Thursday May 27th, 2010

Ken Rosenthal does not look the part. Slight of frame, measured in tone and unlikely to appear on Dancing With the Stars in this or any other lifetime, Rosenthal is the first to admit Fox Sports did not hire him as a field reporter because he is, in his words, "Mr. Television." But the 47-year-old field reporter for Fox's Major League Baseball broadcast has become one of the best sports voices on television, a prepared, thoughtful and straight-shooting chronicler of his game. "He gives our broadcast incredible ballast," said Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck. "There's a credibility factor there."

Both Buck and his partner Tim McCarver praised Rosenthal's unselfishness as a staffer. Prior to each national game he works, Rosenthal sends producer Pete Macheska a couple of pages of notes that Macheska then forwards to select Fox Sports personnel. Last week's packet for the Mets-Yankees broadcast included, among other items, reporting on Mets manager Jerry Manuel's tenuous future in New York, the decline in Mets attendance, why Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes had improved, and the Yankees' age-injury issues. One of Rosenthal's notes on Jason Bay included the player's telling the reporter that he had started to feel better about his swing. That day Bay had four hits; the next day he homered twice. Buck and McCarver often deliver Rosenthal's reporting on the air without viewers' knowing who unearthed the information. "He's not territorial," McCarver said. "He gives us great information, and it comes out of our mouth."

In addition to his on-air work for the network, Rosenthal is a baseball columnist for Fox Sports' website and hosts a video notes segment. He says he might speak with 30 people for less than four minutes of total airtime on a national broadcast, often in 30-to-45-second spurts. Indeed, as he was talking to last Saturday night at Citi Field, he apologetically walked away midsentence to grab Mets third baseman David Wright. The player greeted him warmly.

Rosenthal admitted that being on television had significantly changed his relationship with players. "The players give you more credibility simply because you are on TV," Rosenthal said. "It has nothing do with your journalistic quality. The weirdest thing about being on TV is, all of sudden, players look at you and talk to you differently. It is a different vibe. It's weird. Some of them, I don't even know if they are aware I write."

The recently hired ESPN analyst Doug Glanville, who played for nine seasons and this month finished a terrific run as a New York Times op-ed columnist, explained the phenomenon this way. "It's an era of social networking and access, and the younger players coming up in the thick of this era see that value very differently," Glanville said. "The weight of your voice and sometimes your trustworthiness relies on your visibility. In being visible, you can be found, and being found means you can be vetted.... Nowadays, anyone with the Internet can have a voice, so the standard has changed as to how these experts are evaluated."

Rosenthal said he was interviewing Cardinals star Albert Pujols before a playoff game a couple of years ago when Pujols said, "Ken, you know how the writers are." "I was like, 'Yeah, Albert, I know exactly how they are. I'm one of them.' I think he is aware now, but I don't know if he was aware then."

Rosenthal worked for years as a Baltimore Sun reporter before moving onto The Sporting News as its national baseball writer. He started getting gigs as an analyst on regional television and said he opted for Fox Sports over ESPN -- both offered him a deal a number of years ago -- because the Fox deal was more lucrative. "To me Fox had the greater upside," Rosenthal said. "I thought if it worked out it could be unbelievably great, but I was not sure it would work out. They had not had a sideline reporter and they did not guarantee I would be the reporter."

Said Fox Sports president Ed Goren, "He's spent years developing outstanding relationships in the sport and is not the kind of guy who throws a lot of stuff up against the wall, hoping that one of them sticks. He is very selective -- a professional. You know, you would not necessarily look at Ken and say, 'There's the next television star.' But that's almost better, actually. If I could change one thing; The Ken Rosenthal that does a wonderful job on [the MLB Network] with the freedom of time is much looser. If I could get that guy and join him with the guy we have, it would be perfect. And I think he is working toward that; he has loosened up from when he started with us, and with Buck needling him from the booth, I think he is much looser."

Rosenthal said that neither Fox nor the MLB Network has censored him when he's been critical of the league or commissioner Bud Selig. "On Fox, my role is to talk about the game and players and not trash the commissioner, but there are times I do that in my column, and I feel strongly about that," he said. "If I ever lose that or have to lose that, then I am not the person I want to be or the person people expect me to be. The people at Fox have always understood that."

Rosenthal praised Buck and McCarver for accepting him into their broadcast. "To have Joe's and Tim's acceptance and embrace what I do has been a huge part of this job for me," he said. "The fact that Fox is willing to have a guy like me and not someone there just for their looks -- because I'm obviously not there for that -- I think shows they are making a commitment to journalism, or at least what I do, which is information."

