With his youthful appearance and animated demeanor, Ken Rosenthal scurries around the Orioles’ clubhouse looking more like a batboy than one of Major League Baseball’s most influential broadcasters.
When the diminutive former Baltimore Sun reporter interviews a player on the field, his neck is craning upward at such an angle it’s as if he’s holding a microphone to one of the stone carvings at Mount Rushmore.
And those around-the-table panel discussions on the MLB Network? He’s aided by an extra seat cushion. Or two.
But make no mistake, the affable, 54-year-old Rosenthal is one of the heavyweights of the industry, having left the Sun to search for another challenge before finding his unlikely niche in front of a television camera.
“I feel very, very fortunate to achieve what I have,” Rosenthal said. “I never wanted to be more than a beat guy on a major sport at a major paper. My dad, figuring I would never make enough money, would tell me early in my career, ‘Maybe one day you’ll be on TV.’
“I would laugh at him and say, ‘No chance.'”
The 5-foot-4, bow tie-wearing Rosenthal is now a ubiquitous figure for the baseball fan, whether he’s in the dugout interviewing players during Fox broadcasts or debating the future of New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey on MLB Network.
But Rosenthal would have never acquired his much-envied seat on the sideline if he had taken the advice of former Newsday sports editor Dick Sandler. Rosenthal, at the time a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, had interned at Long Island’s Newsday two summers before and was seeking career advice.
Unlike fellow intern Tom Verducci, who already was showing the talent that would allow him to eventually write for Sports Illustrated and become a field reporter for TBS, Rosenthal wasn’t that developed yet and he knew it; he was just looking for some career guidance.
“You should go to law school,” Sandler quipped.
Some aspiring writers would be angry or hurt. Rosenthal was both. But Sandler’s abruptness also hardened his resolve to make it in the business.
“It bothered me,” Rosenthal said of Sandler’s counseling. “But I didn’t listen to it, even for a little bit. I didn’t believe it. But it taught me something. You don’t tell people, ‘No.’ You don’t tell people they can’t do it. They have to find out for themselves. And I try not to ever tell people that. Because you know what? You don’t know.
“Look, maybe I wasn’t the best writer. And maybe I wasn’t the best reporter. But I had a lot of desire. And I guess that’s what he couldn’t see. And he wouldn’t have seen that. I was an intern. It’s not like I saw him every day.”
Work Ethic and Desire
Rosenthal, a New York native, said grit and ambition can go a long way.
“We see that same thing in all walks of life,” he said. “People who, maybe, exceed what they should have accomplished because of work ethic or desire. Sometimes when young people ask me for advice, I have a hard time. I don’t know what to tell them. The business is so different than when I entered it. But I never tell them, ‘Don’t do it.'”
After eschewing Sandler’s advice to give up on his dream, Rosenthal worked for the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania and the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J., before joining the Baltimore Sun in 1987. Eventually becoming a columnist, many people remember Rosenthal for going toe-to-toe with Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
But, Rosenthal said, that’s what a columnist does.
“Was I too harsh at times? Of course I was,” he said. “But, when you’re a columnist, you take your shots. Sometimes, maybe you go too far. Sometimes, you don’t go far enough. But that’s the job. The job is not to sit there and cheerlead. The job is to write informed opinions about what’s going on.”
The Orioles went through a rough stretch during Rosenthal’s years at the Sun, and the hands-on owner was often the target of criticism.
“I never hated him or anything like that,” Rosenthal said of Angelos. “I disliked the way he ran the team. I left the newspaper 17 years ago. And to this day, people say about me, ‘He was out to get the Orioles.’ But you know what? The fan bases of just about every team think the same thing about me.”
Aggressive and Fearless
Longtime Sun columnist Peter Schmuck said Rosenthal was “very aggressive. He was fearless. And people expected him to be the guy that went after Angelos, the guy that would trade blows with him.”
Schmuck said, “It’s tough to be in battle all the time,” and he sensed Rosenthal fled Baltimore, in part, because of the contention with the Orioles owner.
