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.

Is Mickeygate Tribegate now?

How much did the Indians really know about Mickey Callaway’s pursuits?

It’s going from worse to impossible for Mickey Callaway. But it’s going from bad enough to far worse for the Indians, too. Callaway hasn’t worked for the Indians since 2017, but it looks as though they can’t really be shocked anymore.

Team president Chris Antonetti told the press in early February he was “disturbed, distraught, and saddened” by allegations of Callaway’s sexually-oriented misconduct. That was after The Athletic exposed his inappropriateness with five media women while he managed the Mets. It may have been only the first hints.

Come Tuesday morning, Athletic reporters Brittany Ghiroli and Katie Strang published that Callaway’s kind of behaviour not only traced back to his Indians years but that several key organisation members—including Antonetti and manager Terry Francona—seemed aware enough then that Callaway’s taste for pursing women inappropriately wasn’t a one-time wild pitch.

“Since the publication of The Athletic’s first article,” Ghiroli and Strang wrote, “more women have come forward to say that Callaway made them uncomfortable by sending them inappropriate messages and/or photos, making unwanted advances and more while they worked for the Indians.”

Additionally, in 2017, an angry husband repeatedly called the team’s fan services department to complain that Callaway had sent “pornographic material” to his wife. Those calls were brought to the attention of Antonetti, manager Terry Francona and general manager Mike Chernoff; the Indians spoke with Callaway about the matter . . .

Over the past month, The Athletic has interviewed 22 people who interacted with Callaway during his years in the Indians organization, including 12 current and former employees. They say that Callaway’s sexual indiscretions permeated the workplace to such an extent that it would have been difficult for top officials to not be aware of his behavior, and they push back against any assertion that Callaway’s actions, when made public by The Athletic last month, caught team executives or MLB by surprise.

“I laughed out loud when I saw the quote (in The Athletic’s original report) that said it was the worst-kept secret in baseball, because it was,” said one Indians employee. “It was the worst-kept secret in the organization.”

After the Mets canned Callaway as manager following the 2019 season, the Angels hired him as pitching coach for incoming manager Joe Maddon. Following The Athletic‘s initial report, the Angels suspended Callaway, pending the outcome of a joint probe between the Angels and baseball’s government. Assorted reporting since has said the only reason it’s a suspension and not unemployment was Callaway’s insistence he’d done nothing truly wrong.

Ghiroli and Strang say Callaway’s reputation as a huntsman traced back to his days as a high school pitching hero (“He was a high school celebrity,” they quote “one woman he frequently pursued”) and ran into his years at the University of Mississippi, his drafting and development by the Rays (known then as the Devil Rays), and past his short, three-team pitching career, and his 2001 marriage.

““He does have a way of making you — you kind of always thought it’s just you,” Ghiroli and Strang quoted a woman from Callaway’s Memphis hometown. “Until one day you sit down with a bunch of girlfriends and a glass of wine and realize you’re not.”

Callaway had the gift of working the room profoundly enough that a career as a pitching coach all the way up from the lowest minors to the Show itself seemed almost a given. In baseball terms, Ghiroli and Strang observed, his forward-thinking and ability to present complex metrics in simpler forms made him “a key conduit” for the Indians’ pitching program overhaul.

The trouble was, his reputation for hunting women aggressively paralleled the growth of his reputation as a thinking person’s pitching coach. One of his former minor league pitching charges told Ghiroli and Strang Callaway was given to too-frequent sexualising of women in his comments and often asked players regarding women, “Where’s the beef?”

The beef to which Callaway didn’t refer is now with him, with the Indians who may actually have known what Antonetti professed to be shocked to have learned, and with anyone in baseball who’d caught onto his predatory ways without moving to stop them. The same former pitching charge told the two Athletic reporters, ““It gets kind of awkward when he’s checking out players’ girlfriends” in the stands near the dugout.

