Let’s talk: A Look At Player Agents (Part 2 – Perspectives)

So you think you want to be Scott Boras, do ya? Got that “slap the cellphone to the side of the head” thing down pat. Maybe you’ve read last week’s installment on legends like the Hendricks brothers, or Dick Moss or Jerry Kapstein, and thought maybe this is the job for you. Maybe you read Jerry Crasnick’s, License to Deal and think that you’re a new breed of agent in the mold of Matt Sosnick. Or, maybe you’ve read Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue and would like to become someone that works on managements side of the table.

If you want to be an agent, the next question is, “What do you want to do about it?”

Your reply might be, “Well, I don’t know. How do I become an agent? What’s involved?”

How about the easy stuff first?

You can’t just say, “I’m a player agent,” and start wheeling and dealing. These are major league players you want to represent, and by extension that means those players are protected by the MLB Players Association. The Players Association wants to make sure that you’re not just some pie-in-the-sky personality that dreams of playing the game. They also want to make sure you don’t scam the players. Being an agent is more than saying, “Love ya, babe. Let’s do lunch.” The contracts that you’d be negotiating with your management counterparts are legal and binding. It comes back to what I said prior: the MLBPA’s job is to protect their constituency, and that constituency is the very players that the agents represent. Lastly, the player agent is an ever increasing entity in baseball. The MLBPA’s website says that there are currently 300 player agents, but Jerry Crasnick informed me that, “By my latest count there are about 410 agents certified by the Players Association, which means there has been a substantial increase in recent years. I find that surprising. Given the prominence of groups such as Scott Boras’ agency, SFX, Octagon and IMG, you’d think the small proprietor would be getting squeezed out rather than proliferating.”

Beyond my musings, I thought that it would be good to get inside the world of player agents by talking to those that have worked with them. To that end, I solicited comments from a number of notable individuals in the baseball business to get perspectives on the roles of player agents and what the misconceptions about what a player agent does are, get insight into the process as a whole, and then asked about any experiences that would shed more light on this topic.

To that end, I presented a series of Q&A’s with:

  • Bill James – Beyond James’ outstanding body of work as it pertains to baseball literature, he worked for over a decade with the Hendricks brothers by helping to present statistical analysis when salary arbitration cases were prepared. James is currently the Senior Baseball Operations Adviser for the Boston Red Sox.

  • Fred Claire – Fred spent 30 years with the Dodgers organization and was the general manager and vice president of the Dodgers from 1987-1998. He continues to follow the business of baseball closely, writes many columns on the subject regularly, and has written Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, which covers his experiences extensively.
  • Buzzie Bavasi – Buzzie was the long-time general manager for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers (1951-67), president of the San Diego Padres (1968-77), and executive vice president of the California Angels (1978-99).
  • Jerry Crasnick – Jerry is a senior baseball writer for ESPN, and has researched the life of player agents, most notably Matt Sosnick, who Jerry chronicles in his book, License to Deal.
  • Tal Smith – Tal is the president of baseball operations for the Houston Astros. Since 1961, he has been owner and operator of Tal Smith Enterprises, a firm which has provided consulting services to 26 of the 30 Major League clubs. The most recognized functions have been the preparation and presentation of salary arbitration cases, the financial appraisal of franchises and testimony as an expert witness in sports-related litigation.

Q&A with Bill James

Question: How did you become associated with the Hendricks brothers?

James: The Hendricks brothers had/have a third brother, David Hendricks, who was a part of the company at that time. David had been a math teacher, and they were leaning on David to try to help them assemble arbitration exhibits. David didn’t have any feel for that kind of work and didn’t want to do it, and Alan saw an ad in The Sporting News for the Baseball Abstract … a little two-inch ad I had paid for myself; I was selling the books out of my house at that time. Alan said “Maybe this guy could help us,” and David said “Yeah! Let’s get him,” because he didn’t want to do it himself.

Question: What was the first key case you worked on with them?

James: I think we had four or five cases that first year, no one of them more important than the others, including the ones that didn’t go. I think the biggest money case was Joe Sambito‘s, but we had cases for Joaquin Andujar, Denny Walling, Steve Trout and maybe Ken Kravec … probably others as well. It was a long time ago.

