David Ross, aboard Anthony Rizzo’s shoulder after the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. Today Ross broadcasts for ESPN . . . and is also paid to advise Cubs president Theo Epstein. Conflict of interest?
The Mets and the Astros (as the Colt .45s) were born in 1962. In the same year, a future Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished commentary offered a wry observation he couldn’t have known would describe even more acutely the American atmosphere of 22 years after his death.
“It is impossible for a man who has enjoyed the taste of our beer and the flavour of our politics to decide which has gone more sour in his lifetime,” wrote Murray Kempton, introducing a section of his anthology of newspaper and other essays, America Comes of Middle Age.
The flavour of our politics has always included partisans on any side or from within any political camp who assume those delivering, observing, or analysing news they simply don’t like are employed, gainfully or otherwise, by one or another opposing campaign or office holder.
And there have been reporters and editorialists every so often caught behaving and performing as though they are employed formally if furtively by political campaigns to which they are personally sympathetic.
I raise the foregoing in part from personal experience and in part from an intriguing excursion in The Athletic this morning that examines a trend not necessarily new but necessarily troublesome.
My adult life has included about 31 years as a professional journalist, from small regional daily newspapers to small regional daily news radio (as an anchor/reporter), from trade journalism to the station from which I’ve practised in the past decade as a free-lance baseball writer for a vast audience, conservatively speaking, of three.
I’ve never been employed, formally, gainfully or otherwise, by any baseball organisation including a baseball team. Nor, in my earlier career, was I ever paid for any particular work by any political party, or by any organisation inclined to promote politics, law enforcement, education, or other matters I covered as a reporter and, yes, occasional columnist.
You’d have to be the title character of the Who’s legendary Tommy (you know: deaf, dumb, and blind—oops! today we say hearing-, speech-, and vision-impaired) to doubt such things exist, of course. But no such people ever approached me that way. (Some were more inclined to approach me for an execution: my own.) If they had, I would have told them politely but firmly where they could plant such a request, usually into a certain part of their ample anatomies.
I’ve also dealt with readers and listeners who presumed I was so paid, not because they questioned the validity or the diligence of my work, but because they simply disagreed with where it went and what it disclosed. I have no issue with disagreement, but I have every issue with the presumption that someone with a particular formal agenda paid me to report or think one way or another.
As a baseball writer here and elsewhere, and at least four other publications have published my work in the past several years, I’m employed strictly by myself or by those who chose to publish me. No major or minor league baseball team has ever paid me to write or think anything. And I’m reasonably confident that no major or minor league baseball team might ever be foolish enough do so.
The Athletic discussed those whom the public knows to be baseball broadcasters or reporters who are not strictly former baseball players but who also happen to be employed, formally, gainfully, or otherwise, by a few baseball teams. The magazine seems uncertain whether to be amused or alarmed. It’s an uncertainty about which I’m certain myself that it should seem alarming enough.
Consider Alex Rodriguez and Jessica Mendoza. Rodriguez is a retired player who has since carved a reputation as a candid analyst for ESPN since joining them last year, but who was also employed as a Yankee advisor from the moment he took his uniform off for the final time until, by mutual assent, he stopped receiving Yankee paychecks quietly last winter.
Rodriguez’s relationship with the Yankees is no longer an employee-employer but an informal one, hence his presence when the Yankees flew to London to play the Red Sox there this season, but he still has a relationship with the team. Mendoza is also an ESPN commentator—and a paid advisor to the crosstown Mets. Which presented a ticklish hour or two during the run-up to this year’s new single mid-season trading deadline.
Because, on one Sunday Night Baseball program, Rodriguez and Mendoza addressed that coming deadline, and Rodriguez asked Mendoza frankly whom the Yankees should have on their wish list, to which Mendoza replied without skipping the proverbial beat, “Noah Syndergaard,” the Mets’ righthanded pitcher who was only thought to be the prize nugget on the trading floor.
“So began an impromptu game of Let’s Make a Deal,” wrote The Athletic‘s Marc Carig, “one that illustrated an issue that has raised concerns within clubhouses and front offices alike . . . By uttering Syndergaard’s name on the air, [Mendoza] indirectly revealed for millions of viewers that her team had put the pitcher on the block, the type of acknowledgment that is typically not made public.”
Consider. Mendoza has broadcast Mets games against assorted opponents with deep access to both sides’ clubhouses, as well as being “involved in various facets of the front office operation,” as Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen indicted she’d be when he hired her as an advisor this spring.
