One thing is certain: Bob Costas certainly seems to know his audience.
The renowned broadcaster will be the featured guest at the United Jewish Federation’s annual Sports Night Out, to be held at the Pittsburgh Hilton Feb. 12.
He’s well aware of the location of the event, for starters.
“We won’t be far removed from the Super Bowl,” Costas said. “The Steelers will have either won or lost the Super Bowl, so that will probably be a topic of conversation. I’ve got 20 or so stories, anecdotes, narratives that I can choose from. You jigsaw puzzle it together for what works for that audience. I try to entertain more than
He’s also well aware that he’ll be entertaining the Jewish community and will keep that in mind as he chooses which memories to share. He may not be a Member of the Tribe, but he certainly can hold his own at our water cooler.
“There was a time when in boxing, baseball, basketball, there was proportionally a larger contingent [of Jews] in sports,” he said. “They experienced overt discrimination, so it’s interesting beyond sports, whether it’s Hank Greenberg or whoever.”
Costas saw it first hand growing up in Long Island, where he saw the community rally around a certain Dodgers left-handed pitcher. He may have had an L.A. on his hat by 1965, but rest assured Costas’ friends and families didn’t forget that this ace began in Brooklyn.
“My classmates were Italian or Jewish,” Costas explained. “They took particular pride in Sandy Koufax, not only because of how great he was. He’s the mentsch of all mentsches and they were walking taller because of it. Not only did he sit out [Game 1 of the World Series] on Yom Kippur, he came back on two days rest to win the seventh game.
“A huge percentage of Jews were more cultural Jews than religiously observant, yet those High Holiday days mattered to most people. In the 1960s, many of those kids or parents had direct contact with anti-Semitism. It had more meaning for them.”
With all of the sports Costas has covered in his career — and it’s run the gamut — he is a self-admitted “baseball guy” at heart. And that means he’ll happily talk about Pirates past and present, even if the latter is something many here in our city don’t want to think about these days.
“To me, Clemente is the premier figure [of baseball in Pittsburgh],” he said. “With all due respect to everyone else, Clemente fascinates. A guy with tremendous style and dignity, part of a generation of athletes who stood for things beyond their on-field accomplishments.”
Costas comes by that praise honestly. He was a kid, 8 years old, just coming into baseball consciousness when his beloved Yankees headed to the World Series again. The opponent? The Pirates. The year? 1960, of course.
“I was crestfallen,” Costas said. “That World Series was the first World Series I remember in real detail. I remember refusing to go to school that day because I had to watch the game. I was completely bent out of shape that the Yankees, clearly superior, lost to the Pirates. But Clemente, from my youth, was one of the really distinctive players: Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Clemente.”
That might make long-suffering Pirates fans wax nostalgic on the 12th, but Costas is more than willing to talk about the present and, gasp, the future. It may seem bleak to those who have seen all the losing seasons, year after year, but count Costas as one who wants to try and put a little optimism into the mix.
“It’s my feeling, because they’re in the NL Central and because they have a new ballpark, it’s not impossible to compete in the NL Central,” Costas said. “Tampa Bay proved that it could be done in the AL East, for one year at least. The idea that Pirates are perpetually doomed to failure, I don’t buy that anymore. I wrote a book about that.
“Circumstances have improved enough, both in general and in particular, the rest of the division isn’t going to leave them in the dust financially. It isn’t all or nothing. I’m not being harshly critical, but there comes a time when it doesn’t make sense to say, ‘we’ve got no shot.’ Less of a shot than others, maybe, but it’s not like you’ve had no shot for two decades.”
And if that doesn’t give you enough fodder to bring to the Sports Night Out, just wait. Costas will provide one last opportunity during his talk.
“I always end by taking questions and answers,” he said. “If I haven’t hit anything, they have a chance to steer me that way.”
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)