Sportswriter Ken Rosenthal sets an example with work ethic, ability to connect with players

Ken Rosenthal played high school soccer. He was not burly enough to play football, and his height prevented him from playing basketball, proudly displayed on his Twitter page to be five foot four-and-a-half. Even growing up as a New York Mets fan on Long Island, Rosenthal did not play an inning on a high school baseball diamond.

And yet Rosenthal is one of the faces of baseball reporting, writing for The Athletic and broadcasting at Fox Sports from the dugout. His experience goes back decades, and his connections with players, agents, coaches and front office members have earned him the title of “baseball insider.”

Rosenthal was born in Queens, New York, in 1962. His father was an attorney and his mother a school teacher, though she retired to help raise Ken and his sister.

“My father definitely instilled in me a work ethic and love of sports,” he said in an email interview. “But he was very nervous about me going into journalism. It was just foreign to him, and he didn’t know how I would make a living doing this.”

Now 59, Rosenthal first started reporting and editing for The Harbour Voice, the newspaper for his high school alma mater. He matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania because of its robust student-run newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and he joined its team of journalists shortly after he arrived. As a Mets fan, it would be to Rosenthal’s discontent that the Philadelphia Phillies would win the World Series during his freshman year, though he enjoyed bantering with his classmates from the area.

“[Fortunately], my love of sports was cemented well before I got [to college],” Rosenthal said. “[But] I wasn’t really even a sportswriter [at first]…I got to [Penn], and I thought I could do both [sports and news].”

With the size of The Daily Penn’s operation, he was forced to choose one or the other. Even after he chose sports because that group of writers was “a lot cooler,” he didn’t have any ambition to cover baseball specifically.

“I just wanted to cover a major sports team in a major city. I only fell into baseball because that was my first big job,” he said.

In 1987, Rosenthal landed a role at The Baltimore Sun covering the Baltimore Orioles that launched his career in sportswriting. Over his 14 years at The Sun, his peers took note of his boundless work ethic, authentic curiosity, and ability to connect with players.

“He would literally work overnight, long after I had to leave,” said Richard Justice, who met Rosenthal during his tenth year of professional journalism with The Washington Post. Justice said Rosenthal carried a notebook, and as he finished his postgame interviews, there would be “scribbles on both sides of the page.” “[When] I’d be leaving the ballpark, he’d be leaving the clubhouse,” said Justice.

Rosenthal, despite his inexperience, was not afraid to speak his mind, especially in his early columns for The Sun. In a 2015 profile in the Peninsula Press, Rosenthal described his early works as “95 mile-per-hour fastballs at the head,” attributed to his lack of subtlety and his sometimes confrontational language. He wrote columns that jabbed at Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos or criticized Cal Ripken Jr. as he was chasing Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. Rosenthal also hosted a radio show on Saturdays that, according to Justice, “allowed Orioles fans to vent their frustrations at ownership.”

Not everyone in Baltimore took well to Rosenthal’s provocative remarks. Rosenthal and Ripken especially were not on great terms. Once, Ripken fouled a ball into the press box at Camden Yards that broke Rosenthal’s laptop. Rosenthal joked that it happened as he was writing “Cal Ripken, Sit Down!” in response to Ripken’s lack of production during his games-played streak. Rosenthal always spoke his mind, and even today he is not afraid to jeopardize connections he has spent his career building for the right story.

“This is the life of a journalist,” said Rosenthal. “Relationships come and go.”

Justice found refreshing Rosenthal’s opinionated pieces and enthusiastic approach at reporting.

“He didn’t know what he didn’t know, and that was healthy,” Justice said.

Eventually, Rosenthal’s style matured, and he learned to be more scrupulous in how he criticized subjects in his columns, though every so often, he’s not afraid to uncork one. “There are times I will write strong columns where I will throw 95 [mph] to the head,” said Rosenthal.

“Well,” he said, again with a grin, “maybe 90 [mph] with a slider.”

Rosenthal’s pivotal moment with The Sun came in 1995 when Ripken broke Gehrig’s record of 2,130 straight games played. Rosenthal was a young columnist at the time, about to turn 33 years old.

