Sunday Night Tampering: When broadcast banter becomes conflict of interest

ESPN has long been the subject of scrutiny when it comes to the appearance of conflict of interest. The worldwide leader didn’t do much to help acquit themselves Sunday night. Neither did Major League Baseball.

Pick a sport with which ESPN is affiliated, and you’re bound to find circumstantial evidence of conflicts of interest.

The NFL and NCAA football are the most obvious examples, with the NBA not far behind. Whether one considers ‘Playmakers’ or ‘League of Denial’ or ‘The Decision’ or Pedro Gomez hiding in the bushes for months at the San Francisco Giants’ offices or the endless dog-wagging of insiders and pundits alike on social media, wherever ESPN has prominent access, they also have prominently placed themselves in apparently compromising situations.

During ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball July 29, Jessica Mendoza and Alex Rodriguez both managed to land themselves and their associated interests firmly in the crosshairs.

If this is Jessica Mendoza in 2017 or ’18, this isn’t an issue. But this is Jessica Mendoza, New York Mets baseball operations adviser, who also happens to grace the booth of Major League Baseball’s marquee weekly broadcast. Alex Rodriguez, as noted by numerous others, has been tied to the Yankees front office since his retirement in 2016 and appears in the team’s 2019 media guide as a special adviser.

In a Washington Post story by Ben Strauss on March 5, an ESPN spokesman said “the network ‘will be fully transparent about Jessica’s relationship with the Mets,’ adding, ‘We have complete faith in her ability as a leading MLB voice for ESPN.'” In that same piece, Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Costas also gave an endorsement to Mendoza’s ability to judiciously handle both responsibilities:

“Costas did envision a scenario in which Mendoza is broadcasting a Mets game and there is organizational upheaval or questions about the manager’s job security swirling around the team that need to be addressed on the air.

‘That’s the test, and there will be scrutiny,” he said. “But I don’t see her being compromised.'”

Welp.

Rodriguez’ relationship with the Yankees, according to sources speaking to The Athletic Monday, was quietly severed earlier this season, which is news to just about everybody today. (Really, no one got that memo.) Regardless, here we are, once again, with ESPN in the center of what looks like a straightforward case of tampering and pretty much the worst-case, most-likely scenario for all parties involved.

“It’s interesting stuff but you have to remember, they’re getting two paychecks: to be a special advisor and to basically be a journalist on TV,” a National League executive told Bronx to Bushville earlier Monday. “I don’t think it’s too serious because I highly doubt either of them have any real say in terms of trade scenarios or bringing players on.

“Even though I don’t think it’s a big deal, I think this also should be addressed. You can’t have people doing jobs that are almost contradictions.”

Meanwhile, Kirk Herbstreit won’t participate in pick ’ems involving his alma mater, Ohio State.

From Major League Baseball’s rulebook:

To preserve discipline and competition, and to prevent the enticement of players, coaches, managers and umpires, there shall be no negotiations or dealings respecting employment, either present or prospective, between any player, coach or manager and any Major or Minor League Club other than the Club with which the player is under contract, or acceptance of terms, or by which the player is reserved or which has the player on its Negotiation List, or between any umpire and any baseball employer other than the baseball employer with which the umpire is under contract, or acceptance of terms, unless the Club or baseball employer with which the person is connected shall have, in writing, expressly authorized such negotiations or dealings prior to their commencement.

While Mendoza and Rodriguez are in the booth for their broadcasting acumen(???), it is, if not impossible, certainly difficult to divorce them from their well-publicized connections to Major League organizations. At least one player agent views this as a symptom of much-larger, looming issues for MLB.

“It stems from the front office,” Joshua Kusnick told Bronx to Bushville. “That FO setup is actual insanity.”

“The system’s a [expletive] mess … Who’s gonna hold them accountable? I’d love to see what the fine is if they even do it given how egregious this [expletive] is.”

Kusnick, who operates Double Diamond Sports Management, sees Sunday night’s comments, understandably, as symptomatic of an MLB that has no meaningful leadership. “It’s on [Manfred] now to fix this,” Kusnick added when discussing the obliteration of the necessary wall separating player representation and front offices, suggesting the commissioner had the ability to stop Van Wagenen’s appointment as GM. When asked if this kind of unchecked behavior portends catastrophic negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement in a few years, Kusnick, true to form, didn’t mince words:

“I have serious concerns about everyone. I started an e-sports venture, I’m so concerned.”

Those concerns aren’t necessarily unfounded. With apparent fiat preferential treatment given to the two franchises in the largest media market in the country given star billing on the biggest regular season MLB stage broadcast on the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, agents, players and fans alike have every right to be cynical toward seemingly careless, one-off comments in the heat of trade deadline season. If intentional, it’s pretty obviously wrong; if unintentional, it may not necessarily be wrong, but betrays an unacceptable level of irresponsibility. Discretion, especially this time of year, is paramount.

To wit, when a general manager or baseball operations executive figure joins an in-game broadcast, they do everything to say nothing at all. (The Brewers’ David Stearns is particularly adept at this.)

Rodriguez and Mendoza freely accepted the responsibility that comes with attempting to balance their day jobs with their weekly one. The story in The New York Times about Mendoza’s hire noted that her side hustle came with strings attached: “Mendoza’s deal with the Mets includes a confidentiality agreement, Van Wagenen said, adding that she would not share on her broadcast ‘anything she gleans from our operation.'” While it’s not exactly a secret that Noah Syndergaard is available, it’s not a good look to have someone from the Mets organization essentially running a Blue Light Special.

When Rodriguez was hired to do Sunday Night Baseball, there were open concerns about his credibility and objectivity. Sports Illustrated‘s Jimmy Traina said at the time that, “For his sake, ESPN should’ve told him he can’t be an advisor to the Yankees.” And, to that point, he isn’t. As mentioned above, though, no one bothered to notice until Monday.

Many, such as New York Times longtime columnist and former ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, pooh-pooh the issue from a media standpoint claiming ESPN isn’t doing journalism during live telecasts. This, of course, is hair-splitting; beat writers at MLB.com do not stop being beat writers by virtue of who pays them. Play-by-play and color commentary may be an entertaining byproduct of entertaining principal subject matter, but it is, at its core, a journalistic enterprise — telling the story of the events happening in front of them. These are not mutually-exclusive properties; even Bob Lipsyte had to be compelling enough to warrant reading past the lede.

I read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Tom Haudricourt religiously: if he weren’t writing about baseball, I might not be so inclined. The subject still matters.

ESPN did not respond to Bronx to Bushville‘s request for comment.

Which brings us to the unholy union of feckless or reckless baseball ops types discussing baseball ops matters on a live MLB broadcast from a cable network unable or unwilling to get out of its own way vis-à-vis conflicts of interest. None of this speaks well to Manfred’s handling of the Mets’ tire fire or ESPN’s commitment to quality broadcast journalism.

All this chaos, from tepid hot stoves and Manfred using the Atlantic League as his personal sandbox to A-Rod and Mendoza dreaming up deals between their respective clubs on live television, likely without any kind of recourse, draws back the curtains on an MLB house completely out of sorts. What tension existed between management and labor has been flattened by ownership without leashes and toothless players’ association representatives. None of this bodes well for impending CBA negotiations, especially when the players’ association is cornered.

No, Rodriguez and Mendoza weren’t just shooting the breeze Sunday night: they were firing warning shots. This isn’t just between pitch banter; these are the ways in which labor relationships continue to deteriorate: irresponsible parties doing irresponsible things.

And both MLB and ESPN are content to sit back and let it happen.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

Advertisements