L’affaire Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal (right), shown interviewing Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts for Fox Sports at All-Star festivities. MLB Network decided Rosenthal’s comparatively mild critiques of Commissioner Nero Goldberg were still a little too harsh for the bosses’ comfort–even if they were published elsewhere.

A very long time ago, the bellettrist Albert Jay Nock counseled a protege named Frank Chodorov about writing: “Frank, don’t pick your reader up by the back of his neck and throw him downstairs. Lead him gently.” Whether Ken Rosenthal is aware of either of those two quiet giants of libertarian thought, he has been that kind of baseball writer, observer, and commentator.

Though he’s not given to rapid and bundled shafts of mirth, Rosenthal rarely fails to inform, instruct, and delight. He was required reading for a very long time on the Fox Sports website; he has been required reading at The Athletic since just about the day that journal was born. His additional presence at the MLB Network simply meant that the network benefitted from a well-seasoned reporter going deep as a finely-composed sauce.

Until it didn’t, as of Monday. If you thought the government government can be petty with in-house critics, for once it looks downright sanguine about them compared to baseball’s government.

The owners of the MLB Network decided that they just can’t have a known non-rabble rousing reporter criticising baseball commissar Rob Manfred on their (read: his) dollar. Never mind that Rosenthal’s apparent thought crimes occurred in June 2020 and weren’t even committed aboard MLB Network.

Permit me to take you back to baseball in suspended animation during the early months of the pan-damn-ic. Manfred and the owners attempted to renege on a deal to pay players full pro-rated salaries for 2020 whenever it might begin, even as they still pondered whether there would be even an abbreviated season. From his roost at The Athletic, Rosenthal (with Evan Drellich, the reporter with whom Rosenthal blew Astrogate wide open upon Mike Fiers’s whistleblowing) was having none of that:

What he wants now, according to sources, is to stop bickering with the union, start negotiating and reach an agreement that will bring the sport at least temporary order.

Yet for a guy who suddenly is looking for peace, Manfred sure has a funny way of showing it.

He and the owners, supposed stewards of the game, are turning the national pastime into a national punch line, effectively threatening to take their ball and go home while the country struggles with medical, economic and societal concerns . . .

The best commissioners offer statesmanlike presence and superior vision. Few ascribe those qualities to Manfred, and few would argue baseball is in a better place since he took over for Selig on Aug. 14, 2014. Rather than simply enjoy the fruits of the 2016 CBA, a lopsided victory for the owners, the clubs have gorged on them, alienating the players. And once again, they are valuing their own short-term interests over the long-term interests of the sport.

As critiques of baseball’s government go, Rosenthal (and Drellich) were mild sauce compared to numerous lights of varying statures. God and His servant Henry Aaron only know that when I want to compliment Manfred I’ve called him Commissioner Nero, fiddling while baseball burns. Or, Commissioner Goldberg, citing Manfred as a man giving an excellent if troublesome impression of how Rube Goldberg’s evil twin might have been, if Goldberg had had one.

Mild, schmild, MLB Network says. It iced Rosenthal for close to three months, while still paying his agreed-upon compensation, until the 2020 trade deadline at August’s end. When Rosenthal’s MLB Network contract expired at the end of 2021, the network decided not to renew him. Just why it merely iced him almost three months, then waited until his deal with them expired to let him go, is for mere speculation for now.

Under normal if no less tasteful circumstances, dumping actual or perceived in-house critics doesn’t require eighteen months to execute. The truly cynical might suggest MLB Network wanted to sustain a pretense of objectivity, even if it meant keeping Rosenthal on hand rather than dump him at once while honouring his contract otherwise. The less cynical might agree that dumping Rosenthal at once would have left MLB Network with a far worse look than it has now.

“The timing of this news could not be worse for MLB,” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Dan Gartland of Rosenthal’s purge. “The league’s status as a villain and a bully has been cemented during the ongoing lockout, and so even if Rosenthal’s departure was due to, as an MLB spokesperson told the [New York] Post, ‘natural turnover in our talent roster that takes place each year’ and not his 18-month-old criticism of Manfred, just the perception that the league has punished a well-liked and well-respected reporter for a fair critique of a widely despised authority figure is damaging to the network’s credibility.”