“We all knew [Ripken’s record-breaking game] was coming. We had it circled on our calendars,” said Rosenthal.

With Camden Yards filled to capacity and both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in attendance, Rosenthal felt the emotionally charged atmosphere right away. On top of that, he knew that writers would be pouring in from across the country and would read his work for the first time, writers that he described as “the best and brightest.”

“There was a lot of pressure [because] it was so big for the city,” said Rosenthal. He felt he had to write a piece that would do that consequential moment justice.

He wrote one of the columns in which he takes the most pride to this day. He wrote what he saw and what he knew the entire stadium felt.

“That night was special, [and it was] much more emotional than I thought,” said Rosenthal. “I can’t think of any [moment more impactful than] that.” He turned in the piece after one draft. It was the only time he can remember not editing a piece he wrote before submitting it.

“There were eight curtain calls on this night, one after Ripken’s home run — his third in three days — and seven during the fifth-inning celebration. The crowd chanted, “We want Cal! We Want Cal!” Palmeiro and Bonilla gave their little push.

And, the victory lap began.

The closest thing you see to it in sports is during Olympic track and field, but how many Olympians win gold medals in their hometown? At one point, Ripken grabbed a man in the front row. Maybe an acquaintance. Maybe an old friend.”

– From “Immortal Cal: He touches home with victory lap” by Ken Rosenthal, The Baltimore Sun (7 September 1995)

Nearly a decade later, in 2005, Rosenthal started writing and broadcasting baseball games for Fox Sports. As he got older and more experienced, Rosenthal says he developed a greater feel for subtlety over the strident tones his work took with The Sun. His career in television broadcasting blossomed. Rosenthal won the Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding Sports Reporter in 2015 and 2016, all while writing columns and features for Fox Sports’ web page.

But in 2017, Fox Sports dissolved its writing staff to focus only on video. So, in August of that year, Rosenthal joined The Athletic. In an era when print journalism was steadily falling out of style, Rosenthal took the opportunity to prove something.

“I felt [Fox’s] decision [to dissolve its branch of print journalism] was wrong,” said Rosenthal. “I wanted to prove a point…that print [journalism] was quite alive.”

Rosenthal knew he would be one of the more veteran writers on the staff of The Athletic. But he didn’t anticipate such a strong talent pool of writers to be there when he first took the job.

“I didn’t know that was going to happen when I arrived,” said Rosenthal. “[But] we have arguably the best team of baseball writers ever assembled.”

He has still taken the leadership role he expected, mentoring other writers such as Evan Drellich. Drellich and Rosenthal co-authored the first story on the 2017 Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, and they have worked closely on multiple stories about the MLB lockout during the 2021 offseason.

“I like to think we have a shared mindset,” said Drellich, 34, a self-proclaimed “hard-nosed” journalist like Rosenthal. “We compliment each other. [One of us] might see aspects of the story the other doesn’t.”

Drellich, along with others at The Athletic, look up to Rosenthal’s intellectual vitality.

“He [still] has [his own] opinions, but they’re informed from listening [to multiple sources],” said Drellich. He describes Rosenthal’s reporting process as rigorous, always “digging,” “vetting,” and “checking information.”

“There’s a reason he’s in the position he’s in,” said Drellich. “He is the gold standard.”

Rosenthal thinks that his reporting strategies are a by-product of his traditional view of print journalism. In a journalistic environment that encourages breaking a story first, sometimes over social media, Rosenthal still prefers taking his time. “For me, the more gratifying thing for me…is [reporting] a story that no one else has.”

As the media environment continues to evolve, Rosenthal is unsure of how much career advice he can give to younger sportswriters.

“Every aspect of the business has changed so much since I started,” said Rosenthal. “The path I took, [local news, regional news,] then to national outlets, simply is not realistic anymore.”

He recommends selecting an area of focus and gaining experience with professional outlets rather than blogging or taking to social media exclusively.

“Anyone can have an opinion, [but] very few people excel at reporting,” he said.


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