A Fan's Case for Baseball Bob Costas
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Fair Ball Bob Costas
Paperback | Broadway | Sports & Recreation | 0-7679-0466-4 | April 2001 | $12.95

Fair Ball Bob Costas
Hardcover | Broadway | Sports & Recreation | 0-7679-0465-6 | April 2000 | $21.95

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Fair Ball Bob Costas

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Read an Excerpt

Let's say it's late October, and you're in what should be baseball heaven, sitting on the couch watching the fourth game of the World Series, Yanks vs. Braves.

Suppose for a moment that you're a Minnesota Twins fan. You've been a baseball fan all your life, grew up playing the game, once got Rod Carew's autograph at a Little League clinic, spent your eighth birthday at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, and your fifteenth at the Humpdome in downtown Minneapolis. You played baseball in high school, took a summer vacation in college to Cooperstown, and once joked that you wouldn't leave the country between September 1 and the end of October, because you couldn't stand to miss the end of a pennant race or the playoffs.

But tonight you find yourself watching the Series not because you're passionately rooting for either the Atlanta Braves or the New York Yankees. Instead you're watching mostly because, well, watching the Series is what you've done every October for as long as you can remember (save for that lost fall of 1994).

So you sit there and contemplate the Atlanta Braves, a team the Twins vanquished eight years earlier in perhaps the greatest Series ever. And you wonder about the fortunes and forces that, since then, have sent your club into a decade-long financial and competitive tailspin, while the Braves have been in the playoffs every full season since. The two cities are roughly the same size, and, competitive factors being equal, Minnesota has supported the Twins at least as well as Atlanta has supported its team. Yet in the weird logic of late-'90s baseball, Atlanta is a big market and Minneapolis—St. Paul is a small one. While your team still plays in the depressing dome, Atlanta has a new state-of-the-art facility with natural grass, good sight lines, a cozy retro feel, and all the modern amenities.

When you look across the field at the New York Yankees, you just shake your head. It's hard to work up the old "Damn Yankees" antipathy these days. Partly because of Joe Torre, and partly because baseball's proudest franchise seems to be playing in a league, if not a sport, entirely different from your own. They got your best player two years ago, even though the Twins' owners would have paid him a team-record contract to stay in Minnesota, near where he grew up. He wanted to go to another club, Chuck Knoblauch said, because he wanted to play for a title. You recall that as a rookie Knoblauch had won a World Series ring. He was a Twin, and it was your team's second world championship in five seasons. You were sure then that Knoblauch would be a Minnesota fixture.

But these days, you know better. No player of consistent All-Star quality is going to remain in Minnesota throughout his career. And yet just this summer, you watched George Brett—who played as recently as 1993—inducted into the Hall of Fame. Brett played his whole career with Kansas City, passing up bigger offers elsewhere. Not that he wasn't well-compensated, both financially and competitively. His Royals were perennial contenders, and won the AL West six times. He was happy to stay. Yet if he came up today, his competitive nature would make a move not just probable, but mandatory—not because of greed or disloyalty, but because teams like Kansas City and Minnesota can no longer even hope to compete.

Now back to the Yankees. After winning their second Series in three years, with a payroll that was already four times that of the Twins, they began the 1999 season by trading for the Cy Young Award winner, Roger Clemens. He's a pitcher you've long respected, but one who has bewildered you in recent years: Hadn't the Texan Clemens said he wanted to be closer to home after leaving the Boston Red Sox in '97? So didn't his decision to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays betray either a disingenuous streak or a staggeringly bad grasp of geography? But Clemens can pitch, so he proceeded to win two straight Cy Young Awards for the Blue Jays. Then Clemens demanded a trade in '99, because, he said, he wanted to play with a contender. And you wondered, "If a team like Toronto—which won back-to-back World Series in '92 and '93, and only recently drew 4 million fans for a season to a new ballpark—can't qualify as a contender, what does that tell you?" And all through the '99 season, as the pitching-shy Blue Jays were fighting toward the brink of contention on the bats of talented young sluggers like Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green, you couldn't help wondering how good they might be if they still had Clemens pitching for them.