Former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, now a television broadcaster for the club, said Rosenthal “was a hard worker, always coming into the locker room looking for a story.” He said he did not recall him being particularly hard on the team.
But, Dempsey said when he was interviewing for a job to manage the Orioles — after his 21-year big league playing career ended — Rosenthal wrote “something to the effect that, ‘Do we want a manager here with the Orioles that will run around the tarp during a rain delay?'” The reference was to Dempsey’s affinity for entertaining restless fans with an impression of Babe Ruth calling a home run shot and then circling the bases before sliding into home with a huge splash and a roaring, appreciative crowd.
“As a player, I was always accommodating to Ken whenever he needed something,” Dempsey said. “And then, when he wrote that, I thought that was a little unfair. I got a little bit upset with him at the time. But through the years, I really just let it go.
“I have no ill will against him at all. But I don’t know if I’d ever give him another interview,” he added with a smile.
Tim Kurkjian, a former Sun writer who now works for ESPN covering baseball, said Rosenthal was “edgy in every way” at the newspaper.
“But that’s ultimately what we pay columnists to be — to have a strong opinion,” Kurkjian said. “And he always did. He was fearless, which I think is part of being a great columnist. You can’t be afraid. You have to say what you think. And then you have to show up the next day to face the music. And as far as I can tell, he did all of that.”
He’s No ‘Rah-Rah’ Guy
Rosenthal also questioned whether Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. should have taken a seat after he broke the consecutive games played streak and was fighting a variety of injuries.
“The job is not to sit there and be the rah-rah guy,” Rosenthal said. “And a lot of people in Baltimore have a hard time with it. And especially because I wasn’t from Baltimore. But, for the most part, the questions I asked were fair. If you looked at my work, column by column, could you find a couple that went maybe too far? Sure. But that’s still the job.
“I have tremendous respect and admiration for Cal. Did every column reflect that? No. But probably 90 percent of them did. And, of course, all of those are forgotten.”
Rosenthal covered the University of Maryland, the Ravens and the Orioles for the Sun — a dream job for a sportswriter — but it wasn’t until he traveled to the Paralympic Games in Raleigh, N.C., that he started to get the itch to move on.
“I thought it was a cool thing to do,” he said. “The paper let me do it. But they didn’t play the stories that much. They were focused on the Ravens, Orioles and Terps, which is understandable. That’s what the readers want. I get it.
“But at the same time, if you’re writing about the same things for the next 20 or 30 years, I don’t know,” he added, his voice trailing off.
Rosenthal also said the newspaper had let several of his well-respected colleagues go, and he wondered if he would also, ultimately, meet the same fate. So he left the newspaper in 2000 for the Sporting News and eventually landed at Fox in 2005, where he is one of the network’s most visible broadcasters.
The print-to-television shift had its rough spots, but few people are surprised Rosenthal, a five-time winner of Maryland Sportswriter of the Year while at the Sun, rose to the top.
“He works harder than everyone else, and that’s the reason he’s there,” Kurkjian said. “He didn’t get there by any short cut. And here he is, still working the phones, working stories harder than anyone every single day. That’s why everybody likes him. No one is surprised where he is. He does it the right way. It’s his work ethic.”
Enter the Bow Tie
Despite his unmatched stamina for working a story, in 2011, Rosenthal’s bosses at Fox decided he needed a shtick for television. Enter the bow tie.
“The National League Championship Series just ended,” Rosenthal said. “The Giants had beaten the Phillies, and one of the guys at the Fox truck says, ‘Hey, are you ready to wear the bow tie?’ I said, ‘What bow tie? What are you talking about?’
“The head of Fox Sports at the time, David Hill, wanted me to wear a bow tie so I would stand out. As a reporter, you want to stand out through what you’re writing. Television is different.”
He wore the bow tie for the opening game of the World Series, and when he asked his direct boss if he should wear it for Game 2, he was told, rather delicately, “It would be a good idea.”
