Monday, October 8, 2007
Updated: April 15, 6:35 PM ET
Who's In Charge Here?
By Matthew Cole
The superagent has been hammering baseball owners for 30 years. And when Alex Rodriguez opts out of his Yankees contract this fall, Boras will have maneuvered the perfect client into the perfect place at the perfect time for the perfect score. Now that's clout. So who else wields that kind of power? In a special project with Businessweek we spotlight many of the people influencing the games you love, from familiar faces like Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome and NBA Union President Derek Fisher to shadow players like the man who makes coaches rich and the woman shaping the future of ballpark design. In their own special ways, all are forces to be reckoned with.
Scott Boras wants you to know that it's not all about the money. For baseball's most successful capitalist, money flows from performance. And performance is the result of talent plus information. Boras supplies both: His information aids his talent, and his talent performs. And because of that, Boras is a very rich man.
Boras knows there are 252 million reasons you probably hate him already. He knows nobody roots for a man who negotiates between millionaires and billionaires. If you follow the conventional wisdom about him—and he figures you do—you believe he's a greedy snake-oil salesman, the Darth Vader of Baseball, the Ruination of the National Pastime. He knows you blame him for your $65 ticket, your $20 parking fee and your $8 beer, but especially for spiriting your favorite player away from your favorite team over a few million dollars and a no-trade clause.
In three decades as a baseball agent—he still does only baseball—the 54-year-old Boras has made your favorite player his player, a valued member of the Scott Boras All-Stars. He rents his players out to individual clubs for the most money the market will bear, but he wants you to know that he does so with the intention of making sure each member of his club plays longer and better than those who don't get with the program. The Tigers genuflected before him and came away with Pudge Rodríguez, Magglio Ordóñez and Kenny Rogers—and look who made it to the World Series last year. The Red Sox? They have six Boras guys, including Jason Varitek and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the club is headed for its fourth postseason in five years. The Yankees? Team Boras' franchise player is their third baseman. For now.
See, from his perch high above the Pacific Ocean, Scott Boras isn't ruining baseball. He's running it.
BEFORE HE drove a Range Rover or authored the richest contract in pro sports history, Boras milked cows and drove a tractor on his father's dairy farm in Elk Grove, Calif., in the flatlands south of Sacramento. He wasn't even the best athlete in his family; that was older brother Jim Jr., who was all-state in football. Scott grew up dreaming of baseball, which in the rural America of the 1960s was still the beloved national sport. He was a second baseman, just good enough to keep the Dream alive. He was small, slow and suspect in the field. But he batted .288 in his four-year minor league career, not too shabby for a kid who spent his off-seasons studying industrial pharmacology at the University of the Pacific. Baseball wouldn't last forever, not for a guy with bum knees and cement hands. Marketing new drugs and medical treatments—there was a future in that.
"Stay in school, Boras," he heard somebody growl during batting practice one day in 1976. "You're not that good." The voice belonged to the chain-smoking manager of the Lakeland Tigers. Boras, playing for the St. Petersburg Cardinals, was chasing the Class-A Florida State League batting crown, but the Tigers had an authentic star second baseman in Lou Whitaker. "You can't take him, Boras. He's better than you." Boras knew the voice was right. He was hard work, but Whitaker was talent. And talent always wins. Boras struck out three times that day. He didn't win the batting crown. The Dream died. He hung up his spikes and went to law school at Pacific, although he still collected a salary from the Cubs during his first year, while recovering from his third knee surgery.
Had a knack for negotiation, it turns out.
His friends and teammates already knew that, and they figured their buddy in law school could help them sell their careers. First it was a Sacramento kid named Mike Fischlin, then Keith Hernandez, a budding star for the Cardinals. Boras was just helping out a few friends, including his old spring-training roommate, Claude Crockett, who'd turned him on to James Brown and Luther Vandross. After getting his law degree, in 1982, Boras hung out a shingle as a medical lawyer representing new products. He also discovered that selling ballplayers was just like selling a new drug: Armed with the right data, he could set the price. He held his ground, sold hard and got his buddies paid. Buckets and bags of money.
So he changed careers and made baseball his business. He focused on top prospects heading into the amateur draft, and in 1984 he got pitcher Tim Belcher $150,000 when few signing bonuses had reached six figures since the draft's inception in 1965. He exploited a series of loopholes that eventually drove bonuses into the millions of dollars, driving owners to distraction. But money wasn't his only motive. This was also about baseball, about pure love for the perfect Greg Maddux cut fastball or Bernie Williams gliding catch. Boras needed everyone to see just how good his team was.
