The man behind the megamillion-dollar players
NEW YORK — Little more than 50 feet separates Scott Boras from his unsuspecting victim on this brisk October night.
While Derek Jeter, the sterling Yankee shortstop, stands at home plate in last year's World Series, baseball agent Boras watches intently three rows behind him.
Only minutes earlier, Boras had paraded his client, Alex Rodriguez, through the World Series crowd, ushering him to this prime spot where he would be as much in the spotlight as the players on the field. Boras is responsible for Rodriguez's record-shattering 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, making him the highest-paid player in all of sports.
Jeter, oblivious to the scene behind him, swings at the first pitch, driving the ball far into Shea Stadium's left-field bleachers and grabbing back the crowd's attention. But he wouldn't keep the spotlight for long. Boras would see to that.
Not a baseball season in the past 20 years has passed that doesn't have Boras's fingerprints all over it. Single-handedly he has elevated himself to become baseball's most powerful kingmaker.
To the 55 major-league players he represents, Boras delivers fantastic wealth. To team owners, Boras is like a capricious god, at any given time providing talent or taking it away. And to many fans, Boras is known for securing salaries that seem way out of proportion with reality. Even the usually dispassionate New York Times recently crowned Boras "the most hated man in baseball."
That Scott Boras is all of these things speaks to the influence and power he wields. His client list reads like an All-Star Game ballot: San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, a three-time MVP; Atlanta Braves hurler Greg Maddux, a four-time Cy Young Award winner; New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams, a three-time Gold Glover and one-time batting champion; and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown, a four-time all-star.
These men have turned their fortunes over to Boras because of his reputation for consistently driving teams to say "uncle" in negotiations, a skill that has netted huge contracts for his clients.
For many of those responsible for paying those huge salaries, though, Boras is greed personified, a man who "sees all the devious ways you can rip people off and make a bundle on 'em," as one unnamed team official told the Chicago Tribune a few years back. It's not an uncommon assessment of Boras, a man sometimes referred to as "the Darth Vader of baseball," a man who once incited a team official to punch a hole through a wall and another to remove a shoe from his foot and slam it on the negotiating table in fury at Boras's seemingly exorbitant demands.
It's an ability born of opportunity. With the advent of free agency in 1976 came an opening to the monopoly under which baseball's owners had previously operated, an opening through which Boras would drive each new player straight to Park Place. And drive he has, helping to raise the average yearly Major League salary from $51,000 in 1976 to more than $2 million this season.
Baseball today is no more related to the 9-to-5 world than is the movie industry. And if we're willing to let Adam Sandler squirm and squeal on screen for $20 million a picture - essentially two months of work - shouldn't we accept Bernie Williams patrolling center field at Yankee Stadium for $12.5 million a season?
"My job is to take something that exists in the marketplace [a player] and determine what it really means to that marketplace," Boras says of his clients with measured conviction in a recent interview. "So when there's a $15 million increase in revenues from the TV contract, what percentage of that goes to the players? How do you calculate that? Do you just take the market from last year? No. The revenues have increased. As a representative, I know that if there's an increase, I've got to define the [new] demand and go from there."
On the road for six months out of the year, Boras tries to convince owners, players, and fans that the multimillion-dollar deals he brokers are an appropriate barometer of the players' value. This past November he spent a week with Rodriguez, studying the minor-league systems of the teams expected to bid for him.
Lessons from textbooks and playing fields
Raised on a farm a few miles outside of Sacramento, Calif., the young Boras never had to explain his work ethic to his father.
"My father was a passionate farmer," Boras remembers. "We had a dairy, and we had crops, so it was a very intense labor time in the summer. You worked on the farm all day; you worked hard to get done by the end of the day, and the reward was you got to go play ball. [But] my father didn't get to see me play much because he was supporting his family. He worked seven days a week. He did things right."
