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MLB’s non-renewal of Ken Rosenthal’s contract and its possible impact on labor negotiations

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The league seems unprepared for the current media environment.

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David Ross, then an ESPN broadcaster, with Ken Rosenthal and Mark Teixeira in 2017
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Earlier this week the New York Post reported that MLB Network made the decision to non-renew Ken Rosenthal’s contract because Rosenthal had been critical of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred during the 2020 pandemic shortened season negotiations. Rosenthal is one of the most respected analysts in baseball. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to say that Rosenthal is more widely recognized and admired as a face of baseball than Manfred. From a public relations perspective it would be stunning for MLB Network to sever ties with a writer of Rosenthal’s caliber under normal circumstances. It is downright bewildering for the league to make this move a little over a month into a lockout that has seen very little movement from MLB or the MLBPA.

Then again, a lot of MLB’s public-facing moves have been mystifying this winter. Not renewing the contract of one of the premier analysts of the game is just the latest indication that MLB does not have an effective communications strategy for the lockout and the CBA negotiations. Today I want to take a closer look at some of their early blunders and the media environment to evaluate what, if any, impact they might have on labor talks.

Early in the lockout I had a lot of questions about how MLB and the MLBPA would manage their messaging as they tried to hash out a new CBA this winter. Forgive me for retweeting myself, but a lot of those early thoughts (and the original inspiration for this piece) are in this thread:

This is really the first contested CBA negotiation of the social media era. Prior to the league locking out the players there had been 27 years of labor peace in MLB. Don’t get me wrong, there were disagreements and items to hash out over the last two decades as there are with all contract negotiations. However, since the disastrous strike of 1994-95 the players and owners had managed to resolve those differences in a timely, and relatively quiet, manner behind closed doors. The last time the two sides came to metaphorical blows, media messages were exchanged via competing press releases and interviews granted to TV, radio networks and large newspapers. For better or worse, the gatekeepers for those institutions determined the messages that made it to fans. To be clear, the communications machinery of MLB often seemed to be an unbeatable juggernaut compared to the players’ resources.

However, all of that has been flipped on its head by new media and social media and from where I sit here in early 2022 that favors the players over the league in ways that seem to have caught MLB flatfooted.

Take for example the most visible decision MLB made as they instituted their lockout on December 1: Pulling down every current player image and story from official MLB and team channels. First, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that some poor interns at MLB must have had the worst day ever replacing player images and content. More importantly, it appears MLB made that decision all on their own. Despite claims by Manfred and others that they were legally obligated to remove all of the images and current player references, reporting in The Athletic and other outlets disputed that:

When commissioner Rob Manfred was asked last week in a news conference whether it was a legal issue, he offered two words: “It is.” But legal experts who spoke to The Athletic found it difficult to confidently identify MLB and Proskauer’s potential legal theory.

“I can’t think of anything,” said Dave Leach, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and a former regional director for the National Labor Relations Board. “I’ve never seen a case which had similar facts. And I was there for 45 years, so I saw a good number of cases at the board.”

Bruce Meyer, the lead negotiator for the players’ union, said MLB made the decision on its own, “and you’ll have to ask them for their reasons.”

“It’s a little bit of a mystery why they think this is somehow required legally,” said Jason Wojciechowski, a lawyer at Bush Gottlieb and former editor at Baseball Prospectus. “I don’t know what aspect of the law they think they’d be in violation of. As a union lawyer, my suspicion is that’s cover. But on the other hand, cover for what?”

That particular tactic was not only unnecessary (again, won’t someone think of the interns?), it backfired pretty spectacularly when players began replacing their own images on social media with the greyed out silhouettes from MLB. Some players like José Ramírez and Randy Dobnak went even further, personalizing their greyed out selves and endearing themselves to fans on social media platforms in the process. To many fans and media observers MLB looked petty as players leaned into the pressure and turned it on the league itself.

It was a colossal blunder on the part of a league that forgot the reason they are a $11 billion industry is the talent they employ to play baseball. No one goes to a Cubs game in the hopes of seeing a member of the Ricketts family. Children do not wait anxiously for autographs from the Commissioner of Baseball. Fans spend their time and money on baseball for the players, who since the advent of social media can more easily craft their own messages to connect directly with fans.

This particular message of the anonymous player fighting ownership was quickly amplified by a legion of new media types that MLB seems to have deliberately ignored in whatever calculations they made as they developed this strategy. Not only do players have their own channels to communicate directly with their fans during this negotiation, fans have a cadre of bloggers, vloggers and podcasters who are not beholden to the type of gatekeeping that helped MLB craft the media narrative in the past.

