Chapter 1: 'License to Deal'

Updated: June 8, 2005, 11:58 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick

Editor's note: "License to Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. The following is an excerpt from the book's first chapter.

License To Deal

The road was dry, the sky was clear, and Dontrelle Willis hadn't had a drop of alcohol the day he should have died.

He'd just finished lunch and was headed north up Route 101 near Palo Alto, Calif., when he heard a bang coming from the right rear of his Ford Mustang. About a half-mile south of the Stanford University exit, Dontrelle felt his car drifting toward the right lane and instinctively yanked the steering wheel to the left to avoid a collision. But the fleeting instant for adjustment had already passed. The Mustang skidded northbound while facing west, then toppled on its side and flipped counterclockwise once, twice, three times before coming to rest beside the center divider, facing the oncoming traffic.

As a minor-league pitcher with the Florida Marlins, Dontrelle was accustomed to setting events in motion. Now, a random and inexplicable occurrence was hurling him down the highway at 65 mph. Buckled in his seat, he felt a sense of horror: His fate was out of his hands. He kept his eyes open through each flip, watched the front windshield shatter, and raised his arms and braced them against the roof of the car. I don't want to die like this, he told himself. He felt a wet sensation on the back of his neck and later surmised that the radiator had sprung a leak. The scene unfolded with a sickening, slow-motion feel, yet it happened so quickly that there was barely time to pray.

The accident photographs are both grotesque and surreal. They show a green mass of metal propped on its side, so mangled you can barely discern that it's a car, much less a Ford Mustang. As Dontrelle shimmied out the busted back window onto the asphalt, he looked at his vehicle. The hood was gone and the windshield was but a memory. Traffic was passing by so quickly on Route 101 that another car nearly struck him on the highway's shoulder. His blue-and-white polo shirt was stained with some sort of fluid. He later chose to keep the shirt as a memento, to remind him of how lucky he had been.

Dontrelle took a quick inventory, thanked God that he was in one piece, then pulled out his cellular phone. Who to call? His mother was at work, and she'd freak, he knew. So he dialed his agent's number.

"Dude, I've been in a bad accident," he said to Matt Sosnick. "Come get me."

Matt knew it was bad when he called the dispatcher and she told him that several motorists had already reported the accident. He jumped in his Jaguar and reached the scene in 20 minutes, only to find the off-ramp closed. So he drove down the embankment through the bushes, into a place no Jaguar XJ8 had gone before. Then he crossed several lanes onto the shoulder and wedged his way behind a parked police car.

Matt glanced at the traffic and saw passers-by making the sign of the cross. A California Highway Patrol officer later described the accident as "gnarly." Dontrelle was 100 percent, Grade A fine. But he emerged from his car in an almost trancelike state. He approached Matt with tears on his face, and they hugged each other so hard it hurt.

The baseball agent exists to negotiate contracts and provide round-the-clock babysitting services for millionaire big leaguers in need. He frets over your salary arbitration case and talks the hotel manager back to Earth after you've skipped out on the bill. The agent exudes an air of mystery: His profession is a marriage of romance and sleaze, and he's either a detail man, an opportunist, or both, depending on your vantage point. He works ridiculously long hours looking out for the best interests of his clients, or risks sleep deprivation hatching schemes to screw management out of every buck. Who knows what motivations race through his head behind that gelled hair and those designer shades? The agent is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, cloaked in a tailored Italian suit.

Matt Sosnick, who runs a growing baseball agency in suburban San Francisco, bats about .500 on stereotypes. "There are four things you need to know about me right away," he'll say, once he opens the passenger door to his Jaguar and you're ensconced in leather. "I live for the Dave Matthews Band. I've taped every Simpsons episode ever made. I don't have a crumb of food in my house. And I only sleep on sheets with a really high thread count."

Matt also owns several top-of-the-line suits that he buys from the Hong Kong tailors who pass through town every few weeks for private fittings. The suits are worth $3,000 apiece, but he purchases them for $800 to $900 each. He's proud of the price and quick to reveal the inner lining, where his name is stitched in fancy script. The suits help him look sharp on frequent trips to the heartland, where he sweeps in like a Texas twister to romance prospects who have 95-mph fastballs and personal relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dontrelle, Matt Sosnick, Mike Hinckley
Agent Matt Sosnick, center, tries to stay close to clients like Dontrelle Willis, left, and pitching prospect Mike Hinckley.

After all, a man has to make a nice first impression if he wants to make a living.

Matt seems perfectly tailored for his profession, with his flair for shrewd snap judgments and pathological need for action. He talks frequently and he talks fast, with a 10-item-or-less-checkout-line urgency more suited to, say, midtown Manhattan than his native northern California. But the glamour and money aren't what drive him, despite what his competitors say. Matt already has more money than your average bachelor around town would ever need. He's in the agent business for the sense of family it provides, and for the opportunity to play mother hen and surrogate father to a bunch of kids in need of guidance.

