When Bob Costas arrives in Philadelphia this weekend to host NBC's coverage of Sunday's Eagles-Giants game, he will mark the 40th anniversary of his debut in professional broadcasting.
Costas isn't often associated with Philadelphia sports in the way that other veteran voices are, such as Dick Stockton, Mike Emrick, Verne Lundquist and Joe Buck. But when Costas arrives at Lincoln Financial Field, he might take a moment to look across the Sports Complex parking lots, and recall the site of a formative experience in his career.
Costas was the host and lead play-by-play voice for NBC's broadcast of the 1996 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which took place at Veterans Stadium. In his preparation for that midsummer night on Pattison Ave. - and in remarks on-air as well - Costas could not help noting the dramatic rise in hitters' power that season.
Among the most famous power hitters that season, as Phillies fans know all too well, was Norristown native Mike Piazza. Then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Piazza won MVP honors that night thanks to a towering home run off American League starting pitcher Charles Nagy.
There was a dark side to the rise of baseball's power hitters, though. And Costas could tell that something wasn't right.
"I suspected what it was," Costas told me in an interview this week. "But I didn't have the evidence at hand to directly state it at that point."
We now know the impact that steroids had on the game. We didn't then, but Costas was one of the first national voices to see that baseball's pressure cooker was starting to overheat.
"I remember taking a look at the statistics that you saw for all these All-Stars at midseason, and saying that the game had been ripped from its historical moorings, and the only thing that separates this from a Sunday softball league game is that guys aren't chugging beer on the bench," Costas said. "That was a way of kind of indirectly - because you didn't have the evidence at hand to name anybody or make any blanket accusations - that was my way of saying that something is fishy here, which it was."
Philadelphia's night in the All-Star spotlight was a benchmark in another way, too. The 1996 midsummer classic was the last held in a multi-purpose venue. It's no coincidence that the attendance that night - a sellout crowd of 62,670 - has not been matched since by an All-Star Game, and it's likely that it will never be matched again.
There were some World Series games at the Dolphins' stadium in Miami that drew big crowds, and sometimes Spring Training games are played in football venues for novelty's sake. But the only multi-purpose stadiums left in baseball are in Oakland and Toronto. The Athletics will eventually move out of the Coliseum, and there are four baseball-specific venues larger than the Blue Jays' Rogers Centre
So it is safe to say that an era is coming to a close, and that Veterans Stadium will have played a role in closing it.
When I asked Costas if we'll ever again see a baseball game of consequence played in a venue of the Vet's scale, he didn't hesitate.
"No, and we shouldn't," he said. "The multi-purpose stadiums were abominations. I remember saying in the 80's, 'They build colonial-style homes with microwave ovens in them. Why can't you build a ballpark that looks and feels like a ballpark, and has modern amenities in it?' "
The Baltimore Orioles were first to prove it was possible when they opened Camden Yards in 1992. A dozen years later, the Phillies finally christened Citizens Bank Park, and it quickly became one of the sports's best-liked venues.
But Costas still has not forgotten the bygone era.
"The combination of artificial turf and the bland, uniform dimensions of [Cincinnati's] Riverfront, [Pittsburgh's] Three Rivers and Veterans Stadium was soul-deadening for baseball," he said. "I guess it was functional enough for football, even though it wasn't ideal. But it was absolutely soul-deadening for baseball."
The summer of 1996 was memorable for Costas in more ways than one. Ten days after the spotlight shone on Philadelphia, it shifted south to Atlanta for the start of the Summer Olympics. Atlanta's Opening Ceremonies provided a spectacle that Costas said remains the most memorable moment of his broadcasting career: Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame.
"There was an audible gasp, and then there was a moment of silence before the crowd burst into thunderous applause," Costas said. "That applause carried with it a kind of texture of emotions that you don't often see. It was surprise, it was appreciation and respect, it was also a sense of reconciliation."
These days, there are multiple generations of Americans who will never know how just how controversial Ali was in his prime. But 18 years ago, memories of Ali's life in and out of the ring were much fresher.
That night, Ali stood once again before the nation and the world. Hundreds of millions of people saw the Greatest Of All Time alone, a prisoner to Parkinson's Disease, his left hand shaking as his right hand held torch.
It was a moment of reconciliation for a nation that doesn't always get to have them.
"Here's a guy who was a very controversial and even vilified figure, a divisive figure in the country for a good portion of his life," Costas said. "And now you saw, with his affliction and the way he was handling it, that even those who disagreed with him came to respect that he stood by his beliefs, whether they agreed with him or not... He had the courage of his convictions, and he showed himself to be a person of quality in other areas - not a perfect person, but someone that was of consequence during his period of time in sports."
The moment was made even more dramatic for Costas by the fact that he, just like all of the television viewers at home, had no idea that it was coming. Costas said that has been the case for almost all of the 10 Opening Ceremonies he has broadcast.
"Generally speaking, we have not been told, and we have been able to react along with the audiences," he said. "Dick Ebersol [the former chairman of NBC Sports] has always known - he was always in on it. And I guess the times when he knew we would recognize them, he didn't tell us because he wanted us to be surprised along with everyone else."
But Costas has only truly known twice. One was in Athens in 2004, when the initial plan had to be scrapped after Greek sprinter Kostas Kenteris missed a mandatory doping test just a few days before the Games began. The other was one of the most famous torch-lightings of all time: Spanish Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo's arrow-shot into the cauldron in Barcelona in 1992.
Costas is renowned as a story-teller, but he had to admit that he and co-host Dick Enberg "would have been looking at each other asking, 'Who in the world knows every archer from Spain?' "
Some day, the Olympics will return to the United States. It may be a while, but Costas is convinced that "it makes sense on every level."
