For more than 20 years, Ken Rosenthal has been covering baseball. Whether it has been with the Baltimore Sun (he was the Maryland Sportswriter of the Year five times while with them), The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, or now on FOXSports.com as a senior baseball writer, Rosenthal has been reporting breaking baseball news, and publishing columns at a staggering pace. His ability to cover nearly every breaking news story has given him the label "Robothal" by some.
Not content to report and write columns on baseball, he has authored or contributed to three books. Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul, was released in 2001, while Best of the Best-35 Major League Superstars, which was produced in partnership with and licensed by MLB Properties, Inc. was published in 1998. His third book, I Remember Dean Smith, was published in 2001. Rosenthal is also the lead field reporter for MLB on FOX Television, and now reports for MLB Home Plate XM 175. He seems to be everywhere at once these days.
Somehow in the midst of his schedule, he was nice enough to conduct an interview for The Biz of Baseball. Topics range from Barry Bonds and his contract stalemate with the Giants; J.D. Drew and his contract issues; why he isn't voting for any players within the steroid era on the first ballot for the Hall of Fame, and how that impacts Roger Clemens; George Mitchell and the steroid investigation; Daisuke Matsuzaka and the posting process; what he thinks of being called "Robothal", and much, much more.
Maury Brown for The Biz of Baseball: Lot’s of people read your articles, but what does Ken Rosenthal read? What are some online sites, books, etc. that you take in?
Ken Rosenthal: ESPN’s Buster Olney is one of my best friends; we worked together at the Baltimore Sun. I also think he is one of the best baseball writers; I read his blog faithfully, as well as everything else on ESPN.com; they’re the standard. SI’s Tom Verducci is also one of my absolute favorites.
I start the day by going to two sites – prosportsdaily.com and baseballnewsstand.com (the old-school newsstand). From there, I read as much as I can about all 30 teams. This generally takes a few hours. I also check out baseballprospectus.com and baseballamerica.com on occasion. I’m aware that there are several excellent sabermetric sites, but I generally don’t go to them. It’s strictly a time factor.
As for books, I wish I could say I was more of an avid reader. I rarely read during the season. Again, it’s a question of time. However, in that brief period when the off-season slows down, I’ll read as many books as possible, just devour ‘em. I read all the major baseball books, of course. I also like suspense novels and books about politics and the media. Carl Hiassen and my old Sun colleague Laura Lippman are among my favorites.
BizBall: Barry Bonds has created a unique situation in terms of how a player contract will be structured. There’s talk of language that will keep Bonds’ “posse” out of the locker room, and protections for the Giants in case he is indicted at some point. Because of that, a contract has yet to be reached. Who bends first, Barry or the Giants, and why?
Rosenthal: Based on their track record, I think the Giants will bend; they always have before. The day the amphetamines story broke, I wrote that they should quash the deal, just say enough is enough. They obviously couldn’t use the positive amphetamines test as a reason, but they could cite all the other language issues and Bonds’ injury history as insurmountable obstacles. Let Bonds sue, file a grievance, whatever. I’d fight that fight. And at least the Giants, in my opinion, would be taking a proper stand. Yes, they’d miss Bonds’ offense greatly, but not the rest of it. And the rest of it is quite distracting, to say the least.
As for the legal concerns, If Bonds hasn’t been indicted by now, I doubt he ever will be. I don’t think that’s a particularly major issue as far as the contract is concerned. The greater issue is that the Giants, according to published reports, have tried to insert Bonds-type language into all of their free-agent contracts, lest they be accused of singling out Bonds. If true, that would be just another example of how this one player – while a great player – disrupts and divides his team.
BizBall: J.D. Drew has yet to be signed by the Red Sox. Do you think the Red Sox would have offered a preliminary agreement if they had known about his shoulder injury?