And he loved to find raw talent. That's how he happened to be in Monterrey, Mexico, in the summer of 1992, for the World Junior Baseball Championships. He was there to see a Brazilian pitching prospect, but instead he spotted the kid. He looks like a German shepherd puppy, Boras thought. Hands and feet too big for his body. The kid, of course, was a tall, lanky, 16-year-old shortstop from Miami named Alex Rodriguez.
Boras says he knew Rodriguez would be a superstar the first time they spoke. The agent told the kid he used to be a ballplayer too, but his Dream had died, and now he represented ballplayers. All he wanted was a few minutes to explain why Rodriguez should think about getting ready for his Dream. Because he might need help with that. Young A-Rod wanted information: "What's Ken Griffey Jr. like? What makes him such a great hitter?" He was voracious, like Boras, and precocious. Usually prospects were shy, unable to comprehend their futures. Not this kid. He trusted the information. Filed it away. Consumed it. After four hours of talking in a Mexican hotel lobby, Boras had to send the kid to bed. "Let's meet again," Rodriguez said.
If this kid was destined to break the big records, the ones that hold for decades, he'd have to be strong, flexible, indefatigable. Boras could keep him healthy, help him handle the Dream. As a former player, Boras believed that owners didn't invest enough in their talent, their product. Teams treated players like replaceable parts. They had pitchers and shortstops do the same training, the same lifting and stretching. It didn't make sense. The teams didn't start teaching players how to stay healthy and fit until they were men, which shaved years off performance. Not for this kid, Boras told himself.
A-Rod would serve as the template for a new, full-service division of the organization Boras had been gradually building. It was like a franchise of his own, helping him locate the talent, sign it and protect it. The men he had first helped—his old teammates and friends—came to work for him. (Today, the Boras Corporation employs 38 people in its two-story headquarters in Newport Beach, Calif., and has 35 others stationed around the world. At its core are guys like Fischlin, who scouts the minors; former major league pitcher Bill Caudill and shortstop Kurt Stillwell, who scout high schools and colleges and help Boras drive up those bonuses; and another ex-pitcher, Jeff Musselman, who serves as head of operations.) Boras could send his guys far and wide, trust them to track the talent when and where he couldn't and to recruit players away from other agents. He sent them all over the country and the world, from the Pacific Northwest to the Dominican Republic, New Jersey to Japan.
He needed more and better information to stay a step ahead in an increasingly crowded field, so in the late 1980s he created a new division and staffed it with statisticians and economists. They helped him seduce the talent—not with money but with information, lots of it. Boras knows it doesn't sound sexy, doesn't sound very baseball. But to the kid in that Mexican hotel lobby, or to a veteran pitcher thinking about switching leagues, information can be sexier than money. Boras' experts built him a database with every stat since 1871 mixed with every game since 1956. He wanted visual box scores, a way to recall every at-bat or pitch by each player on Team Boras. His geeks gave it to him, on five servers with four terabytes of space. Nearly every game from the last three years lives, digitally, on his humming computers in the basement of his headquarters. It's like a situation room at the Pentagon, with dozens of flatscreens showing bits of data streaming across them. For kids who are living the Dream, to see their achievements and future in this context is, well, sexy.
Take A-Rod. Boras claims that at age 32, Rodriguez has the body and flexibility of a 25-year-old. Imagine adding seven years to your career, Boras tells his new kids. Imagine what history you can make with those years. Boras shows them the batting cages and the private gym. This is an institute, not some spa. Each member of Team Boras gets a dedicated program designed by Steve Odgers, the former White Sox conditioning director and decathlete, who has a neck the width of an oak tree, a guy with 13 years of training data etched in journals. Odgers gets prospects when they're just out of high school and puts them through a year-round program designed specifically for each player—because a relief pitcher is not the same as a second baseman. He even teaches them yoga. Show me a team that can do all that.
Throughout the year, Boras dispatches Odgers and four other trainers around the country to check in on A-Rod, Dice-K, Pudge and the rest. It's Odgers who tells teams what program the players should follow. Boras knew he couldn't call trainers himself—they'd never listen to a moneyman, but one of their own, that's a different story. And if a team's trainer squawks about outside interference, Boras might pick up the phone and call the GM. "This is about durability," he'll say. "This kid can play until he's 40."