Those hard-earned afternoons away from the farm led to a baseball scholarship at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., where Boras studied the science of chemistry and biology in the morning and the science of hitting and fielding in the afternoon. During his senior year in 1973, two weeks prior to baseball's amateur draft of college and high school players, Boras collided with his left fielder, tearing ligaments in his knee and throwing his prospects for a baseball career into serious doubt.
Still, in 1974, the St. Louis Cardinals signed the hard-hitting outfielder to a minor-league contract, and he kept playing until 1977 when injuries ended his career.
Since his already difficult path to the majors was made even more unlikely with a bum knee, Boras continued taking classes throughout his minor-league career, eventually earning a graduate degree in pharmacology. Being a student and a pro athlete required him to lead a double life.
"College boys were [considered] know-it-alls, and none of the managers were college guys," he says. "So you'd hide it. You'd sneak off to the library to study. On buses I'd put magazines over my pharmacology books. It was a strange life, but the great thing about it was that being around academicians and being around these unbelievably gifted athletes helped me so much in this world."
That dual existence was a lesson in diplomacy, a skill that Boras claims is required in 70 percent of the work he does. A few years back, when the Atlanta Braves phenom outfielder Andruw Jones smiled after overthrowing the cutoff man in a minor-league game and allowed the winning run to score, Boras was the first to offer advice.
"His [Jones's] dad taught him that when you fail, you smile, because you don't want your opponent to know you're troubled," Boras says. "That didn't go over too well [with his teammates], but you've got to ... draw that bridge so that he understands."
It's on that bridge that Boras professes to earn his commission, counseling players, wives, and parents about the responsibilities one carries as a baseball player, especially a highly compensated one.
Whether it is reminding pitcher Bill Caudill (who played for four teams in a nine-year career) to call his wife during a two-week road trip or advising the Yankees' Bernie Williams to look a bit dejected as he runs off the field after his team has given up a run, Boras claims the role he plays in his clients' lives is more emotional than financial.
"You've got to be able to ... reach the athletes the correct way - the language, the approach, the psychology," Boras says.
It's a surprising claim for someone who has espoused the notion that there is no better publicity for a player than landing him a huge contract. To his credit, though, his clients, present and past, agree that the relationships they maintain with Boras are not limited to what's on paper.
"I've know him since I was 15 years old," says Rodriguez, the former Seattle superstar now with Texas. "A lot of our conversations, I'd say 99 percent of the time, have nothing to do with baseball. They're about life."
'Guys were at their lockers crying their eyes out'
But the life of a ballplayer, at least professionally, can be brutally short, a lesson Boras learned in watching 40 players get cut after his own rookie training camp. It's a memory he credits for his bulldog approach to negotiating, an approach that enrages team owners.
"Guys were sitting at their lockers with their [hands on] their heads, just crying their eyes out," Boras recalls. "I had never even thought of that possibility; baseball was always a dream. I'm not going to be the person to put those players in the parking lot. I will never do that."
In 1977, Boras was out of the game himself. With the money he received from his last pro contract, he went to law school. His law education and the scientific methods he learned in college labs would translate into millions of dollars: His analytical approach has been applied to his negotiating in a way that general managers find most frustrating.
Working on Caudill's $7.5 million, five-year deal with Toronto in 1985 persuaded Boras to give up practicing medical law in Chicago to become a full-time agent.
"We were in negotiation with the [Toronto] Blue Jays, and Scott [Boras] and I had talked about when and if they made a counteroffer that we weren't even going to look at the offer in front of them," Caudill recalls.
"We were going to take the offer, fold it up, put it in our pocket, walk out, and go talk. Scott wanted to make sure that they saw no weakness in us. If we were upset or surprised, he didn't want any emotion brought into the negotiation, and he didn't think we would be able to do that with the ownership sitting across the table. He wanted it to be all a matter of fact.
"It just devastated the [Blue Jays] organization. They thought they could see our reaction. After we came back in, it just opened the door."