“I hated it,” Rosenthal said. “I hated what it stood for. It was humiliating, in my mind.”
That offseason, former NFL linebacker Dhani Jones contacted Rosenthal and asked if he would represent Bow-Tie Cause, which designs bow ties for different charities.
“I said, ‘No. I don’t want to wear a bow tie every game,'” Rosenthal said. “But then I thought about it, and knowing they were going to make me wear it again, I decided this might be a way to do it on my terms and do it for a good reason.”
Rosenthal concedes, “David Hill was right. It’s become part of my identity, and when I don’t wear a bow tie, people always ask where it is. And the charities we’ve been able to raise awareness for, that part is great.”
However, Rosenthal does admit, “I do not think the bow tie is a good look for a short person. In my opinion, a long tie gives an appearance of length. You might ask why this crosses my mind. Hey, when you’re short, this stuff crosses your mind.”
For the record, he will not wear a bow tie to a wedding and, yes, his wife Lisa agrees it’s not a good look on him. His height (or lack thereof) is something he cannot control, though he is quick to point out, “I’m not 5-foot-4. I’m 5-foot-4 and a half.”
“People talk about it all the time,” Rosenthal said. “I’ll be interviewing [6-foot-5 Giants pitcher] Madison Bumgarner, for example, during the World Series. It looks ridiculous. But I’ll never stand on a box. But you know what? People know I’m short. It would look crazy if I was eye-to-eye with Bumgarner.
“People can say what they want. But yes, I’m short. I’ve been short my whole life.”
The Sun’s Schmuck said he still laughs when he sees Rosenthal looking straight up when interviewing a particularly tall player.
“All of us love and respect Kenny, but when he’s standing there trying to interview [6-foot-10] Randy Johnson after the game, I’m thinking he needs a stepstool,” Schmuck said. “It’s just funny. But that’s part of it. Kenny has never been a guy you couldn’t joke around with. He’s not sensitive. He’s self-deprecating. And people like that in a person.”
Rosenthal dispels the popular notion he saw the decline of the newspaper industry on the horizon and decided to give television a shot.
“Oh, wow, I’m not that smart,” he said. “I just wanted to try something else. Plain and simple.”
Schmuck said there’s no way he could be resentful of his friend’s success.
“It would be a natural response to be envious or jealous because he’s done so well,” he said. “But he’s such a good guy. And you can see how good he is at it. But he doesn’t engender that. You’re just happy that it’s happened that way for him.”
Ken Rosenthal has covered the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Olympics and many other blue-chip events on the sporting landscape, but nothing, he says, will ever match the excitement of being at Camden Yards Sept. 6, 1995.
2,131: ‘Nothing Else Is Even Close’
The game Ripken eclipsed Lou Gehrig’s hallowed record for consecutive games played “was easily the most special,” Rosenthal said.
“The magnitude of the game was something,” he said. “The President (Bill Clinton) and the Vice President (Al Gore) were there. Joe DiMaggio was there. It was a huge national event.”
But Rosenthal said there was another reason the game was stressful. In those pre-internet days, he knew scores of national baseball writers would descend on Baltimore for the record-breaker and look at the Sun’s coverage.
“The press box was packed, and I knew my peers would be looking at my story the following day,” he said. “I felt a lot of pressure because of that. That means a lot to me. I was very nervous.”
Rosenthal said he needed to capture what the record meant for not only baseball but for the country. He said so much happened that night, including Ripken’s memorable victory lap when he high-fived the fans, the story was “almost easy to write.”
“This is the most memorable part about it,” he said. “My wife had been watching at home on TV. Everybody was watching it. It was a big, big deal. She said, ‘You have to write about so much negative stuff in your job — so much crap — that this is a positive thing. I’m really, really happy you got to cover this.’ And I feel that way to this day.
“It’s the No. 1 event I’ve ever covered, and nothing else is even close.”
Issue 235: July 2017