When most baseball fans last saw David Ross, he basked in the mammoth party around the Cubs’ 2016 World Series triumph, to which he’d contributed especially a one-out home run in Game Seven’s top of the sixth, as well as a very viral on-camera dugout bid to ease the jitters of Cubs third base star Anthony Rizzo.
Like Mendoza, Ross is an ESPN broadcaster today. He’s also on the Cubs’ payroll as an advisor to president Theo Epstein, a role that includes scouting to the extent that Grandpa Rossy (as he was known affectionately by his fellow Cubs and by Cub fans alike) was involved directly when the Cubs signed protracted free-agent relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel this summer.
“It wouldn’t be unusual,” Carig noted properly, “for Ross’ duties to take him to games involving division rivals such as the Cardinals and Brewers.” If you’re thinking to yourself that the conflict-of-interest potential is rather vast, be advised, as Carig notes further, that that potential seems to divide teams.
Carig observed Braves manager Brian Snitker unconcerned about Mendoza interviewing him in her ESPN capacity even while knowing she’s a paid Mets advisor; and, Cardinals manager Mike Schildt gives Ross the benefit of the doubt even though he’s an ESPN commentator on the one hand and a Cubs advisor on the other. “Listen,” Schildt told Carig, “if ESPN trusts [Ross] to be able to do his job appropriately, then there’s no reason for me to question that.”
But Carig also noted that Mendoza told an ESPN conference call with reporters “that managers and players were already cautious with members of the media when speaking on the record, and that ‘teams that I’ve been around . . . they would probably have the same concern with whatever information they give me, whether it be me working for the Mets or me working for the media’.”
Adam Jones, the longtime Oriole favourite now a Diamondbacks outfielder, doesn’t shy away from the prospect of a conflict of interest arising, though Carig didn’t exactly phrase it that way. “One hundred percent there’s potential there, because you’re going on air and you’re talking baseball,” he told Carig.
“But [Jones] also believes that both Mendoza and Ross bring the kind of personality and insights that should be featured during broadcasts. ‘I think it’s good for the game,’ Jones said. ‘I see no harm in it’.” Note the order in which Carig mentioned personality and insight. One of the greatest knocks against turning former players into broadcasters and analysts has been that they’re engaged as personalities first and game callers or analysts second.
The legendary broadcaster Red Barber was known to have respected Phil Rizzuto because the former Yankee shortstop, hired as a broadcaster, approached Barber at once to teach him the craft. Barber was also repulsed by another former player, Joe Garagiola, who thought his natural locquacity was qualifier enough. On the flip side, Sandy Koufax proved a deft in-game analyst for NBC until he gave it up after five years, while chafing that his broadcast partners wanted him to talk more and more about his least favourite subject—himself.
Decades ago there were those in the sports press who suspected one or another colleague was one or another team’s employee in everything but name. And even before the larger advent of players turned broadcasters, teams had their tendencies to reject the idea that their broadcasters could be and often enough were more than just team cheerleaders. Barber himself learned the hard way after a little over a decade as a Yankee broadcaster following his legendary term with the Dodgers.
When the Yankees headed toward the first dead-last standings finish in their franchise history, in September 1966, Barber called a Yankee home game in which the paid attendance was announced in the ballpark itself as 413. He ordered a camera pan of the empty park, but the camera crew refused. So Barber told his viewers, “I don’t know what the paid attendance is today, but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game.”
Oops. One of the 413 was Michael Burke, the CBS executive who’d just been named the Yankee team president. (CBS bought the Yankees controversially in 1964.) It happened to be Burke’s first visit to a live Yankee game. Burke was informed of Barber’s remark and called Barber to a breakfast meeting at which he told Barber, essentially, “You’re fired.”
Around the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early to mid-1950s there were those who believed that the acerbic New York Daily News sportswriting legend Dick Young—who did kind of stop on the proverbial dime, turning from criticising Dodger management in the Branch Rickey era to all but canonising it by comparison as the Walter O’Malley era began—did so because he was being fed if not paid by the Dodger front office.
Young arguably brought what came to be called the New Journalism to baseball writing, observing and writing frankly about player, manager, and front office flaws in ways previously unknown in sportswriting. It’s not that his technique was novelistic, as the actual New Journalism came to be, but his penchant for calling it exactly as he saw and heard it helped seed the New Journalism approach.