The fans in the stands know only about the contracts—Rodriguez to the Rangers for 252 mil will do that—but Boras wants you to know it goes beyond that. When he agreed to represent Barry Bonds, in 2000, he got Bonds to agree to meet with him six times a year, one-on-one, to talk about hitting. Boras promised to get Bonds plenty of money, and in return he wanted one of the greatest hitters ever to tell him everything he knows about his craft. He wanted to learn what goes on in the mind of a man who could hit .350 and crush the ball 450 feet. Maybe he juiced, maybe he didn't—doesn't change what he knows about pitchers and hitting. You might ask, Shouldn't a guy this controlling, a guy with a degree in pharmacology, know all about what his players are putting into their bodies? Boras professes boredom with this line of questioning, waves it off with an obscenity. Then he notes that Bonds always had his own training program (and, in fact, left Boras in 2004 for the Beverly Hills Sports Council).
But when Bonds was at the peak of his powers, he'd come over to Boras' house and share his hitting secrets. That's how Boras found out that to develop better timing, Bonds sometimes swings off a tee or takes batting practice with his right eye closed, in an effort to sharpen his left eye and give himself an extra millisecond to see a pitch.
Sure, Boras would use that information to seduce some young hotshot in a hotel lobby, but really he was doing it for himself. He goes to a ballpark nearly every day, sometimes twice a day. He'll watch an Angels afternoon game in Anaheim and be at Dodger Stadium that night. He'll catch parts of another 12 games on TV, texting back and forth with his players, his teammates. That's the part most people never seem to mention—how much of a fan he is.
In between, he'll slip out to another ballpark to see his kids, his actual kids. Boras and his wife, Jeanette, have two teenage sons who play. The older one, Shane, is a high school second baseman, built like his dad was at that age, slight and undersized. And this Boras can hit, too. Dad knows. He sees all the games. There he is, video camera in hand, filming each of Shane's at-bats, not for training purposes (the kid has high school coaches for
that) or for scouting purposes (Boras knows these guys aren't that good) but for the sheer love of it. He goes to watch his sons play just like his dad watched him. He sees Shane fly open and overswing, a strikeout. But by his third at-bat—last licks with two on, two out, down by two—Shane cracks a two-run single. Scott Boras stands with all the other Catholic League parents, cheering for the clutch hit. "That's a pretty special day for a dad," he says.
IT'S NOT just about the money, because Boras already has more than he'll ever need. Money is just the way to keep score, the only real way to measure his victories. He wants to test his team, to prove his franchise is worth the 30 years he has put into it. He wants the game to come to him. And with 140 players on his roster, and the ability to place them pretty much where he sees fit, that's no stretch. So one day he picks up the phone and hears that raspy voice, the one that back in 1976 said, "You're not that good, Boras." The voice is older now, there's even more gravel in it, enough to drive a tractor over. It's the voice that has commanded top-notch clubs in Pittsburgh and Florida and now Detroit. Jim Leyland took care of Boras' kids in Miami, in 1997, and Team Boras helped deliver a ring. He hears Leyland on the line and remembers Kevin Brown, Alex Fernández, Charles Johnson and Robb Nen. Leyland called just before taking the Tigers job in October 2005. "I need an arm. Who fits?" he asked. "Kenny Rogers," Boras told him. Shortly after Leyland was hired, Rogers was signed. From 119 losses to the World Series they went, with three Boras players (Rogers, Pudge and Ordóñez) doing the heavy lifting. Now Leyland needs help again, and that's why he's calling. "My pitching stinks," he says. "We need more arms." Boras doesn't reply right away. He has learned how to listen and, if asked, to parcel out information. Eventually he reminds Leyland that the Tigers have a couple of flamethrowers smoldering in their farm system. The kids aren't on Team Boras, but they're out there. Boras can call up their scouting reports anytime he wants. He's got the information. And information is power.
Leyland refuses to talk about Boras; through a Tigers PR rep, he denies having any relationship with him. In the quiet of the clubhouse, though, Leyland's players will tell you he does. "They talk all the time," Pudge says.
And why not? What team has the most talent, and what team has the most information? Team Boras. October rosters are dotted with his guys. A-Rod is poised to opt out of his contract for an even bigger one; it'll be the story of the year. Don't even ask about the minor leaguers, names you'll know in a few years. One just signed for a record amount, a kid pitcher named Rick Porcello, barely past his prom, who got a $7.28 million bonus from the Tigers. Where are my arms?
Boras wants you to know it's not all about the money. He grew up on a farm and left so he could reach for the Dream. He played for next to nothing and paid with his knees. But he had to earn a living. He knows you may never believe that even if he had stayed a medical lawyer, he'd still be at the ballpark as often as humanly possible. He knows you may never believe how much he loves the game you think he's ruining. But he believes it.
And he's the one keeping score.