Matt and his partner, Paul Cobbe, determined several years ago that the barriers to entry in their profession required them to do more than negotiate draft bonuses and supply batting gloves and spikes to players. The competitive advantage, Paul calls it. Bigger, more established agencies could print slick brochures and crow about multimillion-dollar deals struck on behalf of marquee free agents. Mom-and-pop shops need a more personal touch. So Sosnick and Cobbe decided they wouldn't represent players as much as adopt them. They invest emotionally in their clients and are available for counsel on everything from money worries to girlfriend problems, regardless of the time of day. Their welcome mats are always out – and extraordinarily worn.

Every now and then, the guest stays a while. In October 2002, Matt handed over a spare key to his duplex apartment to a minor-league pitcher named Dontrelle Willis. Four years into an improbable friendship, Matt and Dontrelle shared a 1,700-square-foot space and a life for several months. They broke down enough societal and generational barriers to bridge the gap from affluent Burlingame to hardscrabble west Alameda.

In the summer and fall of 2003, Dontrelle would make an All-Star team, win the National League Rookie of the Year award, and become a national sensation as a pitcher for the world champion Florida Marlins. Only a handful of starters in the majors are black; even fewer big leaguers wear their caps askew and play the game with a sense of joy so pronounced, it's palpable. Dontrelle approaches life in a headfirst-slide sort of way, and his pitching motion is so contorted, it looks like a kinesiology experiment gone awry. No wonder fans were lining up for his autograph and a chance to be near him.

There weren't any cameras or reporters waiting to chronicle the event when Dontrelle, an aspiring Carolina Mudcat, moved into the spare room of Matt's $775,000 duplex near the airport in the fall of 2002. Logic would say that a 33-year-old Caucasian wheeler-dealer and a 20-year-old African-American male with street smarts and a gangsta vocabulary had no business cohabiting or bonding with any sense of permanence. Yet bond they did.

In his own way, Matt helped Dontrelle prepare for the season. He jostled the kid at 7 a.m. each day for training runs. They'd drive 10 minutes to the Crystal Springs reservoir, and if Matt found a parking place within three spots of the front gate, he knew it was destined to be a good day. The Sawyer Camp Trail is postcard pretty, enveloped in thick groves of oak, and every twist and turn can bring a surprise in the form of a rabbit or perhaps a deer crossing the path. Matt and Dontrelle would begin their runs beneath a blanket of fog, before the sun sliced through the chilly morning air, and they'd feel their hearts race to the accompaniment of heavy breathing. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Dontrelle was too thick in the legs for serious distance running, but he was dogged enough to keep pace with his agent, who ran with a fervor bordering on desperation.

On many of the runs, Matt talked about world events and misery and strife in far-flung locations. One time, Dontrelle returned to his old neighborhood in Alameda and began rambling on about Pol Pot and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. His "people," as he likes to call them, looked at him as if he'd grown a second head.

Agent and player rubbed off on each other in ways you wouldn't expect. Dontrelle took things in stride and approached life with a sense of balance and perspective. He felt strongly that there was a time and place for work and a corresponding time and place for fun. He'd tilt his head with an admonishing look as Matt spent hour after hour on the cell phone doing business.

"He's crazy," Dontrelle says. "He doesn't stop working. He works until he sleeps. There's no leisure time. A lot of times I'd say, 'Hey, you gotta relax, dude.' He's a very important man. His M.O. is to be in control of everything because he's a smart guy. He's a very intelligent guy. He makes good decisions. Therefore, he feels responsible for everyone. He feels accountable for everyone. And it doesn't work like that. But you can't fault a man for that trait. That's a good trait. It's the same trait I have. I think that's why we connect."

The competitive advantage. Matt invited Dontrelle to his grandmother's house for Thanksgiving dinner and took his client to parties full of thirtysomething Jewish singles. Dontrelle would listen quietly and absorb as Matt's crowd discussed the hunt for Osama bin Laden or debated whether the term homicide bomber was preferable to suicide bomber. Then he'd chime in with a few opinions of his own.

Matt's sister, Alisa Law, gave birth to twin girls that fall: Sophia and Olivia. The babies were a month premature and confined to a special-care nursery. Both had jaundice and one suffered from sleep apnea, so visitation was restricted to immediate family. Then Matt stopped by with Dontrelle one day and sweet-talked them both past the nurses' station. "My brother," he said, pointing to his friend.

Even in the minor leagues, you have to keep in mind that everybody promises something. ... I've been with (agent) Matt (Sosnick) since I signed out of high school, so I don't want to feel like I'm switching now just because I'm having success. We've had the same relationship since I was in Rookie Ball. That goes a long way.
Dontrelle Willis

Matt has a photograph from a Halloween party that reflects his offbeat sense of humor. In the picture, he's wearing a Randy Moss jersey, several gold chains, a wave cap, and jeans so spacious they keep sliding off his hips. Beside him is Dontrelle, clad in a bar mitzvah suit, yarmulke, and prayer shawl. Duddy Kravitz, say hello to P. Diddy. "It was absolutely hilarious," Dontrelle says. "It was one of the greatest nights of my life."

