t have the immediate tension of the playoffs.
Regular season baseball can’t hold the attention of as many people as it once did, especially because you have “Baseball Tonight” and “Sports Center” on ESPN and all kinds of highlights, and the Internet; so you can tap into the highlights of the game at almost anytime. So there’s no doubt that baseball has been hurt a little bit by that.
On the other hand, I think people are too quick to say that the NBA has surpassed baseball. If baseball had anything like the ratings of the last NBA finals the sky would be falling. I’ve always been an NBA fan. I like the NBA. I’m going to the Suns game tonight, but I don’t think the basic core support for the NBA runs as deep as that of baseball. And when Jordan and Bird and Magic went and if you have the Spurs and the Nets in the Finals you see that a lot of that interest falls off.
I think it is clear that football is the most popular sport. It has a lot of advantages that no matter what baseball does, marketing wise, it can never match. They play one game a week and it is a game ideally suited to television. Their playoffs are all Game 7’s, because there is only one game. The seventh game, or the fifth game of the Divisional Series in baseball always will have a higher rating than the other games. Well, with football every game is a deciding game in the playoffs. And they are all played at the time of the year; in January in the winter; Sundays, Saturday nights when people watch television. You have the gambling aspect – football just has advantages as a television sport that baseball and other sports don’t.
At the same time, people talk about the golden age of baseball.
I grew up in New York. In 1961, with a pennant winning team; and the tradition of the Yankees; and the Dodgers and Giants gone; and the Mets not yet in existence; and Maris and Mantle chasing Babe Ruth’s record; and a box seat costing $3.50 in Yankee Stadium, the Yankees did not draw 2 million fans. They drew like 1.7 or 1.8 [million fans]. Now, even teams that are thought to be struggling draw 2 million fans. Some draw upwards of 3 million fans. The overall attendance, in baseball, is so much greater than it was, even a generation ago.
And, the overall revenues of the game have more than doubled since the early 1990s. The problem isn’t that the game has insufficient popularity or revenues, the problem is that the game has an imperfect economic system, which often renders any amount of revenue, in the long run, inadequate. You know, they get another source of revenue and they flush it right down the drain.
Look what happened when NBC lost baseball in the late 1980s. CBS comes in with this enormous deal for baseball, so the revenues are exponentially increased, but they frittered it all away immediately when the salary structure just immediately exploded right after that. At that time the top paid player made about $2 million a year. Within a couple of years you had dozens and dozens of players making $5 million a year.
The future of Bob Costas
OSC: There has been a lot of talk about you possibly becoming a candidate for Commissioner of MLB once Bud Selig steps down. Has the thought crossed your mind?
Costas: I have never been coy about it. Never led anyone to believe it. Never have said anything like, “Well, maybe”, or “Gee, they will never ask me,” so it is a mute point. I have always flatly said I am not interested. I am not qualified. And I use the example that if someone’s a good political columnist that doesn’t mean you think he or she should be Senator or President. It’s just that you think they have something to say about the affairs of the day. I am a commentator about baseball and if people think anything I say about baseball is of interest, then fine, toss it into the debate on the subject. But, I am not and never will be someone that should be considered for commissioner.
OSC: This World Series marked the end of Roger Clemens career. How does he rate in the pantheon of other great pitchers?
Costas: He’s probably one of the five or six greatest starting pitchers of all time, by any measure.
OSC: Finally, do you miss calling the games, and if so, when will we see you return to the booth?
Costas: Well, the earliest that NBC could reacquire baseball would be the 2007 season, because it is all on Fox 2006 and luckily I think the number one team on Fox does a very good job. And I miss it a little bit but not a lot. I am very philosophical about this stuff. I have had wonderful opportunities in my career and no one wants to hear me complain about anything.