As the Boston Globe‘s Chad Finn notes, purging Rosenthal inflicted an unwarranted stain on the numerous reporters working there who lack Rosenthal’s profile:

[T]he decision to dump Rosenthal did their reputations no favors. Major League Baseball executives, particularly original network president and CEO Tony Pettiti, have insisted since the beginning that they want MLB Network to be editorially credible and they would not interfere with the journalistic duties of the correspondents.

Then, because the commissioner cannot accept that criticism comes with his job, the network goes and dumps the popular and respected Rosenthal for what were accurate rebukes? The perception is not fair, but Manfred’s actions implicitly suggest that the reporters who remain are in lockstep with how the commissioner’s office wants the league covered. At the very least, they now know what the consequences are for being critical of the boss.

Or, the bosses, if you remind yourself that Manfred serves at the owners’ pleasure and can be dumped by the owners any old time they choose it—provided, of course, that they pay the rest of his contracted-for salary. You know, just as the Yankees paid off in full all those decades ago, whenever George Steinbrenner decided to throw out the first manager of a season.

Since the lockout began, MLB Network has limited its live programming. MLB.com notoriously purged players’ faces from their stat pages. The site also published an FAQ on the collective bargaining agreement negotiations on day one of the lockout . . . entirely through the eyes of Manfred and his bosses, the owners.

Thus the most significant issue with professional sports leagues establishing their own media networks. They can be valuable resources for fans during off-seasons. But they can also become a league’s version of Izvestia. “No one is expecting Rosenthal to be allowed to bash Manfred on MLB Network,” writes Gartland, perhaps forgetting for the moment that Rosenthal’s bash wasn’t aboard the network, “but it’s refreshing when league-owned media outlets publish less-than-flattering stories.”

Weep not for Rosenthal, whose roosts at The Athletic (as a writer) and Fox Sports (as an on-air reporter/commentator) are at least as secure as a bank vault. Weep instead for the thinking person’s sport that’s been used, misused, and abused by a commissioner and his paymasters for whom genuine thinking proves beyond their pay grades.

What took so long?

Trevor Bauer

Trevor Bauer waited as long to go on administrative leave for abuse as  Hector Santiago waited to get grounded ten days for actual/alleged naughty sauce. What’s wrong with that picture? Plenty.

Get caught with legal rosin mixing with your own natural sweat? You baaaaaad boy! No going out to play for you for ten days, Hector Santiago.

Take rough sex too far and leave a woman bruised, undergoing CT scans, and finally filing a restraining order against you this week, under penalty of perjury? You’re still starting in regular rotation, Trevor Bauer . . . on the Fourth of July. In Washington, yet.

At least, you were, until MLB did Friday what it should have done on Wednesday, when the details came forth, and put you on seven days’ administrative leave.

Until then, it looked as though Santiago took heavier immediate consequences for actual or alleged naughty sauce than Bauer did leaving a woman with head and facial trauma, a partial basilar skull fracture, and blood around where she accuses him of trying a back door slider while she was out cold and in no position to allow it.

You can run the entire history of professional baseball and find players disciplined quickly and heavily for behaviour a lot less grave that what Bauer’s accused of having done to the lady. But then you can also still find too many people learning about Babe Ruth’s penchant for partying with gangsters and hookers and thinking it’s still just part of the big lout’s appeal.

Maybe the Dodgers couldn’t discipline Bauer unilaterally at once, as Sports Illustrated‘s Stephanie Apstein noted Thursday afternoon. But there was no law saying manager Dave Roberts couldn’t decide to hand the ball to another pitcher to start in Bauer’s place, especially on the anniversary of a declaration saying we’re entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness isn’t supposed to leave a woman’s head resembling a boxing gym’s speed bag. Not even if she was looking for just a little rough and wild sex.

Unless I’ve been led down one or another primrose path, even a little rough and wild sex isn’t supposed to end in head and face trauma, a partial basilar skull fracture, and blood on the seat God provided the human anatomy. Compared to that, The Thrilla in Manila (Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, the brutal Act III) was a dance contest.

