In his seven years as Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred’s knack for actions both petty and detrimental to the game has repeatedly led to two recurring questions:
Does this guy like baseball?
How is he not translucent with skin so thin?
The latest example of Manfred’s uncanny gift for doing the wrong thing was revealed Monday night. That’s when the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand broke the news that reporter Ken Rosenthal’s contract was not picked up by MLB Network at the end of the year, in part because of lingering acrimony after he had been critical of Manfred’s early handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rosenthal, who had been a prominent news-breaker on the league-owned network since its 2009 debut, had, according to the report, been kept off the air for approximately three months in 2020 after criticizing Manfred, including one fairly blunt piece in which he noted that the commissioner is perceived to be “beholden to the owners and out of touch with the players.”
In the same piece, he criticized Manfred’s tactics in negotiating with the players’ union about how to proceed with the 2020 season. “Manfred and the owners keep sinking lower,” he wrote. “Unless making dead-on-arrival proposals, tone-deaf public remarks and other assorted blunders is your idea of negotiating savvy.”
Rosenthal returned to the air in 2020 for the Aug. 31 trade deadline, and has been a prominent contributor since. But it’s clear now that he was going to find his own name in the transactions as soon as Manfred got the opportunity.
Rosenthal confirmed his status on Twitter Tuesday night, writing, “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.”
It’s understandable why Manfred would be upset at what Rosenthal wrote; it made him look bad. A decent leader would have forgotten about it two days, if not two hours, after he read it. Instead, he held a silly grudge, and it’s an unfunny joke that Rosenthal, a shoo-in to be honored someday with the BBWAA Career Excellence Award from the Hall of Fame, got dumped.
But he will be fine. He still has the high-profile gig as Fox Sports’s in-game reporter, his role as a national baseball writer at The Athletic, and an impeccable reputation in baseball among his colleagues and those he covers.
Perhaps the real sympathies should be directed at the hard-working reporters who remain at MLB Network, because the 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.
There’s now a cost for telling the whole truth. Challenge him at your own risk. Bite the hand that feeds you? Don’t even dare nibble.
It’s not as though Rosenthal is a rabble-rouser. He has balanced working for independent outlets such as The Athletic and the MLB-owned or -indebted properties with even-handed, well-thought-out, deeply sourced reporting. (He was a welcome presence on MLB Network, too, especially on the lighthearted offseason show “Hot Stove” with Harold Reynolds and Matt Vasgersian.) It’s telling that Manfred couldn’t handle even moderate criticism from a reporter whose integrity is beyond reproach.
I’m not sure what Manfred thinks the benefit of this is, beyond the opportunity to flex his power. Major League Baseball, currently locking out its players, has already looked plenty petty enough lately by removing all stories and images of active players from its MLB.com site. Even during a labor disagreement, it’s incredibly short-sighted to go dark on content when baseball has more exciting young stars than it has had in ages.
Manfred’s actions constantly reveal that he’s someone who finds more satisfaction in competing for dollars and clout than from an actual sporting event. He has contracted the minor leagues by more than 40 teams, shearing the sport at its grassroots. He constantly talks about what is wrong with baseball, then implements abstract rule adjustments that don’t solve anything.
Manfred claims in his origin story that he grew up a Yankees fan, and as I’ve said before, the claim makes sense in a way: They always did have the most money.
But nothing Manfred actually has done since becoming commissioner suggests he likes actual baseball.
Dumping Rosenthal is just one more ridiculous confirmation. How it must aggravate Manfred that Rosenthal was spot-on back in 2020 about all of it, especially him.