Yesterday marked the debut of the New York Times’ sports magazine, Play. Reading and looking like an American version of The Observer Sport Monthly, Play (planned to appear quarterly) turns out to be somewhat meatier ; “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis profiled retired Packers DB Willie Wood, and Michael Sokolove examined the likely impact of baseball’s new amphetamine ban (“To ‘bean up’ is to pop a pill before game time; to abstain is to ‘play naked.’ Players who can’t decide what to do sometimes joke, ‘To bean or not to bean, that is the question.’ This was related to me by Billy Sample, and it is the first reference to Shakespeare (no matter how common) I have ever known to emanate from a baseball clubhouse.”)

In what might be Play’s early highlight, however, Bryan Curtis does a rather thorough demolition job on HBO’s Bob Costas (thanks to Sam Frank for the link).

Sportscasting, of course, is rarely a destination of great minds. It™s a halfway house for half-wits, home to the front-porch ˜˜humor™™ of Terry Bradshaw and the rants of the ESPN surrealist Stephen A. Smith. Heehawing trumps insight. ˜˜These guys are gasping for air, slapping each other on the back, and I™m sitting there going, ˜Huh?™™™ says Costas, who called me when he heard I was writing this. ˜˜We™re not passing out whoopee cushions and hand buzzers.™™ In his new role, Costas fancies himself a smart guy in a dumb guy™s business. What he™s trying to do at HBO is create a little spot for the intellectually curious sports fan. It sounds like a nice idea. But there™s something about Costas™s approach that™s a bit too polished, a bit too ” what™s the word? ” George F. Will. The more you watch Costas™s ˜˜smart™™ brand of sports talk, the more it seems a refinished version of the dumb stuff.

Costas bristles when he™s called a traditionalist. But beneath that boyish smile lurks a curmudgeon, the kind of guy who sits in the adjacent seat at the stadium and complains about œtoday™s ballplayer. Costas abhors fantasy football and the smack talk of sports radio. He assails any player who claims to be in the entertainment business. Recently, he lost his customary cool when talking on-air about the Terrell Owens furor. ˜˜The next preening lout who comes along who™s all about putting on a show, that person is going to get all the time on ˜SportsCenter™ over and above the guy who does a great job … but only through his play.™™ Sitting with Costas was the Bengals™ Chad Johnson, the preening lout who this season has taken end-zone dancing to levels previously imagined only by Busby Berkeley. He stared at Costas as if he had just stepped out of the Polo Grounds.

The problem isn™t so much with Costas™s retrograde sensibility as it is with the show™s self-satisfaction. ˜˜Costas Now™™ whispers, ˜˜You™re a more complete sports fan for having watched this.™™ In recent months, Costas has filed adulatory profiles of Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno and Tony La Russa, perennial sportsman-of-the-year candidates who wash up everywhere. Like a tireless self-improvement guru, Costas persuades ex-athletes to confess their drug use, and then reveals that they™ve nobly devoted themselves to society™s betterment.