In a sense, Boras is still playing scientist, attempting to validate his contract proposals with volumes of statistics. Boras employs a staff of 25, who gather mounds of data about players, owners, and stadium financing to make sure that when he sits down at the negotiating table, he knows as much, perhaps more, than anyone in the room. His 10 scouts scattered across the United States and South America chart prospects as young as 15.
At Boras's Irvine, Calif., office, a former NASA computer programmer tracks baseball statistics from as far back as the 19th century to the present day, compiling a database in an effort to predict a current player's potential rate of statistical return and place him in a historical perspective.
The result is a game of negotiation that eschews the team aspect of the sport to focus solely on the individual, no matter the outside pressures or influences. For example:
* When Philadelphia offered Florida State outfielder J.D. Drew $3 million in 1997, Boras told him that other teams were ready to pay $7 million more. Unruffled by an organization and city angered by such audacity, Boras persuaded Drew to sit out a year. The maneuver netted the young player free-agent status and a contract the following June with St. Louis for $8 million.
* When pitcher Greg Maddux tired of losing games with the lowly Chicago Cubs, it was Boras who steered him to a first-place team, the Atlanta Braves, bypassing a bigger offer from the then-cellar-dwelling Yankees.
* When Charles Johnson, perhaps the best defensive catcher in the game, wanted to go home to Florida after last season, it was Boras who negotiated a deal that, while garnering $2 million less than he might have made elsewhere, sent Johnson to play with his hometown Marlins.
Make no mistake, though, this isn't charity work. In moving players - star players at that - Boras takes a 5 percent cut for himself.
In defense of the huge salaries, he notes that "players used to get 60 percent of the revenues. Now it's 51, 52 percent. The players are getting paid more, but the pie's much bigger. The question is how do you distribute the pie?"
And the unprecedented salary for Rodriguez?
"Most of the free agents signing today, they're at their optimum at 30 or 31, and [they] fall off a little bit at 35, 36," Boras explains. "[At 25,] Alex has a growth cycle. He's already the best player in the game, so [Texas will] have all premium years in the contract. In fairness, you can't take away his market value because whatever the market is, he should be at the top of it."
Boras cashed in with the Texas Rangers for a $252 million, 10-year contract that included an "escalator clause," which guarantees that Rodriguez will receive at least $2 million more than any other shortstop each year for years to come.
Challenging the theory of 'haves' and 'have nots'
According to baseball's executive office, though, the number of teams with the means to scale the ever-increasing mountains of money necessary to attract the top free agents like Rodriguez grows fewer by the contract. In an attempt to support its claim that a huge revenue disparity has opened between large-market and smaller-market teams, Major League Baseball issued a report last summer from a "blue-ribbon panel." It detailed a revenue difference of $125 million in 1999 between the two extremes of the baseball spectrum, the flush New York Yankees and the penurious Minnesota Twins.
It's a conclusion many in the game find highly specious. Teams are "setting records on attendance, they're setting records on the revenue from attendance, they're setting records on the national TV contract [ESPN and Fox], they're setting records on their licensing money, they're setting records on the luxury boxes, and their receipts," says former players' union leader Marvin Miller.
"But now the argument is: Baseball's in trouble because there's no level playing field," Miller says. "We don't have enough money to pay players' salaries to compete with the big-money clubs."
The solution, according to the report, is revenue sharing, a limited form of which has existed since 1996 via a luxury tax on the top payrolls. What the report doesn't address is why a team such as the Cleveland Indians - a winning team that fills its new stadium - should help bankroll the Minnesota Twins, a team whose payroll hasn't changed much in the last five years?
"Look at Seattle, Atlanta, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Texas," Boras observes. "In the late 1980s, they were miserable. Just think what would have happened if we gave money to [those teams] when they were at their worst? Would they have gotten better? My answer to you is no; they'd have become cripples.
"If you're not successful, then you're going to have to make changes. You're going to have to get new ownership or invest money in the team."
That debate seems far from over. But however these issues play out, the quarter-billion dollars shelled out by Texas for Rodriguez has already left yet another baseball season touched by the indelible hand of Scott Boras.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor