Seth Romero was the staff ace for the Houston Cougars, projected by many to be a first-round draft choice in next month’s MLB amateur draft. But in April, he was suspended from the team indefinitely.
The Cougars never gave a reason for the suspension besides a vague violation of team rules. But it was the second suspension for Romero in 14 months, so rumors among UH fans were rife. Romero was reinstated to the team last week. And soon afterwards, the Houston Chronicle ran a story by UH beat writer Joseph Duarte revealing the reasons for the suspension: Romero had failed a drug test and missed a curfew while traveling with the team. The story also reported the existence of a photo of Romero, in team uniform, holding a bong.
Romero is a talented left-handed pitcher. And there is always demand for a talented southpaw in the majors. But Romero’s stupidity has likely cost him a lot of money as it is quite possible he will drop out of the first round. It’s not that the majors are paragons of virtue, but the stupidity of the photo, the missed curfew and the failed drug test coming a year after another suspension may just make some teams question whether he is the type of player worthy of a high draft pick and a large signing bonus.
But Romero did more than just damage his draft stock and possibly harm his team’s chances of hosting an NCAA Regional. The Chronicle story has also caused a rift between Duarte and UH head coach Todd Whitting, who, on Sunday, refused to speak with Duarte or to make any players available to Duarte following Sunday’s UH loss to UConn, stating that Duarte threw his “program under the bus…[and] I have nothing to say to you.” Whitting also responded by blocking Duarte on Twitter after the sports writer started tweeting about Whitting’s refusal to speak.
The University of Houston would not comment to the Houston Press on Romero’s suspension or the rift between Whitting and Duarte. The school, however, has refused to deny the main elements of the story, that Romero missed curfew and failed a drug test.
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Just how Duarte supposedly threw the Cougars under the bus is unclear. He’s a reporter, not a PR guy. If he gets a story, it's his job to report it, especially in this instance, where he has news behind the suspension of a key member of the team. Some Cougar fans may think the story harmed Romero’s draft status, but seeing the number of people associated with college baseball who knew the details of the suspension means there is no doubt that the MLB scouts were also aware of the news.
Sources with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition on anonymity also told the Press that there has been tension between Whitting and Duarte since last summer when Duarte wrote a story about Whitting interviewing for the head coaching position with the University of Texas baseball team. The story was an innocuous one that, the sources said, Whitting read as implying that he was actively pursuing the UT job instead of merely responding to UT overtures.
UH was also supposedly upset, the same sources said, over Duarte's not covering or appearing for every baseball game, and it was felt that if he had been at every game, he would be more clued into what is going on with the program. But in fairness, Duarte gives UH baseball far more coverage than the rest of the media in Houston. It’s a difficult program to cover — the press box can be tense, it can be difficult to get interviews or to interact with the team — and with college baseball basically a fringe sport in Houston (but for Rice thanks to a very long postseason streak), it’s easy to report on the team only when something important happens, like a player being suspended.
Duarte is one of the more experienced sports reporters in Houston, and Whitting is one of the better coaches in Houston college sports. It’s likely that both realize a mountain has been made over a molehill. Duarte did nothing to harm Seth Romero’s draft status — all of that damage was self-inflicted. It’s understandable that Whitting may have been upset by Duarte’s story, but just as Whitting has a job to do managing his club, Duarte has a job to do, and that’s to report the good and the bad of UH baseball.