After Clemens closes out the Series in Game 4, with a vintage, overpowering performance, you wonder if all this means the same thing to him as it would have if he'd stayed with the Red Sox and they'd somehow won it all. Or if it means anything like what it meant to Kirby Puckett, who took less money to stay in Minnesota, where he won world championships in 1987 and 1991.

In the weeks ahead, instead of the normal shake-up of hot-stove action, the rich get richer, and the ranks of those who can no longer compete grows to include what once were considered "middle-market" clubs. Seattle has a brand-new stadium and a string of sellouts, but they're convinced they'll have to trade Ken Griffey Jr. and/or Alex Rodriguez. Toronto is working on deals to ship away Green and Delgado before they bolt for free agency.

You still call yourself a baseball fan, and you still get out to the Metrodome a few times a season. But the game seems more distant today than it did only a few years ago. You can't follow pennant races anymore—because there aren't any—and the wild card seems hard to get excited about. The media characterizes the game as "on the way back," thanks largely to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. But even at its most epic, the '98 home-run race seemed somewhat disconnected from the season it was part of—less a highlight of the season itself than a thing unto itself (through no fault of the particulars), or a substitute for the plain fact that when the last several baseball seasons began, you knew that your team had no living chance to contend for a pennant.

No, the rising tide has not lifted all boats. And as you watch the games from your living room now, you realize that something essential has changed. You're not nostalgic for the "old days" as much as you are for the more recent ones, when the fact that you had one of the best managers and farm systems in baseball was a crucial advantage. When star players wanted to be with the Twins. When the Twins' owners weren't eyeing other cities. And when you could greet April with the hope that your team had a prayer.

But as you sit and watch the Yankees celebrate, those days seem far removed. You might wonder if anyone on the other side of the screen is feeling the same way.

Let's go back a couple years, and let me tell you about the experience of another fan on another night. . . .

The third game of the 1997 World Series was already three-and-a-half-hours old, the scoreboard clock in Cleveland was approaching midnight, and the thermometer was dropping toward freezing.

But as the Cleveland Indians took the field for the top half of the ninth inning, few if any of the 44,880 fans in attendance seemed to be complaining. Instead, a crackling sense of anticipation was moving through the stands at Jacobs Field, the neoclassical stadium that merged modern-day amenities with vintage ballpark aesthetics. The Indians and Florida Marlins had split the forgettable first two games of the Series, and had come back to Cleveland for Games 3, 4, and 5. And now, with the score still knotted at 7—7, the tension that is so much a part of postseason baseball was presenting itself.

Up in the NBC television booth, I felt hopeful. Though I had been critical of the wild-card system and new three-tiered playoff structure that had produced these two undercredentialed World Series opponents, I was rooting for both of these teams to prove themselves in some sense worthy.

The Indians had qualified for the Series despite posting the ninth-best regular-season record in the majors. They were probably the least impressive edition of the string of Cleveland contenders in the '90s.

The Marlins weren't so much mediocre as fabricated, a pure product of the times. Five years old, with an owner who had no background in baseball, they were an expansion team turned into a contender thanks to a $100 million off-season investment and the wiles of manager Jim Leyland, rescued from the financially overmatched Pittsburgh Pirates. The Marlins made the playoffs as a wild card just weeks after owner Wayne Huizenga announced that losses of $30 million would force him to put the team on the market. They played baseball in a charmless football stadium, and they'd sold their foul poles to an office-supply store, which painted them to resemble giant pencils. What more could you say? In an age when it seemed that every expansion team incorporated teal or black into its color scheme, the Marlins used both. They were—as I'd been saying for weeks—the real team of the '90s. And as it happened, they'd be dismantled before the confetti from their victory parade could be swept away.

The matchup was not the stuff that programming executives dream of. Television ratings were already in the tank, the worst ever for a World Series to that point. Don Ohlmeyer, the head of NBC's West Coast division and the former executive producer of NBC Sports, had done his part to put everyone in the proper Fall Classic mood by publicly saying on the eve of the first game that nothing would make him happier than to give the coverage to another network. "If the A&E channel called, I'd take the call," said Ohlmeyer.