Question: Would you make a good agent?

James: Absolutely not. I would starve.

Question: What aspect of watching Randy and Alan work shows a clear difference in the perception of what a player agent is about (the schmoozing aspect) and the realities? For example, recruiting talent or learning the basic agreement. Is there a recollection of the length to which either one of them worked to meet a player’s needs?

James: Well, the Hendricks Brothers spend most of their time managing the client’s money. The people who they represented, at that time, mostly invested with them as well. They took the money and built housing developments and office buildings and other things. That was what occupied 80% of their time … they were essentially businessmen.

Q&A with Fred Claire

Question: Who are some of the agents that were comfortable to work with; in other words, pros?

Claire: When I think about my experience of dealing with agents while serving as the general manager of the Dodgers there are several key thoughts that come to mind. I always viewed both the team and the agent as part of the player’s support team. This isn’t an easy goal in that the general manager and agent are on different sides of the table in contract negotiations but it still should be the primary objective. After all, the idea in a contract negotiation is to work out a deal that benefits both the player and the team. And when a player encounters problems or health issues, the team and agent clearly should be working together.

One of the agents who stands out in my mind as far as a working relationship is Ron Shapiro. He is and has been a true professional in every sense of the word. He now has used his skills and knowledge to help many leading companies in the art of negotiation. I recall a time when , Eddie Murray was a free agent and we wanted to sign him for one year, while recognizing Eddie had longer term offers. Eddie enjoyed his time in Los Angeles and Ron was doing his best to work out a deal with us. Ron called at one point to let me know that if he made one more call to another team it would result in a deal. It was a case of Ron wanting to give us every opportunity to sign Eddie, but he had an obligation to make the deal that made the most sense. The call was not threatening that Eddie would leave; it was matter of fact in trying to work out a deal. As I recall, Eddie signed a three-year deal with the New York Mets that completely overwhelmed our offer. Ron said we would understand when we saw the terms of the deal, and indeed we did. This is the type of working relationship that should exist—honesty, trying to serve the player and straightforward negotiation. There are other agents who come to mind as far as building good working relationships, including the team of Tom Reich and Adam Katz. I also found the agent for Kirk Gibson, Doug Baldwin, a solid person to deal with; and that particular free agent deal turned out to be a very good one for the Dodgers.

Question: Is there an example in your tenure with the Dodgers of agents that proposed deals that were not good for the player; in other words an example of a “bad” agent?

Claire: I can’t think of an example where a deal was proposed by an agent with special clauses that weren’t in the best interest of the player. I think the reason I can’t recall these proposals is that we wouldn’t have permitted such clauses in our contracts. While the general manager of the Dodgers, our contracts were straightforward and the agents understood this. We didn’t get involved in performance bonuses or hotel accommodations. I think there are clauses in contracts that are not good for either the player or the team. When the Dodgers signed Kevin Brown and there were special airplane accommodations in the contract; this wasn’t good because it put the player in a special situation that was different from his teammates. It also put the team in a position where other players were going to be making like requests. I never resented outlandish requests by agents. It always was easy to politely say, “No.”

Question: What are the biggest changes that have come with the relationship with player agents over time?

Claire: I think the biggest change related to agents through the years is that the teams have come to understand (in fact, they have to understand) that the agent is part of the process. I think clubs realize that their relationship with agents becomes very important. There are teams with money to spend that can’t attract free agent players. The better the relationship between a team and agent, the better chance of striking a deal.

Question: How much impact do you think the Don Drysdale/Sandy Koufax deal in which they said they wouldn’t be traded unless it was together make in how management approached contracts?

Claire: In my mind, the Drysdale-Koufax negotiation wasn’t a landmark case as compared to free agency itself. My old friend Buzzie Bavasi can speak to the impact of Drysdale and Koufax and I would leave that to his thoughts. The Dodgers were very much involved, of course, in free agency as related to the Andy Messersmith case. I dealt with this in my book (Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue). Bottom line, Andy was looking for a no-trade contract and not free agency. I have always considered Andy a friend and I think his role in all of the free agency business was the last thing he wanted.