Of course, it's no coincidence that his employer is the International Olympic Committee's biggest financial backer. That relationship grew even stronger in May, when Comcast paid the IOC $7.65 billion for the right to extend its Olympics rights deal through 2032. Since then, there has been much speculation about how much the deal might influence the IOC to bring the Games back to the U.S. - with a particular eye on the summer of 2024.
"When you consider the prominence of the United States internationally in sports, and when you consider that the single greatest source of IOC funding is U.S. television money, it certainly makes sense that an Olympic Games would come to the United States some time within the span of the next few Olympics," Costas said.
For a time, Philadelphia considered joining Boston, San Francisco and other cities bidding to host in 2024. But mayor Michael Nutter and other city officials decided that the enormous expense involved would not be worth the risk.
Costas is sympathetic to the city's perspective.
"Whenever a major U.S. city bids - Chicago [bidding for the 2016 Summer Olympics], for example, which to the surprise of many was quickly blown out of the water last time around - there will always be people who come forward and say you can never recoup the cost," he said. "So the organizers and the communities that bid for the games have to come up with something that will not only be impressive and attractive for the IOC, but they have to make the case to their city and state that the benefit out-weighs the investment."
It does not help that the IOC has high - indeed, exorbitant - standards for what host cities must provide.
"The IOC now seems to have enough interest that they hold the leverage, and they do what they do for reasons of their own," Costas said. "So communities have to decide. Obviously, there's an enormous benefit to hosting the Games, but they've got to do a risk-reward assessment."
Philadelphia is likely to remain in the conversation as a potential host city for years to come. It is home to dozens of high-quality sports venues, with many in close proximity at the Sports Complex and local universities. And just as importantly, it's the home of Comcast's global headquarters. If the company wants to bring the Games here, it's likely that they will get their way at some point.
Count Costas as being in favor of Philadelphia hosting the Olympics.
"It seems to me that Philadelphia would have a lot to offer," he said. "They would have time to upgrade whatever facilities need to be upgraded, but several are there already."
Whatever happens to any of the sports Costas covers, it's likely that one thing about Costas will not change: his desire to step into the intersection where sport crosses with the big social issues of the day.
From steroids in baseball to guns and domestic violence in football, Costas has never been afraid to speak his mind. He has done so in halftime essays on NBC's football broadcasts; on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel"; and on his "Costas Coast To Coast" radio show that aired in the 1980s and 1990s.
Costas has received plenty of criticism from fans for some of those commentaries, most notably his 2012 remarks about the role guns played in the suicide of former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher.
For as much heat as he took, Costas still believes in what he said.
"It was a commentary on the pervasive, irresponsible attitudes towards guns among athletes that often leads to tragedy, and never leads to anything good," Costas said. "That's not an anti-second amendment position - that's a common-sense, eyes-open, look-at-the-evidence take on something that the leagues need to be concerned about, and which played itself out in the Jovan Belcher situation. The Belcher situation was also an obvious example of domestic violence, and I said that."
There have also been instances when Costas has highlighted potential controversies, especially in the NFL, well before they became popular national talking points.
"I talked about concussions and head trauma in the NFL years ago, and I said that the NFL was going to face lawsuits - some people scoffed at that, saying, 'Well, you know, it's willing assumption of risk on the part of the players,' [but] we see the lawsuits," Costas said. "I asked Roger Goodell four years ago what he would say to the parents of a 13- or 14-year-old boy who would say, 'We're football fans, but knowing what we're now learning, we're not going to let our kid play football' - what would you say about that? Well, that's a huge issue for the league now, [as] participation in youth football is down some 10 percent just over the last two or three years, and you can see how concerned the league is."
All along the way, Costas has tried to make sure that when he does introduce broader social issues into his commentaries, he does so in a way that connects them directly to sports.
"The gun culture that pervades sports was something that I was talking about, and I did it when it was connected to sports," he said. "I didn't talk about it after Aurora, or after Newtown, or after the Gabby Giffords incident, I talked about it when it was connected to sports... But this idea that I'm routinely looking for places to talk about things that are not connected to football, or not connected to sports, is ridiculous, and provably so by the evidence."
Costas does not take for granted the fact that NBC has given him the freedom to say what he really thinks. He does not have to fear repercussions from his employer over its financial relationships with the leagues and people he talks about.
"NBC has always stood behind me," he said. "So I don't feel constrained."
Indeed, the network has encouraged Costas at times to speak his mind. He cites remarks in 2013 on the Washington Redskins' racist nickname as proof.
"I don't know how anyone could think that the controversy over the Washington team name isn't a football issue," he said. "It is a football issue, and Washington was playing on NBC that night, against Dallas, and NBC asked me to do a commentary about it, which I did. They didn't tell me what to say, but they asked me to do it, and I did."
Costas also appreciates the fact that most subjects of his criticism have not taken his remarks personally. Major League Baseball has been a frequent target, but Costas praised former commissioner Bud Selig for recognizing "that I am not looking to potshot anybody, or fire off unreasonable arguments."
"I was the first network sports broadcaster to talk about steroids in baseball, and to talk at length about the game's economic problems, which were acute in the 90s and at the turn of the century," Costas said. "Bud Selig is a friend of mine. He has occasionally said to me, "I agree or disagree with this or that," but it has never been personal."
That is in part because Costas has been able to remain a sports fan throughout his decades in the industry. And for as many issues as there are on the sports landscape, he hopes to keep that mentality at heart.
"I think that reasonable people are able to enjoy sports, but also acknowledge that there are issues that inevitably are part of it," he said. "And to have somebody in a prominent position at least occasionally address those issues - never at the expense of the game or the ongoing action, but finding a place to do it, and doing it as concisely as possible - I think serves a purpose."