Some of baseball’s best writers are also those who were most critical of MLB and its practices. In the last five years many of those writers lost their legacy media positions due to the dreaded pivot to video, but that didn’t stop them from creating content. They are just writing now on their own substack with thousands of readers and followers, but substantially looser editorial reins on how they craft their stories. They’ve been joined by others, myself included, who came up through the blogosphere and aren’t beholden to a league or team for access, because they cannot lose what they never had.

Which brings me back to the Rosenthal situation and the epic miscalculation that disciplining writers for daring to speak the truth about the Commissioner’s Office would be effective. While the message at MLB Network might be tighter now, the number of people who trust that message will likely go down as a result. Don’t take my word for it, look at the reactions from writers in the last two days.

Bill Baer, formerly of NBC Sports and currently writing on Substack, laid it out plainly on January 4:

In summation, I view this whole thing as a net positive. I know the impulse is to see it as a negative because we love Rosenthal and want to protect a national treasure at all costs. However, he’ll be just fine. Meanwhile, Manfred needlessly exposed MLB Network’s bias, which will cause many who might not have been aware of beforehand to consider it going forward (the Streisand effect). If fans want legitimate baseball news, they shouldn’t have been getting it from MLB Network to begin with and now a non-zero amount of them won’t be for the foreseeable future. Manfred wanted to control the message, but now that message has less impact and reach than if he had just left it alone.

Craig Calcaterra, also formerly of NBC Sports and a self-described writer who “routinely rips Rob Manfred a new one” was more virulent on his Substack Cup of Coffee, where he wrote:

But that’s Rob Manfred for you. Since he took over he has imposed a culture of reality-creation in Major League Baseball. He has consistently behaved in a way that makes it apparent that he believes criticism or even the questioning of his decisions to be illegitimate. He and the league generally do not answer questions from people who they are not confident will toe their line or who are not compromised by either working for the league or working for a broadcast rights holder. When controversies come up they circle the wagons and issue easily disproven statements and behave as though problems will simply go away if they don’t acknowledge them. And hey, they’re usually right about that, so I guess it’s crazy to expect them to change course now.

But getting rid of Rosenthal is a new level of clownery even for Rob Manfred.

Let’s be clear about something: Ken Rosenthal is an excellent journalist and a well-loved presence on Major League Baseball broadcasts, but he is not out there lighting people up or anything. He is not speaking uncomfortable truth to power on the regular. Indeed, as I’ve often mentioned here, Rosenthal — along with Jeff Passan at ESPN — are the first people Rob Manfred usually calls when he wants to get a talking point out in public in a way that makes it seem like news as opposed to an announcement from the league. He is not a shill for Major League Baseball — God knows there are some of those out there — and his name is on the byline of a lot of stories Major League Baseball probably wishes weren’t being reported, but he is not the sort of person people in power usually rant and rave about and wish to be rid of. That Manfred is treating him like he is says everything you need to know about Rob Manfred and absolutely nothing about Ken Rosenthal.

Notably, media criticism of MLB’s decision was not isolated to blogs and Substack. Take for example this tweet from Forbes baseball writer Maury Brown:

Gabrielle Starr captured the outrage from players on social media in this piece for Fansided, including this gem from new Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman:

She also made this observation, which I think is on point:

Manfred will chip away at every facet of this game we love if it means making an extra buck for the owners. That he’s spending an unnecessary lockout driven by ownership greed having respected reporters fired because he’s sensitive to the lightest criticism shows what a terrible leader he is, and bravo to the players brave enough to say so.

Rosenthal deserves better. Baseball deserves better.

I’ll be the first to admit that Twitter is not a representative sample of the American public, so I’m cautious about projecting the reactions of online writers and fans to the broader population of baseball fans.

That said, the first month of Rob Manfred’s Lockout has gone about as poorly as possible from a public relations perspective. His publicly stated rationale for locking out players was to speed up negotiations. There have been no substantive talks for more than 30 days, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan:

Furthermore, the tactics the league has employed so far have brought fans and players closer together. This latest move to slap the wrist of one of baseball’s most well-known reporters for daring to criticize the Commissioner damaged MLB’s credibility even more.

There are very few things that unite the vast majority of MLB fans and writers. Severing MLB Network’s ties with Ken Rosenthal managed to unite most of us against the Commissioner’s Office — one month into a lockout he chose to implement.