Later this year Rosenthal and his wife will relocate to New York City to support the performance career of his 14-year-daughter, Sarah. Last year Sarah was cast in one of the principal roles (she played The Little Girl) in the Broadway production of Ragtime. He also has a 19-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter. "They are not fans of baseball, and I much prefer it that way," he said. "I live the sport every day, and the fact that none of them are in that world grounds me and gives me the proper perspective."

• ESPN's Outside The Lines delivered a mesmerizing 18-minute piece last Sunday about the South African political prisoners held on Robben Island, who, through soccer, gained organizational skills they later used to govern a nation. (Among the prisoners who were a part of the 1,400-member, eight-club football league was Jacob Zuma, now the president of South Africa.) Danny Arruda, a feature producer at ESPN, was the creative force behind the piece. His crew visited South Africa in April 2009 and returned last December and this February to complete filming.

Arruda said the initial research came from the book More Than Just A Game, which chronicled the significance of soccer on Robben Island. "I contacted [author] Charles Korr, told him about our interest in the story, and he was kind enough to provide me with contact information for some of the men he interviewed," Arruda said. "Once we contacted several of the league's members and determined which of them would make interesting subjects, we flew to Cape Town in April 2009 and conducted interviews with Anthony Suze, Sedick Isaacs, Mark Shinners, Marcus Solomon and Lizo Sitoto. At some point we discovered that the deputy chief justice of the South African constitutional court played a major role in the league's formation and governance. We requested an interview with him and were told that he was planning on attending the World Cup draw in Cape Town on December 4, if we were able to be in Cape Town. We flew down and conducted his interview that weekend."

Arruda and Chris Connelly conducted the interviews in a Cape Town production room and filmed on Robben Island in February. ESPN hired a cinematographer (Scott Duncan) to film the soccer re-creations on Robben Island and the portrait images of Suze, Isaacs and Shinners. The feature will reair as part of a 30-minute World Cup special on June 10 on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. It's also here.

• The answer: Former major league pitcher Jim Bouton, noted author Roy Blount Jr. and the editors of Deadspin and Harper's Magazine.

The question?

What group of people did I never expect to see at the same party?

But there they were cohosting an event Tuesday night in New York City to promote Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing From Harpers Magazine. The book features pieces from George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe and Mark Twain, among others, and a particularly fun yarn for sports media junkies: Gary Cartwright's Confessions of a Washed-up Sportswriter. "Sportswriting is a young man's profession," Cartwright wrote in 1968. "No one improves after eight or ten years, but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive. After eight or ten years there is nothing else to say. Every word in every style has been set in print, every variation from discovery to death explored. The ritual goes on, an the mind bends under it."

•The inane comments uttered by Fox Sports broadcaster Chris Myers on the city of New Orleans's response to Hurricane Katrina were rightfully excoriated across the web. The broadcaster has since apologized. Asked if he was confident that Myers won't ever head down that road again, Goren said, "I would hope so. It was very awkward and awkward for us. It happened on a show owned by DirectTV [The Dan Patrick Radio Show] and that aired on Fox Sports Radio, an entity we don't own. [The network is owned and run by the Premiere Radio Network.] But it was something certainly that we addressed."

• In a rating that was closely watched by the soccer-loving suits in Bristol, Fox's coverage of the Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan drew a 1.1 overnight rating. That's lower than Fox expected, though Goren remains bullish on international soccer. "We believe major international soccer has a tremendous upside in this country, and the fact that we were willing to put it on the network with network promotion shows our belief in the sport," he said.

TNT's Marv Albert interview with Barack Obama produced this memorable exchange on LeBron James's impending free agency.

Obama: "I think that the most important thing for LeBron [James] right now is actually to find a structure where he's got a coach that he respects and is working hard with teammates who care about him and if that's in Cleveland, then he should stay in Cleveland. If he doesn't feel like he can get it there, then someplace else. The one thing I remember about the Bulls was it wasn't until Michael [Jordan] had confidence in Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, it wasn't until you got that framework around you that you could be a champion. Same thing happened with Kobe [Bryant], first with Shaq [O'Neal] then later with [Pau] Gasol. He's gotten that sense of a team around him and I think LeBron hasn't quite been able to get that yet. That's what he needs to find."

Albert: "Could you, on behalf of the Bulls, throw in perhaps a night in the Lincoln Bedroom or a ride on Air Force One?"

Obama: "You know, like I said, I don't want to meddle. I will say this, [Derrick] Rose, [Joakim] Noah --it's a pretty good core. You know, you could see LeBron fitting in pretty well."

The NFL Network's live coverage of the Super Bowl 2014 vote drew an 0.05 rating and an average of 66,000 viewers (including a number of my colleagues and most of the people I follow on Twitter). The same time period the previous week drew a 0.02 rating and an average of 44,000 viewers.

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