Baseball’s domestic violence policy, Apstein reminded us, includes that baseball’s government can put an accused player on paid administrative leave up to seven days while investigating the accusations. MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association can extend that period by mutual agreement, she observes.

“Perhaps MLB is waiting until Sunday so as not to start the clock,” she continued. “If they wait, that would keep him out of action until after the All-Star Break. That may make sense legally. It is indefensible morally.”

These people are so consumed with technicalities that they can’t be bothered to do the right thing. “We are not going to start Trevor Bauer on Sunday.” Not “We are going to take away Trevor Bauer’s money.” Not “We are going to suspend him.” Not “We are going to release him.” Not “We are going to throw him in prison.” Just “We are not going to offer this man the privilege of striding out to a mound in front of tens of thousands of people who paid for a nice afternoon.”

Let’s remember the word “privilege.” That’s what playing professional, major league baseball is. It’s not a basic human right. You won’t find any clause in the Supreme Law of the Land declaring you have the absolute right to any particular line of work.

The document over whose anniversary baseball and the nation is about to make a red, white, and blue racket—the like of which probably hasn’t been seen in long enough, after last year’s pan-damn-ic rudely interrupted such things—doesn’t say, “We hold this truth further, that you have the right to your particular chosen job, period, no matter what criminal behaviour you might commit while thus employed.”

Apstein said commissioner Rob Manfred—a man who normally points the way to wisdom by standing athwart it—should have put Bauer on administrative leave immediately. She also said the Dodgers’ administration should have ordered Roberts to hand the Fourth of July ball to anyone but Bauer, instead of Roberts telling reporters he’s still giving Bauer the ball.

While she was at it, she zapped that brass for leaving Roberts out to answer press questions by himself.

“Instead,” Apstein continued, “fans of the Dodgers and of the sport and of civil society have to wait days to learn whether a man accused of breaking a woman’s skull will get to pitch on the Fourth of July in the nation’s capital.”

The Athletic‘s Dodgers reporter Fabian Ardaya tweeted Thursday afternoon that Roberts also said the team’s “direction” was to do nothing “until they get guidance from MLB.” Since when does a team need guidance from baseball’s government to just take the ball from one pitcher and hand it to another?

The Dodgers have their guidance now. It took only two days from The Athletic’s Brittany Ghiroli’s and Katie Strang’s running down the literally gory details in the restraining order filing to get it. It shouldn’t have taken that long.

MLB was still a little too slow on the proverbial uptake. So were the Dodgers. They should have gotten ahead of it and changed Fourth of July pitchers at minimum to open. This is a look about which “ugly” would be an understatement for the team half a game out of first in the National League West.

Why did Manfred and his office wait so long to put Bauer on administrative leave? When former Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was first accused of abuse against his then-wife in 2018, MLB put him on administrative leave at once. When Yankee pitcher Domingo German was accused likewise in 2019, MLB put him on administrative leave likewise.

Both were suspended in due course, but the players’ union approved extensions of the administrative leaves first. What on earth was the hesitation now?

The presumption of innocence? Legally, that’s in a court of law. Morally, you don’t surrender it when you remove a pitcher from duty whose mind is occupied by matters more grave than trying to sneak fastballs or breaking balls past Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto on the Fourth of July.

“Would the union fight a similar extension with Bauer?” another Athletic writer, Ken Rosenthal, asked. Then, he answers at once: “Perhaps, if it believed the league was acting unfairly. The union, after all, exists to defend and assert the rights of the players. But based on the details in the domestic violence restraining order against Bauer, the union also might view a prolonged investigation into his conduct as warranted.”

Somehow, it’s still impossible to believe that a pitcher caught with his sweat mixing to legal rosin and ending up in his glove—which, by the way, MLB turned out not to have inspected—almost faced heavier immediate consequences than a player under legal restraining order over leaving a woman injured, feeling abused, and more than a little afraid.

“[H]ow ridiculous would it look for MLB to dock Santiago and not even buy time with Bauer, whose alleged offense is far more serious?” Rosenthal asked. “What exactly would Manfred’s trepidation be here?”

I’m still a little too trepiditious to ask. A baseball commissioner who’s already threatening to set records for terrible looks took two days to do what he had to do this time. “Terrible” isn’t the word for that look.