Rosenthal: Good question. The Red Sox had to know it was possible that such an issue might surface, given Drew’s injury history. To me, their pursuit of the player was curious from the start. Drew’s numbers are impressive, and he probably will benefit from being part of a powerhouse lineup. But his overall approach—real and/or perceived—is far too passive for such an intense market. I think that will create problems, maybe big problems. We have seen that some players are not suited for markets such as Boston and New York. Drew, from what we’ve seen, would appear to be Exhibit A. It will be fascinating to see how he fares.
BizBall: This year’s Hall of Fame voting is in the books, and unsurprisingly, McGwire didn’t get enough votes. You, like many others, wrote of why you wouldn’t be voting for him, and you made it clear that you won’t be voting for any suspected steroid users on the first ballot. My question is this… Has the specter of steroids in baseball created a level of undue suspicion in MLB? Has it created an environment in which any player that is homerun prodigious is now “suspected of steroid use”?
Rosenthal: The answer is yes, and I’m not happy about it; it’s as if the pendulum has swung too far the other way. People ask all the time, “Where were you guys” – meaning reporters – “in ’98?” It’s a fair question. My friend Buster has written several times that we should have done a better job, should have at least written general stories on the subject. Perhaps, but my counter to that is that editors would have wanted names, not some general analysis. And journalistically, that was not viable.
In my opinion, most of us were not nearly as educated on the topic as perhaps we should have been, and that’s another reason why the reporting—during that period—was weak. It later got much, much better. If not for the work of some great journalists – Verducci, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada of the San Francisco Chronicle, T.J. Quinn of the New York Daily News – we would not know nearly as much as we do today.
At the same time, it astounds and troubles me that some journalists now speculate in print about potential users in a way that would have been frowned upon only a few years ago. I think it’s wrong. I’m bothered by the many leaks of confidential information – the BALCO grand-jury testimony, Bonds’ positive test for amphetamines. It reeks of McCarthyism. Of course, as journalists, Lance and Mark did exactly what they were supposed to do; leaking grand-jury testimony is against the law, printing the information is not.
BizBall: Given that there have been as many pitchers and position players that have come up positive for steroids, could someone such as Roger Clemens be off your list for a first ballot vote?
Rosenthal: As of this moment—and I reserve the right to change my mind on a question that will not be relevant for at least five years—I will not vote for Clemens on the first ballot. I will not vote for any player from this era first-ballot, though I made exceptions for Ripken and Gwynn and probably will make them for certain others; Glavine and Maddux come to mind.
My feeling is this: We don’t know who did what. We don’t know the impact that performance enhancers had on the game. Therefore, I’m uncomfortable equating the greats from this era with the greats of the pre-steroids past. A first-ballot snub is one way to draw that distinction. Is it unfair to implicate everyone that way? Perhaps. But the players were members of a union that could have agreed to testing or unilaterally adopted it themselves if they did not trust the owners. Instead, they were completely dismissive of the issue.
What will I do with these guys after the first ballot? I have no idea.
One thing people should understand: This is a Hall of Fame vote, not a court verdict. Voters don’t need evidence or proof to render their decisions. We are instructed to consider character, integrity and sportsmanship, creating wide latitude for subjectivity.
I’m not sure what the proper answer is. I’m not sure there is a proper answer. I respect others who disagree with me. The topic is so complex, virtually every point of view is valid. Basically, I will vote my conscience, using the information and perspective that is available to me at the time.
BizBall: What’s your take on George Mitchell’s comments at the Owner Meetings in Phoenix on the 18th?
Rosenthal: Empty threat. Empty investigation. I’m not sure the government will remain focused on the issue, so the idea that it will revisit the question if MLB fails to act probably is presumptuous. If the government does act, we’ve seen that it certainly stands a better chance of uncovering information than the Mitchell committee does. The committee’s lack of subpoena power makes it's task virtually impossible.
BizBall: Odds that all the players in the BALCO investigation have their names leaked...
Rosenthal: I don’t know, probably 50-50. Is Vegas laying odds on that?
BizBall: After the $51.11 million posting fee for Daisuke Matsuzaka this off-season, what do you think happens with the posting process the next time the US-Japanese Player Contract Agreement comes up for renewal?