Buzzie Bavasi weighs in: I had no reaction whatsoever to the request by Donald and Sandy. Keep in mind that they won more than 50% of our games in 1965 and lost about 19%. What they were asking sounded like a lot of money when taken together, but on an individual basis it wasn’t too bad. Walter O’s [Malley] God was money, but I got him to realize that with them we win and without them we lose … It was easy after that.

Question: What’s the biggest misconception that the average fan has about what agents are about, and do?

Claire: I think the average fan tends to view the agent as the guy simply doing the big deals. Not seen are many smaller agencies and individuals who work very hard to build up a client base; who often guide players through the minor leagues only to lose their star players to the bigger agencies. There also is a lot of hand-holding that has to take place with agents in dealing with players and none of that is very glamorous. It’s interesting that some fans will blame the agent for a big contract when the fact is the team has to agree and sign the contract. No agent has the power to do a deal all by himself.

Q&A with Jerry Crasnick

Question: What do you see as some of the misconceptions of the average fan about player agents?

Crasnick: The misconception, obviously, is that the agent’s life is glamorous, and that a young go-getter can somehow work his way to the top through sheer force of will and a knack for bonding with young athletes. There are just so many obstacles to success. You need a big bankroll to get started and a coherent gameplan to keep you going during the tough times. And for the first 6-8 years or so, until a new agent gets a foothold, it can be all tough times.

Established agents know that there’s a lot of drudgery involved, whether it’s learning the basic agreement, studying the Joint Salary Exhibit or preparing an arbitration case, and this tends to run counter to the classic agent schmoozer persona. Matt Sosnick, the agent I followed for my book, is more a “relationship” guy than the type who likes to sweat the boring details. But his partner, Paul Cobbe, is more of a detail-oriented, nuts-and-bolts guy—the type who’ll sit in the office and see a grievance through from start to finish. So they seem to complement each other well. If you can’t handle both facets of the job, from keeping the clientele happy to understanding the inner workings of the baseball business, you’re going to be in trouble.

It’s also such a degrading business at times—whether the agent is hanging around a showcase or the Cape Cod League recruiting talent or hustling up another shoe deal to keep an 18-year-old kid happy. The young ballplayers have such a sense of entitlement these days, and the competition among agents has clearly helped fuel it.

Question: When researching Licensed To Deal, did you come across anything that was particularly surprising?

Crasnick: While I was researching my book, the things that surprised me the most were: 1) The level of animosity within the agent fraternity over client-stealing. A lot of time and energy that agents should be investing in their clients is devoted to fending off the competition; 2) the union’s seeming indifference to this as a problem. I think the only time the Players Association really cares is when an agent (quite often young and relatively new to the profession) panics and negotiates a bad deal because he’s afraid the player will get stolen and he’ll lose out on a commission. If you removed that scenario, the union would barely pay attention to client stealing.

From a business standpoint, the agents fight a constant battle between doing the right thing by their client and getting “fair market value” for players. You can negotiate a three-year, $25 million deal for a 26-year-old kid. But if the market says he should be getting $30 million, all the other agents are going to hammer you and word gets around the clubhouse in a hurry. What might be good for the player’s long-term future isn’t necessarily good for your business.

This stuff isn’t rocket science. If A.J. Burnett negotiates a five-year, $55 million deal and I represent a free agent starter, I know my guy is going to benefit. But you have to reach that stage as an agent first, and it’s such a chaotic, almost lawless business. A lot of aspiring agents either run out of money or quit because they’re disheartened. If you don’t have the stomach to tough it out for the duration, you’re probably better off chasing ambulances for a living.

Q&A with Tal Smith

Question: Is there a difference between the way some of the early agents, such as Kapstein and Moss approached contract negotiations compared to contemporaries, such Boras and Tellem?

Smith: I think it really varies depending on the individual. Obviously, a lot of things have changed—there are many more agents, so obviously, you get many different styles. But, I think the basic thing is that club personnel are far more comfortable with agents today and have had long relationships with many of them. In the early days it was more strained, I think, than what it is today. And I think that, as we frequently find, as we get more used to something you’re a lot more tolerant and acceptable of it. I think everybody recognizes today that agents are here; they perform a service for the players. In the early days a lot of people resisted it. It was still new to many of them.

