Bob Nightengale on Foul Territory in December 2023. Bob Nightengale on Foul Territory in December 2023. (Foul Territory on YouTube.)

USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale is known for his baseball reporting and columns, but he’s apparently now diving into a media critic role as well. Nightengale played a key role in the Shohei Ohtani reporting Friday, pushing back on Jon Morosi’s report that Ohtani was “en route” to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays with “Ohtani is NOT on a flight to Toronto” and “Ohtani is at home in Southern California.”

And Nightengale’s pushback proved to be right. Morosi later recanted his report, and Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday. And on Sunday, Nightengale weighed in all that in strong terms, using his column to say “We baseball writers have disgraced ourselves, becoming an embarrassment to the journalism community.” That piece sees Nightengale blast both the Ohtani reporting and also the reporting on his own exchange with Chicago Cubs president Jed Hoyer after one of his reports didn’t pan out. Here’s some of what he has to say about the Ohtani saga:

We have made fools of ourselves plenty of times before in the history of baseball media, anywhere from criticizing the integration of the sport, to calling Ohtani a fraud in his first spring training, but we have taken this to new heights.

…It was reported early Friday morning that Ohtani’s decision was imminent. 

Well, that was news to Ohtani and his agency, who had a private appointment later in the day, and knew there would be no announcement. 

…Ohtani was still sleeping at his home in Newport Beach when the flight took off, but that didn’t stop furious reporting, with TV and radio reporters tracking the flight in real time. 

Nightengale makes some valid points there, including that part of the challenge in free agency reporting is that teams can’t (officially) say anything until players pass physicals. He’s also likely right that much of the news out there comes from particular players’ agents to particular insiders. In fact, he claims that that’s “95 percent, maybe higher” of where that kind of news comes from.

And Nightengale is right that the coverage of the Ohtani saga Friday got somewhat out of hand. That saw reports from both J.P. Hoornstra and Morosi eventually prove false. And it saw too much attention being given to a plane that ultimately held Shark Tank star Robert Herjavec.

Beyond that, Nightengale had maybe even more interesting comments on the Hoyer saga. There, he admits his own reporting shortcoming, but takes issue with how his discussion with Hoyer was characterized elsewhere, including as a “stern exchange” by ESPN 1000’s Jesse Rogers. He also said that the exchange here was about his report that the Cubs’ Christopher Morel surfaced in trade talks with the Tampa Bay Rays for Tyler Glasnow, not his report that the Cubs had “balked at Ohtani’s price tag of 10 years and at least $500 million” that many had assumed was at issue. Here’s some of what Nightengale has to say on his conversation with Hoyer and how it was covered:

They’re engaged in trade talks and while the Rays may want Morel, I had received incorrect information and his name was never mentioned.

Jed Hoyer, Cubs president of baseball operations, who was on his way to address reporters in their media scrum, stopped me, and told me that I was wrong: Morel was not involved in the talks. They won’t trade a prized commodity for a one-year rental in Glasnow.

The conversation lasted eight, maybe nine seconds. 

Next thing you know, a Chicago reporter breathlessly goes on his radio station and says that Hoyer and I got into a heated argument over the Cubs’ interest in Ohtani. The reckless report pops up on a Chicago website, and it goes viral. 

Never did Ohtani’s name come up. Never did Hoyer raise his voice. 

Never did this reporter ask Hoyer or myself what happened. 

Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes based off inaccurate information. And Nightengale’s mistake here is understandable. However, his criticisms of Rogers are maybe too much. What Rogers actually said was “I don’t know what was said, but stern words exchanged.” There’s nothing in Nightengale’s account here that refutes that description; if Rogers interpreted this as “stern,” there’s nothing here to show that it wasn’t, and he didn’t throw in any of the details of “Ohtani” or “raised his voice” that Nightengale is objecting to. And Rogers isn’t necessarily obligated to ask Nightengale or Hoyer for further details on that exchange; he saw something that seemed notable and he reported it with what information he had.

Nightengale’s description of the reaction that drew is interesting, though. And it helps explain why he’s upset about how this was covered:

Instead, hundreds of baseball executives, officials, agents and players came asking what happened, with our brief conversation getting exaggerated to the point that it was said we nearly came to blows. This of course set off vitriol across the internet.

We can’t even accurately report on ourselves now, let alone real baseball news. 

It’s time we take a deep breath, and check ourselves before we further wreck ourselves. 

The problem here isn’t actually with Rogers’ report. It’s with writeups of it that assumed the subject (and the Ohtani assumption was somewhat fair, as Hoyer had just addressed that in a press conference) and that put more into the argument than the details Rogers actually supplied. And that’s similar to the Ohtani case; part of the problem there was the inaccurate reports from Hoornstra and Morosi, but a lot of how crazy that got was about people taking those threads and running with them.

At any rate, Nightengale makes some valid points about challenges in current baseball reporting. But “embarrassment to the journalism community” is going too far itself. Every branch of journalism sees plenty of errors, and two particularly wrong reports on where a famously-secretive free agent is going are not the be-all and end-all of journalism mistakes.

There is room for reflection in the wake of the false Ohtani reports and the furor around the idea of him to Toronto. And it’s fair for Nightengale to offer his thoughts there. And baseball reporters could certainly do better here. But this may not be as much of an overall baseball journalism crisis as Nightengale makes it sound.

[USA Today; image from Foul Territory on YouTube]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.