Rosenthal: I would like to see the process revised in some fashion, but I do understand the rationale behind it. It is important, very important, to protect the Japanese clubs. That said, the process is far too ripe for corruption. Seibu could have sent money back to the Red Sox or even Matsuzaka to help ensure that the deal was done; for all anyone knows, perhaps that did happen. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but MLB faces vexing concerns on a number of international fronts, not just this one. The issues are difficult to navigate; otherwise, MLB might already have implemented a worldwide draft.
BizBall: What club has done the most to improve themselves this off-season?
Rosenthal: Well, we know who spent the most, don’t we? The Cubs will be better, maybe a lot better, if only through sheer force of Lou Piniella’s will—I’m certainly not convinced that their rotation is championship-caliber.
I like what the Indians have done, fixing their bullpen and building enough depth to give manager Eric Wedge multiple options at several positions; they appear to be a very well-constructed team.
Other teams that I think are better: The Padres, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Royals. I admire the foresight of the White Sox and Yankees have shown in trying to get younger, but I think both could teams could be weaker short-term. The Red Sox? Too many variables. They might be the most difficult team to assess.
Teams that worry me: Mets (due to their rotation), Rangers, Mariners, Giants, Nationals.
BizBall: Every season there’s a sleeper team. Last year it was the Tigers. Who will be the sleeper team in 2007?
Rosenthal: I agree with the premise; I picked the Blue Jays to win the World Series last season, figuring they might be the sleeper club. Right idea, wrong choice. Scouts and executives started talking up the Tigers as early as spring training. Yes, there were some who saw it coming. Just not me.
I like the Brewers and Diamondbacks as potential surprises; both play in divisions without dominant clubs, and both possess fairly deep rotations and talented young position players who could progress quickly. But really, anyone who claims to know what will happen is A) extremely arrogant or B) extremely ignorant of how unpredictable the game has become.
BizBall: Randy Johnson: Better or worse this season?
Rosenthal: The age and injury history point to “no,” the change in leagues points to “yes.” I admire Johnson, and I think the expectations placed on him in New York were absurd. But he’ll be 44 in September, and it’s difficult to say a player of that age will be better.
BizBall: Writing and reporting or television?
Rosenthal: The only reason I’m on television is because of my writing and reporting—and because Peter Gammons paved the way for so many of us. I expect that writing and reporting will always be the foundation of what I do.
As for a preference, I can’t say I have one. I love to break news stories; I love to write columns; I love to contribute on TV. I will say this: TV is much more difficult than I thought. It’s much more difficult than anyone thinks. I’m not saying it’s rocket science, but it’s a definite skill, just like writing. Broadcasters like Joe Buck and Tim McCarver—people can criticize them all they want, but they’re absolute masters of their craft. I get the privilege of working with them and witnessing how good they are on a regular basis. They’re amazing, really.
One more thing: The power of television is very humbling. I can speak for 20 seconds on a Fox broadcast and reach far more people than I ever would by writing for our web site. Many players could not name five national writers. But they sure as heck know who is on TV.
BizBall: The San Jose Athletics of Fremont or (insert any other reasonable alternative)?
Rosenthal: California Beane Counters works for me.
BizBall: Finally, you have been affectionately termed “Robothal” by some in the online community for your constant stream of breaking baseball news. As a guesstimate, how many minutes do you log on your Cellphone, and what’s the average number of hours a night you sleep?
Rosenthal: First off, I’m very grateful that people notice and appreciate my work. As someone who is 5-foot-4, 140 pounds, I get a particular kick out of that nickname. It makes me sound like I’m a relentless, indestructible machine! I only wish that were the case . . .
I’ve got a 4,000-minute plan on my cellphone, and like others in my position, I also make extensive use of E-mail, text messaging and instant messaging. As for sleep, I don’t get much, but work is only partly to blame. I’ve got three kids—15, 14 and 11—who are very busy and energetic. They go to sleep late and get up early. My incredibly patient and capable wife keeps everyone going. Truth be told, she sleeps less than me—and accomplishes more!
Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 1/20/07 and published on 1/23/07