Eventually enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, Young also rejected the accusations that he’d become a Dodger front office promoter, though his colleagues in the press box were never entirely certain. Roger Kahn, eventual author of The Boys of Summer but the Dodger beat writer for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1952-54, once spoke for those who were:
[Walter] O’Malley hadn’t planned and schemed all his life so that Dick Young would call him a bastard five days a week in the Daily News, so when he took over he put Emile J. “Buzzie” Bavasi in charge of Dick Young. I once said to Fresco Thompson in the Dodger front office, “I guess one of the first things Walter wanted was to get the Daily News and Young off their neck.” He said, “One of the first things? It was the first thing.
And so Bavasi captured Young, and he was in the Dodger hip pocket all the time, until it became clear that the Dodgers were going to leave [for Los Angeles]. The Daily News was to the Dodgers what the Osservatore Romano was to the Vatican. It gave the Dodger line. Young gave the Dodger line. The guys he liked were the guys management liked. The News became a Bavasi-O’Malley house organ.
“If you put in the time, if you’re there, you’ll get things that other guys don’t get,” Young once said in his defense, as quoted in Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers by Peter Golenbock.
So the guys who weren’t there would always look for the crutch, and they’d say I was getting special treatment. I wasn’t. Buzzie himself said to the other guys, “You come around, and I’ll tell you the same thing.” He wasn’t going to call them up and tell them. And that applies today. You get stories by working. There’s no substitute.
The kind of actual or alleged conflict of interest suspected of Young—who didn’t exactly deny that he was still giving the official Dodger front office line—existed when the print press still generally dominated news and sports, when print journalists weren’t former ballplayers, and not necessarily in New York alone.
Can the prospect of conflicts of interest be dismissed entirely, in today’s long-enough-entrenched community of former ballplayers turned broadcast game callers, analysts, and commentators, while at least some of them are also employed formally by baseball teams?
Longtime Columbia University journalism professor Sandy Padwe, who once consulted for the ESPN documentary series Outside the Lines, said no. “You can’t have one foot in one camp and one foot in the other,” Padwe told Carig. “It’s just not right.” He’ll get no disagreement from State University of New York media professor Brian Moritz. “Speaking strictly journalistically, that’s a pretty strict conflict of interest,” he told Carig. “It’s very cut and dry on the first glance of it. You shouldn’t be paid by one of the teams that you’re covering.”
But that begs the question of the ex-players-turned-broadcasters actually being precisely defined journalists. To which Bob Ley, the now-retired longtime Outside the Lines host, said, plainly, “Just because you’re sitting behind a microphone broadcasting a game does not make you a journalist. It makes you a broadcaster.”
As often as not, though, the best team broadcasters become journalists simply by doing; Barber and his protege Vin Scully were only the most fabled examples. But they were usually not employed as paid team advisors, either. An early-season MLB memo cited by Carig showed Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Jim Thome, former manager Terry Collins, and former players Ryan Dempster, Jim Kaat, David Ortiz, Dan Plesac, Nick Swisher, and Rick Sutcliffe also employed dually as network broadcasters and paid team advisors.
Put to one side that paranoia is as old a baseball presence as simple on-the-field sign stealing by baserunners or coaches, the conflict risk is too large no matter how diligently the broadcasters-while-team-advisors work to separate them. The Mets ended up not trading Noah Syndergaard, after all. But they might have wanted to, and perhaps working it out of the public eye would have gotten them a great return if they did it.
We’ll never know when it comes to this year, of course. But who’s to say when the next broadcaster/journalist who happens also to be paid as any team’s advisor will drop that kind of bomb and impact something like a trade deadline one way or the other?
Proper journalists are subdivided by their particular tasks. Reporters report (we prefer to presume); analysts analyse; editorialists, columnists, and commentators, depending on your point of view, pronounce or pontificate. But if we’re paid by one or another subject to report, analyse, editorialise, or comment on behalf of one or another outcome, the conflict of interest is about as obscure as a hurricane.
If you’re watching a baseball game or observing the doings and undoings of a team away from the playing field, you prefer to believe that everything is straightforward and fair, but you know in your heart that boys will be boys and not everything proves such. Whether it was Leo Durocher’s then-high-tech sign stealing scheme to effect a dramatic 1951 pennant race comeback, or the Cardinals caught dead to right hacking into the Astros’ computer database three years ago.
But that doesn’t mean you should look the other way, either, when there is a real conflict of interest potential when you watch a game and listen to the play-by-play and the in-game analyses. “Broadcasters working for teams are just another reason for caution,” Carig wrote. “As always in baseball, the guard is up.” Within reason, appropriately.