Bob Costas will be on our television screens on Saturday, hosting NBC’s coverage of a big sports event: Justify’s attempt to win horse racing’s Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes.
Nothing new there. He has been doing that sort of thing for four decades or so.
But things have changed for Costas, 66, over the past year as he has downshifted his career into a lower gear.
So far, so good. “It’s exactly what I planned it to be,” he said on Monday.
The biggest development came in February 2017, when he announced what he said had been in the works for several years: Passing the torch as NBC’s prime-time Olympics host to Mike Tirico, effective with the 2018 Winter Games.
Costas, who is from Commack, also stepped down as host of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” pregame.
“I could have continued to do either or both,” he said, “but I just felt that it was time to step aside and just stick with the things that I would enjoy doing but that would be less demanding, schedule-wise.”
Hence the couple of dozen games he calls each season for the MLB Network — including Friday night’s Yankees-Mets game, coverage that will be blacked out in New York — and horse racing on NBC.
His contract calls for him to work the Kentucky Derby every year and the Belmont when a Triple Crown is at stake.
This year he added the Preakness, because he was to call a Dodgers-Nationals game in Washington the night before. It was rained out, but he drove to Baltimore the next day anyway.
“People say, ‘Oh, you might get bored,’ ” he said of his reduced workload. “No, not in the least.”
He said that to do baseball well, one must follow it closely, and prepare thoroughly. He also noted that his schedule is not all that much different from that of his friend and contemporary, “Sunday Night Football” announcer Al Michaels.
“It’s just that this seems more obvious because I’m stepping away from a larger stage,” he said. “But at this stage that doesn’t matter to me. If I do a really enjoyable baseball game and I feel I’ve done a good job, it doesn’t matter to me that the audience for that on the MLB Network for a regular-season baseball game is much smaller than the audience for ‘Sunday Night Football’ or for the Olympics.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be in front of extremely large audiences for a very, very long time . . . What matters to me now is how much do I enjoy what I do and how well do I do it?”
Costas originally was to host Super Bowl LII in February, but he did not, citing what he called a “mutually agreeable decision” and his “ambivalent feeling about football” in an interview with Sports Business Journal.
He said he watched the Olympics later that month and found the experience “not strange at all.”
“I thought Mike Tirico did an excellent job,” Costas said. “I’ve known Mike since 1987 when he won the first scholarship in my name at Syracuse University. I think he’s an excellent addition to NBC, not just because he’s so good at what he does, but because he’s versatile in so many different things.
“So I enjoyed watching him and I enjoyed watching the presentation overall. But it didn’t feel strange because I’d been pointing toward it for years, and I knew five years before the 2018 Olympics that I wouldn’t be doing it in 2018, by my own choice.”
For now, Costas’ NBC role outside of horse racing is as a special contributor akin to what Tom Brokaw does for the news division. For example, when Dick Enberg died in December, he authored an appreciation.
Costas called the Derby an event that “stands apart,” because of “its history, the slice of Americana, it’s on a lot of people’s bucket lists. And our telecast of it includes all kinds of racing expertise but also has a lot of history and a lot of human interest stories, a lot of interviews. So it’s something I enjoy doing.”
But the Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line offers its own appeal. He called American Pharoah’s victory in 2015 “a tremendous event,” based on the achievement and the long drought that led up to it.
“It was a tremendous event, but it would have been if Smarty Jones had done it [in 2004],” he said. “If California Chrome had done it [in 2014], it would have been a tremendous event. People get behind these horses, even people who can’t read a racing form.”
Costas said he spends more time than he could in the past with his family, but other than that has not changed his life or interests dramatically.
“I don’t do anything different than what I used to do,” he said. “I just have more time to do and more breathing room to do it.”
In late July he will be honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame with its Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters. He said he has not written his speech yet, but plans to honor the many announcers who inspired him in his youth.
“[The speech] will include the many nights as a kid sitting in the driveway behind the wheel of my dad’s car, far too young to drive, but knowing that radio reception was better there than in the house,” he said.
“Depending on the atmospheric conditions on a given night, I might pick up Bob Prince from Pittsburgh, Chuck Thompson from Baltimore, Ernie Harwell from Detroit, and even now and then Harry Caray and Jack Buck from St Louis.”
NBC used to carry the U.S. Open — Fox does now — and in the past Costas would have been a part of it, going this weekend from Citi Field to Belmont to Shinnecock in short order. Now he will settle for watching the golf on television.
“That’s fine,” he said. “You don’t stop being a fan, you just stop having to book a flight or check into a hotel every week . . . Listen, it isn’t that you stop liking ice cream. It’s just that you get to a point where you prefer smaller portions.”