Ken Rosenthal is leaving MLB Network, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever, about that. But the discussion about why Rosenthal is leaving appears set to take some potentially-interesting turns. Andrew Marchand of The New York Post wrote about this Monday, and linked it to comments Rosenthal made about MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in one of his other jobs (writing for The Athletic) back in 2020:
MLB Network has cut ties with insider Ken Rosenthal that is believed to be the end result of acrimony that peaked in the summer of 2020 after Rosenthal criticized commissioner Rob Manfred, The Post has learned.
Rosenthal, a top news breaker, was first kept off the air for around three months, according to sources, after he wrote columns in 2020 — with the season in jeopardy due to the pandemic — analyzing Manfred’s handling of the situation for The Athletic.
There was no stated suspension at the time, and it went publicly unnoticed by MLBN.
Rosenthal was still paid, but was put in a months-long penalty box. He did return for the trade deadline, which was pushed to Aug. 31 that season due to COVID-19.
Since then, Rosenthal had been regularly on MLBN, including as late as prior to Christmas on “MLB Tonight,” one of the network’s signature shows. His contract was up at the end of last year.
It’s interesting that it’s only now come out that Rosenthal (seen above on Fox in 2017) didn’t appear on MLBN airwaves for three months in 2020, but his status as an insider who appeared as a guest on many shows rather than the host of a regularly-scheduled show probably contributed to that not being noticed at the time. And yes, that’s certainly a significant on-air absence, and it’s absolutely notable if that was as a result of what seemed like pretty mild comments about Manfred (especially considering what other people were writing at the time). And it would be fascinating to learn what specifically led to that absence; was there any sort of influence exerted from MLB proper on the network as a result of Rosenthal’s writing for The Athletic, and if so, was that influence from Manfred or one of his deputies, or from other quarters?
With that said, though, there isn’t exactly a smoking gun in Marchand’s report to indicate that Rosenthal was fired over his 2020 comments on Manfred. And, as per Marchand, that at worst hit “As if the perception that Manfred is beholden to owners and out of touch with players was not bad enough, he was trending on Twitter on Monday after performing a massive flip-flop”; none of that is actually specifically criticizing Manfred, it’s rather commenting on perceptions on him from players and fans. If that’s really what Rosenthal was eventually let go for, that’s not a great look for MLB, or for MLB Network.
But it’s notable that those pieces haven’t been solidly linked yet beyond Marchand’s “believed to be the end result of acrimony” comment, which does not come with a particular source citation. And yes, while limiting on-air appearances and then letting a contract expire rather than outright firing someone is a known and successful PR strategy (especially at ESPN), an expiring contract does at least provide some doubt on direct linkage between comments and a move. As Marchand notes, MLB Network does have a new president (Bill Morningstar, who took over near the end of 2021), and they have parted ways with some other long-time figures recently. And Marchand does include this statement from a MLB spokesman.
“As MLB Network continues to look at fresh ways to bring baseball to our viewers, there is a natural turnover in our talent roster that takes place each year,” an MLB spokesman told The Post. “Ken played a significant part at MLB Network over the last 13 years. From spring training to the winter meetings, we thank him for his work across MLB Network’s studio, game and event programming, and wish him the very best going forward.”
Update: Here’s Rosenthal’s comment on this:
Can confirm MLB Network has decided not to bring me back. I’m grateful for the more than 12 years I spent there, and my enduring friendships with on-air personalities, producers and staff. I always strove to maintain my journalistic integrity, and my work reflects that. 1/2
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 4, 2022
Nothing else is changing for me professionally. I am proud to remain part of the great teams at The Athletic and Fox Sports. 2/2
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 4, 2022
It is of course at the least plausible that someone at MLB (whether that’s Manfred himself or someone else in power) took exception to Rosenthal discussing the poor perception of the commissioner from players and fans in one of his other roles. And, if that did happen, that speaks to three distinct media issues at the moment; the challenges of working for a league network (league network reporters currently do break a lot of news, including some unfavorable to their league, but some have talked about how particular stories aren’t a fit for those outlets), the challenges of holding multiple jobs (Rosenthal currently also works for Fox Sports and The Athletic, and is expected to continue with both of those companies; what works for Fox or for The Athletic doesn’t necessarily work for MLB-owned media), and the issues with league executives trying to dictate how they’re covered.
At any rate, it’s certainly notable that MLBN is not bringing Rosenthal back. Yes, they have other newsbreakers and insiders, but he was the most prominent one there in many respects. So his exit would be significant regardless of if it came with any potential controversy, but a report linking this to his (mild at most) criticism of Manfred adds another dimension to it. We’ll see if Rosenthal ever addresses this, or if any more winds up being reported on it. But Marchand’s piece is definitely an interesting story to have out there around Rosenthal’s exit.