Costas Now Brings Out Stars, Lacks Controvesy

Hank Aaron and Willie Mays on stage with Bob Gibson in the audience. Few shows, or hosts, can attract baseball diety like Bob Costas. Wednesday’s second townhall format of Costas Now brought more star power, better timed panel discussions, but failed to replicate the controversy that Buzz Bissinger and Will Leitch stirred – though the two sat side by side, toasting beers, in the audience.

Costas opened with Dave Winfield, Jim Palmer, and Pete Rose via satellite, discussing the Hall of Fame. Removing Rose from the live show (illness) took away some potentially awkward moments on stage when debating his reinstatement. Can Winfield take a side? He’s not there to tell us what he hear’s other people saying – we hear those people too – tell us what you think, straight out about Rose, in or out. Palmer advocated Pete. As usual, Rose paraded for himself consuming more time than planned, leaving less time for other issues among the topic. Suspected and convicted drug users came up – Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro – and stat accumluators like Jim Thome that have denigrated the meaning of 500 homers. Most agree drug users are out, so are are accumulators, but I wanted to go one by one through a list of about 5 players and get everyone’s opinion – in or out, including Costas. They didn’t even get into pitchers. What is the new 300 wins and new criteria? Is Mussina a hall of famer? The hall is about more than Rose and steroids.

Panel discussed baseball’s first half, yet I don’t think the word playoffs came up once. Evan Longoria, Jimmy Rollins, and Todd Jones are all in the playoff hunt still, which precludes them from any bold predictions. Who wants to hear more about maple bats? Give it a two minute answer and move on. Instead of the writers picking first half MVP’s, surprises, disappointments, and Cy Youngs, put the players on the spot. Ask these guys if they want Barry Bonds on there team – a major baseball 2008 question. How did the Sabathia and Harden trades change the NL race? THe panel is baseball’s first half, so discuss baseball’s first half.

Costas called out Arte Moreno, the Angels owner, about ticket prices, in a panel with Dave Winfield and Andy Van Slyke. Public tax funding of new stadiums followed by lack of affordable tickets received a big stir from the audience, who will certainly suffer from that dichotomy with the new Yankee and Met stadiums starting next year. The remainder of the panel, The State of the Game, was interesting, but lost in the shadows of anticipation of Hammerin’ Hank and the Say Hey Kid.

Mays and Aaron had a great dynamic – Aaron’s stoicism accompanied by Mays’ humor and passion. Priceless stories, great commentary. One valid point that arose from this discussion, and a comment by Jimmy Rollins, is how the Nego Leagues demise may have led to the disintegration of African-American players in the majors. The discussion evaded controversy, as it should with two older, living legends. Both players are anti-PED’s, as most older players are, but neither will go on a diatribe about how wrong it is. Aaron gracefully annointed Bonds the home run champ, handling it like he did last year, and like he always does, with class. This discussion was about the stories. Aaron breaking Ruth’s record, Willie asking for a raise then charging a Cadillac to his owner after the owner refused to give him a hgiher salary.

What started as five extra minutes for HBO.com turned into an entire half hour to forty minutes that will now air as an entirely separate Costas Now episode just about Aaron and Mays. I’ll never forget being in that room with those two guys and Bob Gibson, who looks like he can still knock down a hitter that leans over the plate.

Somehow an ad or link for this Costas Now show was nowhere to be found on HBO.com. The 5-minute turned half hour segment not available for streaming. This is rare stuff that baseball fans live for, get it on the home page. What’s new on Cinemax can wait a day. No excuses for not having the video up there either, those at home missed out. Mays went on a roll after the HBO segment stopped. Even though it will air as a separate episode, studies prove online video does not cannibalize TV, get the video on the website immediately, and make it a presence on the homepage.

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Piazza Rides Into the Sunset

Twenty years after signing as a 62nd Round LA Dodgers draft pick, a favor by family friend Tommy Lasorda, Mike Piazza quietly retired yesterday as a sure fire first-ballot hall of famer. His final two seasons spent in relative anonymity in Oakland and San Diego, arguably the greatest hitting catcher ever finishes with a .308 career average, 427 homeruns, and 1335 RBI’s.

For full disclosure, I’m a Yankee fan – always have been, always will be. Still, Piazza captivated me from the day he arrived in NY in May 1998. With the Yankees beginning what became a record-setting season, the Mets stole the spotlight, pulling the trigger on the blockbuster trade with Florida on a Thursday afternoon. Piazza’s first game still stands out, a glistening Saturday afternoon at Shea against Milwaukee. Stepping in to a king’s welcome, the savior scorched a line drive to the right center field gap with his vintage swing featuring the long follow through. The ball jumped off his bat, hit so hard it took a bounce and bolted toward the wall, splitting the outfielders. An RBI double, Piazza stood on third after the throw home. Not a run of the mill double though, a prodigious gapper – thus began the Piazza era.

Signature home runs, start with the three-run blast in Houston later that year as the Mets made a stretch run for the playoffs. Then there’s the blast he basically hit out of Shea Stadium against the Yankees, of course the dramatic slam against the Braves in the first game following 9/11 to cap a miraculous eighth inning comeback. The one that got away of course, was the long fly out to center that ended the 2000 World Series, a few feet from adding to the legend.

The 12-time All-Star put the Mets back on the map during a time when the Yankees were dominating baseball, and he did it with class. Piazza carried New York’s second-team to the playoffs in 1999, and the World Series in 2000. He brought the fans back, which certainly helped get Citi Field approved and built. Unlike today’s Met stars, Piazza had a good relationship with the media, stood up to constant criticism of his defense, answered the questions after tough losses and big wins, hard to find anyone with a bad word to say.

The numbers speak for themselves. By far the most home runs for a catcher (396), he redefined the position. Only eight catchers have posted a .300 average with 30 homers and 100 RBI in a single season, Piazza did it six times. Of the others, only Roy Campanella did it more than once (3). Constantly chastised for his below average throwing arm, Piazza worked hard on his defense to become a solid catcher. Former pitchers praise his game-management and pitch selection skills, likely to be overlooked by his offensive prowess.

The 1993 NL Rookie of the Year wanted to continue playing, but remained unsigned this season. Not exactly a storybook ending to a historic career, yet more realistic and appropriate than suddenly hitting over 40 home runs as he approached age 40, like many of his contemporaries. When a player like Piazza rides into the sunset, its a good time to reflect and appreciate the fact that we watched one of the great baseball players ever, both on and off the field.

Cooperstown in five years – book it!