Class of ’84 | Fifteen or 20 years ago, if you had told Ken Rosenthal C’84 that he’d be nationally known for wearing bow ties on TV, chances are he would have politely questioned your sanity. Even then, he was making a sizeable name for himself as the story-breaking baseball beat writer for The Baltimore Sun, where he was voted Maryland Sportswriter of the Year five times. Television wasn’t really on his radar. He saw himself as a writer—still does—and while writers certainly don’t mind having their names and work out there, most are a little uncomfortable about drawing attention to themselves as part of a fashion statement.
But life has a few trick pitches up its sleeve. While Rosenthal is still very much a writer, having earned the nickname Robothal for his energetic work as senior baseball writer for FoxSports.com, he’s best known in some circles for being the lead field reporter for Major League Baseball on Fox Sports, where he serves as a highly informative, height-challenged (5-foot-4), and rather dapper analyst. Which is where the bow ties come in.
After the National League Championship Series in October 2010, Fox Sports Chairman David Hill decreed that Rosenthal would start wearing bow ties during the World Series. Rosenthal’s response was something along the lines of, Are you kidding me?
“His thinking was that it would make me stand out,” Rosenthal recalled in a telephone interview this past April. “It’s television. I wasn’t in love with the idea originally. It’s kind of against everything I believed in. I think your work should stand out.” But these days, given the “staggering” number of sports-media outlets, “writers are not simply writers; quite often, they are personalities.”
After that World Series, he got a note from former NFL linebacker Dhani Jones, who wanted to talk about a philanthropic initiative called the “Bow Tie Cause.” Jones would design the ties, each representing a different charity. Rosenthal would not only wear that tie for a week; he would also talk about the charity on TV and in his online column. (One such charity was the Scoliosis Research Society, which Rosenthal was particularly glad to help, given that both he and his daughter Sarah had to have corrective surgery for the affliction during their teenage years.)
“I’m not on the board of any charitable foundations,” he explains. “This was a small way for me to give back. There are some things that I feel passionately about that I’ve been able to wear ties for, and I’ve worn them for other causes that I didn’t know much about. It’s one of the special things in my career, and I’ve been very lucky to be in a position where that would matter.”
Needless to say, viewers have noticed.
“Yeah, it gets a ton of attention,” he says. “Even now—this is the third year I’ve done it—there are people who don’t know what I’m doing, and they think I’m just wearing it to make a fashion statement or to look stupid.”
FoxSports.com now runs a graphic bow-tie icon beside his stories explaining why he wears the ties and what they represent, which brings attention to the charitable work and “takes the heat off of me a little bit.”
Heat comes with the territory, and over the years, Rosenthal has had some high hard ones fired in his direction. His skirmishes with Orioles’ legend Cal Ripken Jr. and owner Peter Angelos, for example, are both legendary and complicated. (Ripken and many fans didn’t appreciate Rosenthal drawing attention to the Iron Man’s declining skills, and Angelos didn’t appreciate the attention drawn to his meddling ownership style.) But in the final analysis, most observers concluded that he had been both fair and right. “Given my chance to reconsider my frustration with Ken Rosenthal, my rage has been replaced by respect,” wrote one Orioles blogger, while another acknowledged that, “as the cards played out and the stories were corroborated over the last 13 years, every single word Rosenthal ever wrote was true.”
During spring training of 2012, Rosenthal was the first to draw attention to the lowered velocity and possible arm troubles of Phillies ace Roy Halladay. After Halladay scorned the comments as “poor reporting on the extreme end of poor reporting,” he proceeded to have his worst season since 2000, and spent seven weeks on the disabled list. This year was even worse, and in May Halladay finally underwent surgery on his pitching shoulder.
Yet apart from a bit of vindication after taking shots from fans and other sportswriters, Rosenthal took no pleasure in being right.
“I felt badly about all of this,” he wrote earlier this year. “Not because of what I had reported—I was just doing my job—but because in my heart, I didn’t want to see Halladay fail or get hurt.”
As a card-carrying member of the mainstream Baseball Writers Association of America, he has had a few dust-ups with members of the sabermetric community, who emphasize a more statistically minded, analytical approach to the game. A few years ago, in a column that was ostensibly about candidates for the MVP award, he opined that there was a certain “sabermetric groupthink” at work, and that any dissenting members of the mainstream media—such as himself—would be subjected to “cyber-shoutdowns.” His tone got him a little more than the robust debate he wanted.
“I certainly appreciate what the sabermetric community has brought to baseball,” he says now. “I’m not always at peace with them because at times I feel they’re too strident, and I just feel that sometimes you need to say, ‘Hey, there’s another side to this.’ But at the same time, it’s a huge side of the game now, and it has really enlightened everyone about assumptions that [are no longer accepted] because we have data and information now that show those assumptions were incorrect.”
Like many Penn-grown journalists, Rosenthal got his start at The Daily Pennsylvanian, where he was a hardworking writer and editor.
“To this day, [the DP] means an awful lot to me,” he says. “It’s where everything started for me. My best friends still are those guys that I worked with in sports. I had lunch with three of them the other day—it was the first time in years we had seen each other. I’ll always love that paper, and I’ll never forget what it meant to me. Those were crazy times! Because we would work all night—I got mono my junior year. But at the same time, those connections and just doing the job and learning from people who are older than you—it was unreal. And I learned so much.”
A DP friend, John Dellapina C’83, helped him get his first job at the York, Pennsylvania, Daily Record. From there Rosenthal went to The Baltimore Sun, where on his first day as beat writer covering the Baltimore Orioles in 1987 he was greeted by spitballs fired in his direction by Ripken—jokingly, he hoped. (Ripken later broke Rosenthal’s laptop with a well-placed foul ball into the press box.) In 2000, he moved to The Sporting News, which was just entering the Internet Age.
“People always say to me, ‘Boy, you were really smart to get out of newspapers,’” he says. “I wasn’t so smart; I just thought it was time to do something different. My wife, Lisa, had really encouraged me in that way, because a number of my friends had gone on to national baseball jobs. It took a few years to get it through my thick head, but eventually I [realized] she was right.”
Through his work at The Sporting News he got opportunities to be on television with Fox Sports and ESPN. Eventually he got offers from both, and in 2005 made the move to Fox Sports.
There was a “definite learning curve” to becoming a TV reporter, he acknowledges. “It’s not natural for many of us. Because again, you’re not taught to glorify yourself or even present yourself a certain way—or to even be a presence, except in print. I think that you have to have a little bit of energy and you have to have things that make you easier to watch. Someone even said to me the other day, ‘Oh, you were a natural from the beginning.’ And I was thinking to myself, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ That’s not even close to being true. It’s something that I’ve had to work on a bit and I’ve had a lot of people help me along the way with it as well.”
Change, clearly, is not an enemy for Rosenthal.
“My job changes practically every year,” he says. “I have different responsibilities every season as a result of different media out there. It obviously makes it fresh. The one negative is that it never stops anymore, in terms of the hours in a day and in terms of the 365-day nature of baseball. That’s easily the most difficult thing. But at the same time, it wouldn’t be that way if the sport wasn’t so popular. People want this stuff.”