It wasn't just Don. Baseball-bashing was in full force, much of it for good reason. The participants were undistinguished, the first two games nondescript. Now Game 3, a World Series game, was being played under conditions so ill-suited to baseball that if they presented themselves in April, the game would likely be postponed and rescheduled as part of an August doubleheader.

Still, as Cleveland's Eric Plunk threw the first pitch of the ninth to Bobby Bonilla, it was possible to forget all that. The game, while not artful, had been absorbing. Gary Sheffield was shaping up as the hero, having hit a home run in the first to put the Marlins ahead, then making a dazzling catch against the wall to end the seventh inning and preserve the 7—7 tie. The sheer tension of October baseball had at least temporarily transcended the game's problems, and the promise of a stirring finish was in the air.

And then it wasn't.

Just as baseball provides drama when you least expect it, it also can deny drama when you most expect it. And that's exactly what happened in the Inning That Wouldn't End. The top of the ninth lasted 34 minutes and featured seven Marlin runs, assembled through an unsightly collection of four singles, three walks, three errors, and a wild pitch. As the temperature continued to drop and a game that had started at the ridiculous hour of 8:24 p.m. Eastern Standard Time pushed past midnight, the stultifying inning plodded forward. Along the way, it got much later and much colder.

"Everybody is leaving," said the NBC stage manager in the booth. "I wish we could too."

I wasn't sure if the rattling noise I kept hearing was the chattering of my colleagues' teeth, or merely the sound of people across the country wearily clicking their TV sets off as the now-listless game moved into its fifth hour.

Somewhere past midnight, during the commercial break accompanying yet another pitching change, my partner Bob Uecker stared out into the night and said to no one in particular, "This game sucks!"

I had to hand it to Ueck: It was the perfect summation of what was happening here. And once the top of the ninth was over, it didn't end there. Robb Nen came in with the seven-run lead and proceeded to nibble corners as though the tying run were at second, which, ultimately, it almost was.

The Indians would score four, leave one, and come within one baserunner of bringing the tying run to the plate—at 12:35 a.m. By then, nearly every aspect of this game made a mockery of the term "Fall Classic." Which is not to say that some of it wasn't perversely entertaining. As pitching coach Larry Rothschild visited the mound after Nen's third walk of the inning, Uecker asked what he might be telling the right-hander. I ventured a guess: "He's saying, 'I think room service closes at one a.m.; would you please get us out of here so I can have that bowl of soup!?'"

I'll admit it: At that point, I was just looking forward to getting off the air, before we had to send a St. Bernard with provisions of brandy and blankets to Jim Leyland's 84-year-old mother, encamped in the visitors' seats and as stoically determined to stick it out as we were.

She seemed emblematic of baseball fans in the late '90s: still there, gamely hanging on out of loyalty, memory, and sheer faith. Long after baseball itself had ceased to care much about any of that.

But baseball is, above all else, resilient. The game itself can be much better than those who run it. In '97, those who hung in there would witness a riveting Game 7 that unfolded like the final scenes of a good whodunit—after all those hundreds of games and all those thousands of innings, not even the normal nine was enough to bring it to resolution. It could end in a flash or go on indefinitely, and in the back-and-forth struggle of these two teams, in the solid-rock jaw of Indians manager Mike Hargrove and the edgy intensity of Marlins skipper Jim Leyland, in all those seasons these two baseball men had spent trying to get to this moment, you could at last feel the pull of something special.

The same pull could be felt September 8, 1998, when Mark McGwire homered his way into baseball history, with Roger Maris's family in the stands, and his competitor and compatriot Sammy Sosa out in the field. Or in the superb Game 5 battle between the Braves and Mets in the National League Championship Series in 1999.

That pull, unique in each particular, but ultimately familiar, is what baseball is all about.

And it is for moments like this that we keep returning to the game, why we still—despite all the evidence—hold out hope for it. Because we know that, at its core, the game itself can still reward us. That's why it's worth caring about. That's why it's worth arguing about.

And that's why I'm writing this book.

Copyright © 2000 by Robert Costas. All rights reserved.

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