Baseball is about history, its poets tell us. It is about continuity and about heirloom emotions. It’s a golden thread that binds the generations together, one after another, in the face of an increasingly centrifugal and atomized world. So say baseball’s poets, and because this is a baseball story, let’s begin nearly a century ago.
Maximilian Carnarius became a baseball player because he could no longer afford to be a divinity student. By 1910, having abandoned a Lutheran pulpit for center field and having changed his name to the more prosaic Max Carey, he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played for 20 years and batted .285, but his great gift was as an outfielder. He played so well that in 1961 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, which was as close as Max Carey ever came to being installed in his own cathedral.
One of Carey’s finest accomplishments was that he was the first outfielder to lead the Major Leagues in putouts for three consecutive seasons. He did it twice from 1916 through 1918, and from 1921 through 1923. He was the first of only four outfielders in baseball history to do it. This is the kind of figure filbertism beloved by baseball historians, the numbers being an essential part of the romance of the game. Max Carey died in 1976. The great achievement of his career lives on in more than memory, because there is more to baseball now than the romance of memory.
It also has come down to us as bits of information in a strange-looking building on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean. The neighborhood looks like just another office park a wreath of brick structures around a circular driveway. Except for one; its massive metal facade has a single huge door that opens inward at the touch of a button from deep inside the place. On one silver wall near the doors of Boras Corp. is a modernist depiction of a baseball diamond with a B where the pitcher’s mound should be. It is in the basement of this place, in a cool, dark room where a bank of computers hums away, that Max Carey’s greatest years are most vividly alive.
In 2001, Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves like Max Carey a center fielder applied for salary arbitration, a concept that would have been as alien to Carey as computers or designated hitters. As part of Jones’s case, Scott Boras, his sports agent, pointed out that between 1998 and 2000, Jones was the fourth outfielder to lead baseball in putouts. (Max Carey, of course, was the first.) Boras maintained that this was one of the reasons the Braves should pay Jones $8.2 million for the following season, and not the $6.4 million the team was offering. The arbitrator agreed.
Now, in this great Death Star of a place above the sea, Scott Boras takes down a loose-leaf binder containing the supporting documents for the Andruw Jones arbitration case. The binders are as full of the history of the game as anything ever written by Roger Angell. They are as canonical about the long, sacred river of statistics as anything written by the game’s primary acolytes. The binders are little more than the world’s largest baseball-card collection. It’s just that they’re used not for sweet nostalgia but to make the people who play the game wealthier.
At the end of this season, Jones will be a free agent, and Boras will likely get him a contract that will make $8.2 million look as though it were negotiated during the Wilson administration. People will complain: Boras is ruining the game; he is coining their emotions into gold; he is cashing in on someone else’s memory. And the cries will be so loud that nobody will notice that it is the history of the game itself that made someone like Scott Boras inevitable, and that there are many different ways to love baseball, and that more and more of them are profitable.
For now, Boras points down at the names of the only four men in baseball history who have done this thing, and he shows how Max Carey nearly a century ago helped make Andruw Jones a wealthy man today. The golden thread still binds the generations.
That’s useful information, right there, Scott Boras says. That’s history.
He is not wrong.
A conversation with Scott Boras is a window into how he negotiates into what nervous, and occasionally furious, baseball executives hear from the other side of the conference table. He answers questions not tangentially so much as along a kind of parallel track. It’s as though he and the person asking the questions are speaking the same language but different dialects. For example, he is asked whether it is easier dealing with a younger generation of baseball executives like Theo Epstein or Brian Cashman who were not raised in the days when a team’s control over its players’ careers was absolute and player agents were an entirely foreign concept to the game. (Nearly five years after agents became a part of the baseball universe, teams like the Red Sox still banned them from the ballpark.) Boras’s answer, however, is about the importance of having an agent, like Boras, who actually played the game. And suddenly the conversation is no longer about his relationship with baseball executives, per se. It’s about what sets Scott Boras apart from other agents and how that gives him an advantage in his relationship with baseball executives.
