I met Bob Costas in 1993, when I interviewed him for a TV sports documentary. I was enormously impressed. He could have filled all six hours and probably should have. It was fun. The insecurity that drove him—he kept asking if he looked all right, if he sounded too sentimental—was endearing.
But two years later, we hit a psychic speed bump. He took strong exception to my coverage, in The New York Times, of Mickey Mantle's death. He would later describe it as "almost churlish." I brought up questions about Mantle's liver transplant at a time that should have been, he said, more purely celebratory. In turn, I questioned his eulogy at Mantle's funeral—over-sentimental, I thought, and perhaps not seemly for someone who considered himself a journalist. We had basic issues. We did not speak again for 14 years, and when we did, more warmly, I think, those issues were still there.
I described those meetings in my new memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter. He took exception, and for the past eight months, since publication, we have been in furious communication, not always disagreeably. We both agree, for example, that Roger Maris should be in the Hall of Fame.
A week ago, we went public at a "Times Talk" (you can watch here and here). It was an historical moment—Bob coming off the Jerry Sandusky interview and heading toward the London Olympics and certain stardom on a new NBC sports network, where he will have his own monthly magazine and host "town hall" discussions. Maybe some of that made him finally agree to have a conversation with me.
I've always thought Costas was a terrific performer, arguably the best sports broadcaster in the business, one of the best interviewers, period. Up close, on the same stage for more than 90 minutes, I realized just how terrific; uncannily focused and controlled, funny (superb mimic), and intimidating in his recall. (Location is everything: I remembered how hockey, video-gameish up in the press box, suddenly became breathtakingly violent from my seat in the penalty box.)
What had been originally conceived as a "conversation" between the two Bobs was really an interview with attitude, and my questions that some in the audience found hostile (for instance, how could Costas credibly be a pundit, fan, game-caster, and journalist?) gave him a chance to bob and weave masterfully—he said it was his fame and access that made him trusted by people who might otherwise not talk.
He threw elbows. He held up the Times's program for the event and pointed out how much bigger his picture was than mine. I said that the Times thought he needed the boost. My best laugh of the night. But at the end, he graciously plugged my book.
Costas says he is not out to throw bombs (like you bloggers out there) but to keep the mainstream accountable. But how can you do that, I say, well after the fact and with infrequent essays on steroids, concussions, and TD dances? But coming from Costas, he says, those essays and opinion pieces have far more impact than they do coming from the distant outsider voices online. Coming from Costas, I reply, the audience is comforted that no matter how bad the news, all is right in our sweaty sanctuaries.
My final takeaway, you might ask? Our constant contact over the past months, the endless phone chats and texts that continued through the day of the event, left me with 1.) respect for his integrity and authenticity—I do believe he is the humane, measured insider/traditionalist he seems to be; and 2.) a feeling of poignancy for his thin skin and need to be admired; and 3.) since Costas is as good as it gets in mainstream sports media, a renewed conviction that we need those outsider voices, however discomforting and jagged, especially (Grantland help us) the demonic Deadspin.
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.