Question: Do you think that was part of the problem? That it was this idea that, along with free agency, there was this change in how players and management related to each other that was associated with that fundamental shift, and that that created friction?

Smith: I think that some of the friction was that it was viewed as an intrusion. It was to satisfy “outsiders”, so to speak. They didn’t have any place; didn’t have any standing. They weren’t accepted. You have to recognize it was the old-guard, at that time. Today’s executives and administrators and management personnel in the game haven’t known anything other than the system that is in place today. Back when this first became prevalent in the ’70s and ‘80s there were a lot of general managers and management and executive personnel that this was foreign to them—it was resented. Today, the relationships are much different; they’re not as adversarial. There are exceptions where an agent doesn’t get along with club personnel and visa versa, but for the most part it’s not as adversarial as it was in early days.

Question: If someone were looking to become and agent, or look to work on management’s side of the table, what are the key things they should focus on? Should they focus on contract law? Going over the Uniform Player Contract, what have you?

Smith: I frankly don’t think it’s that much of a legal exercise. It gets down to the ability to communicate—to people skills. A lot of it is salesmanship. Frankly, when an agent is trying to sell his player—trying to sell his client—we have to recognize that at some point an agent is in negotiating with a club and be in a somewhat adversarial relationship, and the next day calling the same club trying to find a job for one of his guys. So, it’s not as confrontational as it used to be. It’s really gets down to your skills as a communicator and your skills at being a negotiator, and the ability to understand your position, but also the other guy’s position. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to strike a deal. If you’re going to be hard-line about everything you’re going to have a hard time. It gets down to leverage. And sometimes when an agent’s got leverage because he’s got a great player and he’s a free agent, or on the verge of becoming a free agent, obviously, he’s kind of in control of the situation. But, he also has to serve his client’s best interest too, and it’s not always top dollar.

As far as preparation and training for an individual looking to get into the business, I don’t know if there really is anything. Obviously, you need to have somewhat of an understanding of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but yet, frankly, there are a lot of agents and management personnel that aren’t particularly well versed in those areas. If they run into a problem there’s always the Commissioner’s Office or the Players Association to straighten them out.

Question: Looking at the arbitration cases you are preparing for this year, how many cases, league-wide, do think will be presented?

Smith: I just happened to be looking at last year’s numbers, and of the players that actually filed, less than half of them actually exchanged numbers three days later. I think there’s a tendency on both sides—both on the players’ side and clubs’ side—to reach an accommodation. And we’re finding that it’s more prevalent than it used to be. In the very early years of arbitration, I think a higher percentage of cases actually went. There was one year, 1986, where Tal Smith Enterprises actually tried 25 cases. At that time we were representing 13 clubs and had 96 filings, and actually presented those 25 cases. Last year, there were, altogether, 3 cases that were presented. It seems like that that’s the norm in recent years: three … five, six cases at the most. There were some years we did that many in two days. And while I’m not representing near the number of clubs I used to because of my involvement with the Astros, right now we’ve got 12 potential arbitrations, and we’ll have to see. I don’t think we’ve actually presented a case in three years, everything has been settled. Last year, we actually had a number of them settled on the “courthouse steps”, so to speak —actually, in the hearing room. I think there were at least three of them where we were all set to go and the parties caucus and come to an agreement. And, frankly, that’s the purpose—that’s the design of the system—designed to bring the parties together and reach a settlement.

Today, the stakes are so much greater, from a dollar standpoint, there’s less of a tendency to go. I mean in the early years, there were cases, if I’m not mistaken, where the difference was as small as $3,500. So, if we had a case where the difference was $100,000, in those days that was considered large. Today, obviously, you get a difference in a spread of a million dollars or more, so the stakes are pretty high for both sides, so there’s more risk. If the player loses, he’s giving up a lot of money. If the club loses, well then of course, they pay a lot of money. So, it makes sense for the parties to make an accommodation. So, that’s the purpose. That was the way the system was designed.

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