My Lunches With Costas: A Series Of Frank Encounters With The Journalist And Shill (UPDATE)

The following is adapted from Lipsyte's new memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, now available on Amazon.

My Lunches With Costas: A Series Of Frank Encounters With The Journalist And Shill (UPDATE)

ickey Mantle died in 1995, at 63, overwhelmed by cancer from a liver that had been removed and replaced only months before. The controversy — had he been bumped to the head of the line and how could a patient with such advanced disease even be considered for a transplant? — was muted by admiration for Mantle's gallantry, his call for organ donations, and his candor about alcohol abuse and his lousy record as a husband and father. At the time, I wrote: ''Just before he died, Mickey Mantle gave us a reason to love him. He was willing to use himself as an almost anti-role model in a very heroic way.''

But in the same column I also compared the male boomers' adoration of Mantle to the way Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, had become a symbol to alienated black youth, and Monica Seles, the former No. 1 tennis player, to young women athletes. At about the same time Mantle died, Tyson had begun a series of comeback fights after three years in prison for rape, and Seles returned to competition after more than two years recovering from being knifed by a spectator during a match.

There was a flood of mail attacking me for linking Mantle and Tyson, and for mentioning the controversy over Mantle's quick liver transplant. "You are a wart," someone wrote. Others brought up a column I had written a month earlier urging the Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken, if he "has any class," to take a day off before he broke Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive baseball games. This was not even an original idea; several years earlier, the Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt suggested that if Ripken were truly "decent" he would tie Gehrig's record then sit out one game. No shame in sharing the record with a man who had to quit because he was dying. Ripken, as good as he was, benefited from a 1995 conservative need to gild a so-called lunchpail hero who gratefully came to work every day. I thought he was lucky not to get sick, be replaced by someone younger and cheaper, or see his place of business moved out of town.

I didn't think I was being contrarian about all this, but I understood how out of tune I must have sounded after I read Bob Costas's eulogy for Mantle in a Dallas church packed with old Yankees.

Costas said he was representing "the millions of baseball-loving kids who grew up in the fifties and sixties and for whom Mickey Mantle was baseball. And more than that, he was a presence in our lives — a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic. Mickey often said he didn't understand it, this enduring connection and affection — the men now in their forties and fifties, otherwise perfectly sensible, who went dry in the mouth and stammered like schoolboys in the presence of Mickey Mantle."

Costas lovingly mentioned Mantle's flaws and regrets and ended with this: "I just hope God has a place for him where he can run again. Where he can play practical jokes on his teammates and smile that boyish smile, 'cause God knows, no one's perfect. And God knows there's something special about heroes."

In those days I talked incessantly about Mantle with my best friend, Roger Sims, who was on dialysis waiting for a kidney transplant. Roger was my age, a former Air Force pilot in Vietnam, a TV news producer, and a passionate Yankees fan. He was very conflicted. He loved Mickey, he wanted Mickey to live, he could say logically that Mickey's transplant, even if immoral, could do great good for the cause of organ donations.

But even Roger thought Mickey didn't deserve to be jumped to the head of the line, not with the spreading cancer he had. And Roger felt the same way about himself; at 57, with serious diabetes and heart disease, Roger wasn't sure he deserved a new kidney, certainly not when there were younger, healthier, "worthier" people who needed them. He was six years younger than Mantle.

But even Roger got teary at the part in Bob Costas's eulogy where Mickey was up in heaven, running.

Costas invited me to dinner soon after Mantle's death. We had gotten to know each other during the shooting of Heroes of the Game, a six-hour documentary I wrote for Turner Broadcasting on the American Century through the lives of transcendent sports figures. On the show, Costas talked about Mantle among other subjects, and I was struck by his intelligence, clarity, and basic decency. I had always admired his broadcasting skills and thought he was better than the games he called — he seemed ready to be a late night host.

But our dinner was not comfortable. Speaking carefully in full sentences and paragraphs, Costas suggested that I might be happier — certainly my readers would be happier — if I tried less to be provocative and more to be open-hearted. He said he sensed my humanity but thought I was suppressing it, moving past the boundaries of skepticism into cynicism, not finding pleasure in the games or the goodness in even flawed athletes. I don't remember arguing with him or accusing him of commercial sentimentality, but I do remember being irritated. I was flattered that he had taken the time to mentor me — he was 14 years younger — but basically exasperated by his presumption. We did not speak again for fourteen years but I recalled the meeting vividly whenever I saw him on TV. I wondered if he could have been right. Should there only have been paeans to Mantle right after his death? Why? Didn't journalism dictate a full, fair portrait, wonders and warts both? And was Costas a journalist, moving so easily from solid interviewing to fandom to the broadcasting of events for which his network paid?

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My Lunches With Costas: A Series Of Frank Encounters With The Journalist And Shill (UPDATE)

No one has ever walked so gracefully the line between journalist and shill as Costas. He is one of Jock Culture's most treasured cheerleaders, and that's no pose; just look how happy he seems bantering with those ex-athletes on pre-game shows, a terrier playing with mastiffs and Great Danes, or watch how he gazes down benignly at the Olympic Games, a duke on his castle tower. (Costas often reminds me of straight actors who keep a distance from their characters while playing gay roles.) He takes himself seriously. His 2000 book, Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball, pointed out the game's flaws in such intelligent, informed, and statesmanlike prose that people thought he might be a candidate for major league commissioner. Why not, we've done much worse?

