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License To Deal
By Jerry Crasnick
In "License To Deal: A Year in the Life of a Maverick Baseball Agent", longtime Baseball America columnist Jerry Crasnick chronicles the life and career of Matt Sosnick, who runs an upstart baseball agency with his partner, Paul Cobbe. Their story also serves as a jumping-off point for a review of the history of baseball agents. In this exclusive excerpt, Crasnick takes us through draft day 2004 from a different point of view: that of the agent:
It’s a blustery San Francisco morning, and Matt arises early and rubs the bleariness from his eyes. He’s sleep-deprived, and his insides do flips if he forgets to take his stomach medication. His wardrobe--gray Polo T-shirt, blue Toronto Blue Jays workout shorts and flip-flops--seems more suited to a frat boy gearing up for a fantasy league draft than an agent presiding over the future of 15 aspiring big leaguers.
The only certainty today is that Matt and the other members of the Sosnick-Cobbe contingent will order out for lunch. Matt keeps delivery menus from a local pizza joint and an area sushi restaurant handy, in much the same way an asthmatic keeps an inhaler within easy reach. His reliance on takeout food for sustenance is a running joke among those who know and love him.
Takeout pizza and sushi won’t cut it this morning. Paul makes an early bakery run for a dozen doughnuts, and Matt lays the tools of the trade on the round glass table in his office. There’s a Baseball America Directory with names of front-office people and team phone numbers, and Sosnick’s personal phone list with dozens of contacts for area scouts, crosscheckers, scouting directors and general managers.
A couple of years ago, Paul’s wife, Ellen, suggested that the boys use yellow Post-It notes to track the progress of potential draftees. Today, that’s Toby Trotter’s job. He writes the names of 15 aspiring picks on 2- by 3-inch yellow squares and methodically sticks them on the wall atop a framed color photograph of Joe Montana.
Once the players are selected, Toby will peel the notes off the wall, mark the name of the selecting team and the round, and move them to a larger framed photograph of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. For 15 kids, a potentially life-altering event is as simple as shifting two feet to the right.
Sosnick will spend much of the next two days on the telephone networking with scouting directors, an endeavor in which he takes considerable pride. He enjoys negotiating with the no-frills baseball guys--people like Cleveland’s John Mirabelli or Baltimore’s Tony DeMacio--because they’re so direct and free of pretense. The ball guys, in turn, speak favorably of Matt and Paul because it’s common knowledge that clubs aren’t going to select a Sosnick-Cobbe player and get bushwhacked by unreasonable expectations.
“They’re up-front and all their players sign,” Mirabelli says. “They’re not out there grabbing for every last dollar they can get out of you.”
If two parties want to resolve a problem, Matt believes, obstacles can be overcome. When the Cubs drafted Dontrelle Willis, it was with the understanding that he expected a bonus of $200,000 from whichever team selected him. But after the Cubs chose Dontrelle, they found there had been a team miscommunication and only $60,000 had been allocated for the spot. Jim Hendry, then Chicago’s scouting director, did some digging, got to the root of the problem, and made good on the $200,000 promise. “Not only did he take responsibility for the team,” Matt says, “but he totally honored his word.”
Recent draft history has amplified the hazards involved when teams and advisers are at odds. In 2000, the Rockies selected a California high school pitcher named Matt Harrington seventh in the first round. But the negotiations quickly turned sour, and Harrington refused to sign when his adviser, Tommy Tanzer, claimed that the Rockies had reneged on a promised $4.95 million signing bonus.
The Harrington family fired Tanzer, hired Scott Boras, and turned down a $1.25 million bonus from San Diego the next year. Matt Harrington began playing independent league ball and has since become something of a professional draftee, getting drafted three more times, but the offers are now so meager and the expectations so low that he has yet to sign a contract. He’s washed up at 22, and he pays the bills working at a Target store in the offseason.
Matt Harrington serves as a cautionary tale--that no matter how much time a team invests in scouting a player, it’s meaningless if he doesn’t sign. “It’s like an old scout once told me: ‘This is a lot like fishing--they only count if you get them in the boat,’ ” says Chris Buckley, a front-office executive with Toronto.
Sosnick and Cobbe don’t have any Matt Harringtons in their portfolio, but they know what it means for a negotiation to go bad. Their nastiest one came in June 2002 when they represented two high school players, Jason Pridie and Wes Bankston, who were selected by the Devil Rays.
Pridie, one of Matt’s three tattooed clients, signed for $892,500 as the 43rd overall pick. The player, his family and the team were all happy, Matt says, until the commissioner’s office chastised the Devil Rays for giving Pridie a bonus exceeding the recommended amount for his spot.
Matt and Paul both accused Dan Jennings, then the Rays' scouting director, of playing games with the disbursement of Pridie’s bonus, delaying payment unnecessarily. Sosnick is also convinced that Jennings made statements that caused him to lose Wes Bankston as a client. So he left a message on Jennings’s answering machine: “You are an amoral person,” Matt said. “You did everything you could to be disgusting and unethical and distasteful about this to serve your own needs. There was zero morality in either of these negotiations, and it makes me ill.”
Jennings, a true son of the South, is regarded in the business as the consummate “scouts’ scout.” He has a love for the craft and a lingo forged through long, hot days at the yard on the trail of the next Griffey or A-Rod. When Jennings checked his answering machine, his opinion of Matt Sosnick fell almost as much as his blood pressure rose. He believes the real reason for Sosnick’s displeasure was that Tampa Bay scout Craig Weissmann, following the organizational mandate to get players signed quickly, negotiated Pridie’s deal with the family while Sosnick was in San Francisco, out of the loop.
Jennings denies that he “caught crap” from the commissioner’s office, insists that he said nothing to convince Wes Bankston to dump Matt (because he couldn’t care less), and can’t recall precisely how the Devil Rays distributed Pridie’s bonus. When he picked up the phone and called Sosnick, they had a shouting match loud enough to rattle the dishes.
“As soon as you begin to pay me a salary, then I’ll start conferring with you,” Jennings said.
Jennings now works in the Marlins’ front office, but there’s been no rapprochement. Sosnick, who stakes his business model on congenial relations with front-office people, flatly calls Jennings a “liar.” And Jennings can’t quite understand why this San Francisco agent whom he’s never met regards him as a sort of scouting Antichrist.
“When things don’t go Matt’s way, it’s someone else’s fault,” Jennings says. “Maybe that’s part of his silver spoon upbringing.”