I think agency is a different spectrum, but everybody classifies them the same, he says. I played professional baseball. When you’ve played the game, and baseball was your whole life, you have a different attitude about the sport than someone who’s never played. And, being an attorney, I have a very different viewpoint, too. You take those two parameters, and you put them into how we view the game, and I think it’s largely different from how [teams] might deal with quote-unquote standard agents.
Those of you scoring at home will note the lack of an answer to the question asked. This is not an accident. Every conversation is a negotiation.
My job is to represent my client, Boras says. The only part I have difficulty with is when journalists sit down and write, ‘He’s a tough negotiator.’ Those are the two words I have the greatest problem with. ‘Tough’ means obstinate. If by tough, they mean prepared or diligent, then I’m fine with it. Say that [I’m] qualified, that I’m a good attorney. Writers don’t write that a player has a good, efficient counsel. They write that he has a ‘tough negotiator.’
First and foremost, says Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, a longtime Boras client, he represents the player and not the club. Always.
Over the past quarter century, Scott Boras has made himself the single most influential figure in baseball who does not work directly for the game. His roster of clients, most of their careers nurtured by Boras from their very beginnings, includes some of the biggest names in the game, all of them paid salaries as a result of Boras’s, ah, zealous representation that would have seemed extraordinary 25 years ago. An enterprising Associated Press reporter last December put together a 25-man roster of Boras clients that had a total payroll for the 2007 season of $253.4 million, almost $55 million more than the payroll of the 2007 New York Yankees, the most free-spending team in baseball. It should be noted that Boras’s fee is 5 percent of his client’s money. So for those of you keeping score at home Boras’s take on just the players that the AP counted comes to a little short of $13 million.
It was Boras who got Alex Rodriguez $252 million to go from Seattle to Texas and then pried him loose from Texas so he could play in New York. Last winter, it was Boras who got Barry Zito the richest contract ever given to a Major League pitcher $126 million over the next seven years so Zito could cross the Bay Bridge from the Oakland A’s to the San Francisco Giants. Boras’s clients were central to the revival of the moribund Detroit Tigers, beginning with catcher Ivan Rodriguez, for whom Boras negotiated a salary of $10 million a year, thereby setting off an influx of Latin ballplayers who helped the Tigers reach last season’s World Series.
His clients are vital to the success of both sides of the ferocious and extremely expensive rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox. He represents Alex Rodriguez, of course, and Boston’s captain Varitek, who memorably once gave Rodriguez a catcher’s mitt right in the chops. Boras is the reason that a hundred-odd reporters from Japan will be wandering the Back Bay this summer covering every single movement of rookie pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, on whose behalf Boras arranged a $52 million deal for six years, which wasn’t quite as much as Boras wanted for him. In fact, the Red Sox have five Boras clients on their current roster, including center fielder J.D. Drew, newly arrived from the Los Angeles Dodgers after a protracted contractual brawl that featured charges of bad faith and sharp practices. The Red Sox are hoping that Drew will finally be the person to replace Johnny Damon, the Boras client who, after being very much the public face of Boston’s 2004 World Series champions and after vowing never to don the hated pin stripes, took a four-year deal last year to play in New York.
I brought Damon [to Boston], too, Boras smiles. People don’t mention that. Yes, Scott Boras giveth and Scott Boras taketh away.
Blessed be his name?
Well, let’s not push it, shall we?
Boras is as controversial as he is influential. While one of baseball’s great urban legends is that there are teams that will never negotiate with his clients baseball executives would have negotiated with Hitler if Goering could have hit a three-two curveball there is no question that teams consider very carefully drafting a young player whom Boras represents. However, whatever ill will arises in one case is usually quickly forgotten in the next. No team was angrier at Boras than were the Red Sox when Damon was signed away by the Yankees. Boston believed that Boras had euchred them with offers elsewhere that may not have existed. The Red Sox, nevertheless, dove eagerly into protracted negotiations this year with Boras in order to sign Drew and Matsuzaka.
Boras, 54, has made long-term enemies both in the front offices of the teams with which he’s negotiated and among many of his fellow agents. He has overcome the former problem, at least in part, by shrewdly playing one team executive against another. For example, Boras has a relationship with Detroit owner Mike Ilitch that has managed to obviate the fact that Tiger general manager Dave Dombroski is not one of his fans. In Boston, his relationship with Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino has been rocky going back to 1989, when Lucchino was with the Orioles and Boras was helping represent rookie pitcher Ben McDonald. However, Boras has reached a comfortable modus vivendi with Boston general manager Theo Epstein. Among his colleagues in the business, there have always been charges that Boras has poached clients charges that are difficult to prove, because at this point, it’s hard to argue with any player who prefers to be represented by Scott Boras.
It’s an odd mix, admits Gene Orza, the general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association. As the collective representative of all the players, the MLBPA not only certifies agents but also has the responsibility of arbitrating disputes between them, particularly over the issue of client poaching. There’s an agent who’s losing the player, and there’s an agent signing the player, who wants to believe that the only thing he’s doing is providing a service, and the player doesn’t want to tell either one of them the truth, Orza says. The result is that every agent who loses a player is convinced he lost him because somebody stole the guy. It’s all evil misdeeds. You never get the whole truth. All the major clients that Scott’s gotten have been the subject of great consternation within the industry. Moreover, other agents wonder if Boras’s proven ability to shake the money tree isn’t to the detriment of his clients’ overall happiness.
Look at A-Rod. Is he happy, rich or not? says another agent. Is he happy? I mean, you can always find someone willing to pay. Scott found Tom Hicks [in Texas]. Now I look at A-Rod in New York, and I’ve seen him become a rootless multimillionaire.
Nearly all of the spite and accusations are anonymous, the harshest of them completely off the record. (Under the same ground rules, Boras plays just as rough, ridiculing the business acumen of some of the owners with whom he’s dealt.) In itself, that’s a measure of how influential Boras has become within the sport. Even his professional rivals are reluctant to talk openly about him. Among fans, he is the face of rising salaries and rising ticket prices, two concerns that are always wedded in the public mind, even though they’re economically unrelated. What is equally plain is that somebody like Scott Boras was bound to emerge, given the radical changes that came to the structure of baseball and the equally radical changes that came to the society of which baseball is a part. When free agency came to baseball, agents became inevitable.
In the mid-1970s, when free agency started and the sport lost its reserve system, under which teams owned the rights to their players in virtual perpetuity, it became much harder work being a baseball executive. Information became a valued commodity. As teams had to compete for players within what was becoming a more open marketplace, the numbers became an end in and of themselves. This dynamic helped shape a new way of looking at the game. It happened in the front offices, as a younger generation of executives took over and began to apply their own innovative theories to building a ballclub, most of which depended purely on information on new statistics and on old statistics looked at in new ways, a phenomenon described most vividly by Michael Lewis in Moneyball, his best-selling study of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. In this context, agents are accepted as simply another element of doing business.
Everything about the interface is more comfortable than it was, says Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who has written extensively on the economics of sports, baseball in particular. There used to be an acute level of acrimony and distrust because of the newness of the institution of free agency and the residue of how [the late former commissioner] Bowie Kuhn had reacted to it. Agents were part of that acrimony.
A similar thing occurred among baseball’s fans. As pure information became valuable within the industry, it produced new ways of being a fan outside of it. Sabermetrics, a method of analyzing every aspect of the game through purely statistical empiricism the term was coined by baseball historian Bill James, now a consultant to the Red Sox, from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research rose to power initially within the game’s changing fan base. Baseball’s old guard resisted James’s work as hard as it once resisted black ballplayers and free agency. (The next step in the evolution is the work of J.C. Bradbury, a Georgia-based economist who has invented what he calls sabernomics, a new system of analyzing the economics of the baseball business.) Fantasy leagues born as Rotisserie League Baseball were invented over lunch by some lubricated magazine editors and writers in New York and have grown into an independent multimillion-dollar industry in which players are represented as pure information, as lines of statistics and bursts of pixels, in the same way that Max Carey exists now within Scott Boras’s computer system. Baseball came of age as a business in an age in which the primary export of the United States became information. Theo Epstein is the consummate product of that transformation. So is Scott Boras. As has been the case in every other pivotal moment in American economic history, somebody turns out to be the tycoon.
Boras anticipated developments brilliantly. Even his most fervent detractors admit that. His thought processes are way ahead of everybody else, says Ned Colletti, the general manager of the Dodgers who clashed with Boras last winter over J.D. Drew and whose feud with the agent goes back nearly two decades, to when Boras was representing Greg Maddux in Chicago and Colletti was working for the Cubs. He thinks differently. He thinks outside the box, and he’s two or three years ahead of everybody. That is how Boras made his first breakthrough, almost single-handedly transforming the annual amateur draft from a management lifeboat to a bonanza for young players who’d yet to throw a professional pitch the biggest institutional change in baseball’s labor structure since the original arbitrator’s 1975 decision that created free agency. That is why the computers are there, humming away in the basement of the new place, putting numbers together in different ways in order to put players together on different teams. That is why when Rangers executives complain about how much money Boras wedged out of them for A-Rod, only to spirit him away to New York, Boras responds by citing the figures on how much the Texas franchise increased in value while Rodriguez was there. The conversation again is running on parallel lines. Every conversation is a negotiation.
We have 42 people working here just on the data side, Boras explains. We have a multimillion-dollar computer system that runs the economic portion of our office, that studies the revenues of the game, that studies what teams make and don’t make. We also keep daily track of the day-to-day data of each team, what they’re doing and what our clients are doing. This game will run you out so quick if you don’t stay on top of it.
He began atop a tractor in California’s San Fernando Valley. Scott Boras worked the fields of his family’s farm with only a transistor radio for company, listening to ballgames from places far beyond the valley. He can talk about the transporting effect of baseball on the radio as lyrically as do any of the literary types who fasten themselves like remoras on the romance of the game that many of them insist Scott Boras is destroying, one contract at a time. You go out in the fields for eight or nine hours, and then you come in. You have to entertain yourself somehow, and for me that was listening to ballgames on the radio, Boras recalls. It was all about getting all of my work done by 5, so I could get to the ball field.
He developed into a solid, hard-hitting outfielder, good enough to win a scholarship to the University of the Pacific. (One of his roommates was an enthusiastic football player named Pete Carroll, who later would go on to coach the New England Patriots before winning national championships at the University of Southern California.) As soon as he graduated, Boras signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization and, later, was traded from there to the Chicago Cubs system. He didn’t care. He was playing baseball for a living. You think it’s the greatest privilege in the world, because now you don’t have to go work on the farm anymore, he says. You get that check the first week, and you can’t believe anyone’s paying you to play.
Injuries cut his career short. He’d hurt a knee chasing a line drive right at the end of his college career, and he aggravated the injury around the minor leagues until he’d lost so much speed that the people in the Cubs system told him they wanted to make him an infielder. Boras declined and left his playing career behind. He’d spent his years in the minors with his eyes wide open, though. One day at the end of spring training, after he’d been told he’d made another minor league team for the upcoming season, Boras took a walk through the parking lot and saw all the players who hadn’t.
Basically, there are 50 guys being released, he says. I went out into that parking lot, and it was stunning to me. I saw number-one draft picks who had rusted-out vans. There were wives crying, and players with kids. I saw the other side out there, the ending of careers. I mean, in college baseball, you had cuts, but you still stayed around the school. This was, for these guys, just the end of the road.
Some baseball executives believe that Boras took the admittedly cutthroat Darwinian lessons of the minor leagues too much to heart. He appeals almost to some kind of class-war thing, I think, because of his experience in the minors, says a veteran baseball executive. For whatever reason, Boras became fascinated by the length of the odds against making a career in baseball. He has refined those calculations over the years. It was his first real attempt to develop the kind of information warfare that now is so central to his success. Today, those finely calibrated odds are key to his approach to young players he is offering to represent. The biggest problem I have with Major League Baseball? he asks. They have to start giving the players and their families the truth about the numbers. How many players get signed? How many make it? What are your chances of having a three-year career, a six-year career? I show the numbers to families, and they’re shocked you have a less than 1 percent chance, if you’re not chosen in the top 15 players, to be a six-year Major Leaguer.
After his playing days ended, Boras got his law degree. He also worked with some of his former minor league teammates, negotiating contracts with their clubs. His breakthrough came, however, when Boras, almost on the fly, rewrote the rules on baseball’s annual amateur draft, which was the last vestige of management’s monopoly control over its labor force after the free-agency revolution swept away the game’s old institutional structures. As Boras points out, the top pick in the 1982 draft, Shawon Dunston, received the same signing bonus as Rick Monday, the first pick in the 1965 draft. In 1983, then, Boras signed Tim Belcher, a promising pitcher whom the Minnesota Twins had drafted and to whom the Twins had offered a $100,000 bonus. On Boras’s advice, Belcher turned the offer down. This had never happened before. But Boras found a way to get Belcher included in that year’s winter draft. The Yankees offered him $50,000 more to sign, and the dam was broken.
The guy with the Twins kept telling me this is not good for baseball, Boras recalls. I told him this is tremendous for baseball. If you don’t start paying bonuses commensurate with what football and basketball are paying, you’re going to lose a lot of players to those sports. This is an 18-year-old kid. Why wouldn’t you want him to have representation?
By relentless scouting that identified only the best prospects each year, Boras built his business around the draft he’d helped to transform. He told players to go back to college rather than accept what he believed were low signing bonuses. He sent players like Jason Varitek, among others to places like the independent Northern League until the teams that drafted them came around. Perhaps the most famous example came in 1997, when Boras advised J.D. Drew, then the first pick in the draft, to turn down $3.1 million to sign with Philadelphia.
The city was agog, and a Phillies pitcher named Curt Schilling suggested that, if he ever made the majors, Drew might need a batting helmet with flaps on both sides. Unfazed, Drew went off to the Northern League until he was eligible to reenter the draft the following June, when he was picked by St. Louis, which signed him for $7 million. Drew weathered hazing from everyone, from his teammates to ballpark organists. But he stuck to his guns. Now he’s with the Red Sox at spring training, Drew dressed one row of lockers over from Schilling and is just beginning the first year of a five-year deal that will make him $70 million.
I’ve had my share of what you’d call media attention in certain areas, that’s for sure, says Drew. It’ll make a man out of you in a hurry.
As his players prospered in their Major League careers, Boras prospered in his, building his agency until now it’s more like a modern-day equivalent of one of the old amateur sports clubs from the 1800s, which functioned as full-service enterprises for their athletes. Boras has a full-time staff of sports psychologists, and he is building a year-round training facility near his new Death Star headquarters in the office park. And he is as wired to his business as he ever was, attending four or five games a week and monitoring the progress of his clients by BlackBerry essentially attending one game in person and simultaneously attending a dozen others as a kind of virtual fan, as complete a creature of the modern age of sports as anyone can be, a small universe of information all on his own.
Some day this season, J.D. Drew will go three-for-five with four RBIs, and before the cheers die away at Fenway, those numbers will sail through cyberspace, pop up on the BlackBerry in Scott Boras’s pocket probably in a stadium in Anaheim and sail into the computers humming away in a dark, cool place deep in a building that looks like no other atop the bluff that runs down to the sea. Here, as assuredly as at any sun-dappled ballyard, people play baseball, and baseball gets played.