Becoming the Indians’ pitching coach didn’t send him any message about maturity, either. He’d gaze, gawk, leer, and send messages to assorted women’s social media accounts. Ghiroli and Strang also said several Indians players’ wives noted him having an extramarital affair or two.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a Cleveland issue but a baseball issue,” one who worked for the Indians told the reporters. “As women, we feel like if we report something, we’ll be looked at like a tattletale or that if we talked, (the team) will figure out who reported it.”

Ghiroli and Strang didn’t have to hunt hard to find those women. When their first report emerged, and Antonetti said the organisation received no complaints about Callaway, those women sought the two reporters out themselves. The team was even willing to have Francona talk to the husband of a Callaway paramour who’d been calling the team incessantly for accountability.

All that was before Callaway was hired to manage the Mets, who’ve since been very public about their need to investigate prospective hires more deeply than in the past. What the Jared Porter sext scrum began, the revelation of Callaway’s sexually oriented misconduct exacerbated for them.

The aforesaid husband is thought to have contacted the Mets about Callaway’s sending his wife “pornographic” material, but the then-manager-to-be assured the Mets it tied to an extramarital affair that “dissolved,” and he was working things out with his wife.

It was bad enough the Mets and the Angels were forced to reckon with the possible full depth of Callaway’s misbehaviours. It looks worse that the Indians knew more than they let on when The Athletic first exposed them. Callaway isn’t helping himself, either, if a reply to a Ghiroli and Strang query the day before they published afresh is any indication:

While much of the reporting around my behavior has been inaccurate, the truth is that on multiple occasions I have been unfaithful to my wife, and for that I am deeply sorry. What I have never done is use my position to harass or pressure a woman. I am confident that I have never engaged in anything that was non-consensual. I feel truly blessed that my wife and children have stuck with me as the most personal and embarrassing details of my infidelities have been revealed. I will continue to work as hard as I can to repair the rift of trust that I have caused inside of my family.

How about the rift of trust he’s caused inside baseball, which has much more work to do when it comes to making women feel comfortable around the arterials of the game? How about the rift of trust he’s caused among those who knew but feared reporting it?

“Some who lived through Callaway’s time in Cleveland and were subjected to his aggressive advances,” Ghiroli and Strang wrote Tuesday morning, “questioned how the men who once supervised Callaway can be trusted to fix the culture that allowed him to operate so brazenly.”

How about even the further rift Callaway’s caused between a father and son already having a somewhat difficult relationship?

“This isn’t easy,” tweeted Nick Francona—son of Terry Francona, a son once fired by the Dodgers as player development assistant, after he sought an assessment by a Boston-based group helping combat veterans such as himself deal with the lingering effects, but who also refused to help cover up sexual misconduct among Dodger minor leaguers—“but it needs to be said.” “It” was a formal statement in which he said he couldn’t “say I am surprised” about Callaway’s behaviour, for openers:

When the news . . . first came out earlier this year, I confonted my father, Chris Antonetti, and others within the Cleveland Indians. I wanted to know why they didn’t say anything to me when the Mets hired Mickey Callaway and they gave him a strong endorsement. My father lied to me and said he didn’t know. Additionally, I think he and his colleagues fail to understand what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t.

The younger Francona said he “confronted my father” again Tuesday morning and believes further that the elder Francona “simply doesn’t get it,” while admitting father and son are not particularly close “largely as a result of disagreements about his conduct.” Terry Francona has declined comment so far.

After writing that standing up for what he believes right means acknowledging his father and the Indians are wrong, the younger Francona called their behaviour unacceptable, leaving it “hard to have faith” that they can improve when they seem more concerned about covering up.

I don’t think this is a problem that is unique to the Cleveland Indians and I think there needs to be a reckoning across Major League Baseball . . . Until a truly independent outside party is brought in and there is transparency and accountability, these problems will continue to plague the sport.

We love to see women enjoy baseball as much as men enjoy it. What’s wrong with asking that women be made as comfortable working in or around the game as men? What’s wrong with asking a firm, enforceable line be drawn between a man interested in a woman personally and a man believing he has the right to hunt her down sexually? What’s wrong with asking accountability when a man (or a woman, for that matter, and yes that happens, too) crosses that line?

The proper answer to all three questions should be absolutely nothing with any of those.