Late in 2009, fourteen years after the last time we spoke, Costas and I met for lunch at a midtown Italian restaurant. The meal lasted three hours, and was far more relaxed than our last one. I think I had changed more than he had (emotionally, to be sure, but he also continues to look preternaturally young). We talked about that previous meal. I liked him for being even tougher on me this time.

He brought up my 1995 column calling for Cal Ripken to sit out a game and avoid breaking Lou Gehrig's record. "Sometimes I thought you were a contrarian just for the sake of being a contrarian," he said. And then he got to the core of the matter. It was "almost churlish," Costas said, when so soon after Mickey Mantle's death I suggested that he had jumped the line for a liver transplant.

I asked him what he wanted of me.

"I wanted a dash of celebration and appreciation along with the excoriation." He paused, almost smiled, "Am I sounding like Jesse Jackson?"

I nodded him on.

"It gives you more credibility for when you criticize. You know, I grew up reading you, hoping to someday win your regard. When I took you to dinner, I still hoped to win your regard. But I wanted you to be less corrosive, skeptical not cynical.

"In the sixties and seventies the issues were more clear-cut — gays, women, Ali — and you were on the right side. When you made your bones on those big issues, the prevailing tone needed a counter-puncher. How Willie Mays caught a fly ball was covered, so Lipsyte was right to pound away at the issues.

"But now the prevailing tone is so mean you have to play it straight. It's not clear-cut, black and white. There needs to be more nuance. There's more of a need to celebrate. I thought of you as a smart and independent guy holding his patch of ground, but something blinded you to the appealing stuff. It's not a breach of integrity to find within what you disapprove things that are worthy of approval and celebration."

I listened carefully, and took notes. I didn't argue because I was fascinated. He was talking about me. Later, I wondered if he was talking about himself as well, justifying his own celebration of a sports industry that I think needs counter-punching more than ever.

We talked some more about Mantle, and I told him about that second meeting, in the deserted country club bar, when I started appreciating his country-slick charm. Costas blinked. He said he couldn't understand how after that I could still write that almost churlish liver-transplant column. Why couldn't I see the humanity of Mantle?

He asked if I considered him presumptuous, then or now? Both times, I said, although I resented it then and was grateful now. There were areas where we needed to agree to disagree. It became apparent quickly that he considered himself more of a journalist than I did. There was no chapter on steroids in his baseball book ("I was talked out of it," he said, "and I regret that now") and in the absence of "hard evidence" it was not something he thought he could bring up in his broadcasts of games. Once in the late nineties, he said, he remarked on air to Joe Morgan that something was out of whack in the game. When Morgan said, "Ball may be juiced," Costas replied, "Not as much as the players."

I didn't think that qualified as serious journalism, but I didn't pursue it. By that time, I was liking Costas, and we parted with a promise to meet again. I hope we do. There would be a lot to think and talk about — beyond Mantle. And I wondered if Costas and I were secret sharers in some way, each disappointed in the other, and perhaps even disappointed in himself. He doesn't think he has quite "filled out his role." Maybe after the 2012 Olympics, he says, he will "break out."

Maybe I do need to be more of a fan, or at least find more to celebrate. The questions for each of us, I think, are the basic ones: Could I have been more?

And, Is there still time?

*

Epilogue

Since he read the book, Costas and I have met for drinks, talked on the phone half a dozen times, and texted. The word "shill" bothers him most. He believes he drops in "enough commentary and insights in games" to be considered a journalist. He does it "not to throw fire bombs but to help hold the mainstream to account," which he says is the big difference between him and, say, bloggers.

I told him I think he's in denial. His face on an event like the Olympics — and his role as MVP of the MLB Network — offer a stamp of approval. That's not a journalist's function.

Meanwhile, I've come to like him better with each encounter; he is that rare combination of whip-smart intelligence and amiable temperament. He keeps his edge sheathed, but it's there. His recall for the wounds inflicted by writers is Sicilian, and his invective ("He is the most dishonest man not now wearing a mask and carrying a gun") is Victorian. I've suggested we do a joint appearance somewhere to thrash out our agreements and disagreements about sports, but he doesn't want to promote my memoir. He recently sent me a box of his greatest hits, perhaps ten hours of mostly HBO appearances. I look forward to screening them because I do think he is the most gifted sports broadcaster of our time. I also wonder what will happen now that Dick Ebersol, to whom he has great allegiance and gratitude, has left NBC.

Update: Like I needed to be concerned. Soon after the above was posted, but before he read it, Costas called. He sounded happy. He had just returned from Lausanne with the NBC Universal contingent that bought up the Olympics for another eight years. He had been assured that there would be more Comcast venues on which he could speak more freely. I would soon be "honestly convinced" that I would have to "recalibrate" my regard for his journalism. I told him that I, honestly, looked forward to that. He could make a difference if he wanted to.

Update [Dec. 14, 2011]: How I Finally Made Peace With Bob Costas, TV Journalism's Most Authentic Shill

My Lunches With Costas: A Series Of Frank Encounters With The Journalist And Shill (UPDATE)

Robert Lipsyte was an award-winning sportswriter for The New York Times and the Emmy-winning host of the nighty public affairs show The Eleventh Hour. He last wrote for Deadspin about Leo Durocher's love advice. An Accidental Sportswriter is available for purchase on Amazon.