In the winter of 2002 to 2003, Dontrelle became fast friends with Matt's English bulldog, Griffey, who routinely wandered into the spare bedroom upstairs and hopped onto the mattress beside him. Many a morning, Dontrelle awoke to an ugly mug and the blast of hot bulldog breath in his face. Sometimes the dog would fall asleep on his right arm and pin it to the mattress, and Dontrelle would grab the TV remote with his left hand and watch SportsCenter until the moment arrived for both of them to rise and face the world.

Dontrelle looked unassuming in his baggy jeans and throwback jerseys, but he was making an impression with the Florida brass. In his first three professional seasons, he posted a 23-5 record and was anointed an up-and-comer. Baseball America's Prospect Handbook, the Kelley Blue Book of minor-league talent, rated him the fourth best player in the Marlins' farm system. His progress was particularly distressing to the Chicago Cubs, who had been prescient enough to select him in the eighth round of the 2000 amateur draft, only to send him to the Marlins in a six-player trade two years later.

"Willis creates excellent deception with an unorthodox delivery he says he learned from his mother as a child," read the scouting report on Dontrelle. "After opening eyes throughout his new organization, Willis figures to return to high Class A to start 2003."

Maybe so, but Dontrelle had already received the prize in the Cracker Jack box: a letter from the Marlins telling him he'd been invited to big-league camp. It meant he was no longer relegated to the back fields at spring training, where he'd be forced to practice mundane chores like covering first base on bunt plays with other young hopefuls. Through this latest stroke of good fortune, Dontrelle would tackle the mundane, mind-numbing chores of pitchers' fielding practice on the main fields with A. J. Burnett, Brad Penny and other established Marlins.

Dontrelle was at his mother's house playing PlayStation 2 when his invitation arrived in the mail. He spent most of that night lying in bed staring at this little sheet of paper, reluctant to sleep because it might force him to relinquish the sweet sense of accomplishment for only a few hours. "Dude, I'm going to be the kid that changes the game," he told Matt, out of a can-do spirit rather than a sense of boastfulness.

The winter was an emotional ordeal for Sosnick in many respects. He'd been banging away at this agent business for more than five years – always in the red – only to discover that each step forward was accompanied by two steps back. Matt and Paul had hustled up an impressive stable of players through the annual June draft. But as the kids progressed through the minors and got close enough to glimpse life in The Show, they began leaving for more established agencies, often suddenly or with little explanation.

Sometimes players would break the news by phone, and other times with a failure to return calls. Sometimes, notification would come in the mailbox, in a missive known among agents as a "fire letter." A fire letter makes the knot in your gut twist exponentially as you open the envelope. Nothing personal, the letter would say. It's just business.

"The dark side of the business was something Matt and I didn't know about," says Paul, the calmer, analytical half of Sosnick-Cobbe Sports, Inc. "The stealing and paying and that sort of stuff. We haven't made any mistakes on the business side. Our mistake – and it's an evolving thing – is understanding what it really means to maintain relationships with guys. To this day, we tend to take stuff way too personally. It's been a big problem for us."

Dontrelle Willis
Dontrelle Willis' green Ford Mustang flipped three times at 65 mph before coming to rest as a heap of mangled metal.

Each departure fed Matt's insecurity and made him more cynical and fatalistic about the future of his enterprise. He was so conflicted that when his players succeeded, he wondered if it merely increased the odds that they would bolt. "I hate my job," Matt would say, with the doomed look of a man who loved his job so much he had no choice but to endure.

Dontrelle, the pragmatist, ultimately cut to the chase. You say players are leaving and that loyalty is fleeting? You say this business stinks? Well, let's roll up our sleeves – or one sleeve, at least – and make a statement.

How about I get your agency logo tattooed onto my arm?

That October, as is his custom, Matt invited several new clients to San Francisco for a weekend of hanging out and fraternal bonding. The group attended a Rolling Stones concert on a Saturday night – fourth-row center seats – and a 49ers game on Sunday before collapsing in front of the big-screen TV in Sosnick's living room.

Dontrelle's plan arose in conversation in a can-you-believe-this-craziness sort of way, and it might have died if not for the enthusiasm of Jason Pridie, an aggressive young outfielder in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays chain. Jason stands 6-foot-1, weighs 180 pounds, and first attracted the attention of scouts for his feistiness as much as for his raw ability. If a famous player embodies his outlook on life and baseball, it's probably Lenny Dykstra, the former Mets and Phillies outfielder who never came home clean or conserved a shred of energy. Dykstra was known as "Nails" because he was too relentless to succumb to failure.

Jason's biggest problem, long before his arrival in pro ball, was keeping track of body parts. He survived pneumonia when he was 5 years old, then a bike wreck, then a broken collarbone while swinging a bat as a high school freshman. During one game, Jason was filling in at shortstop when he moved his glove prematurely on an attempted steal and the throw from the catcher caught him between the eyes. He suffered a fractured frontal sinus and emerged with a scar that bridged his temples and a titanium plate in his forehead. He collected scars the way some people collect miniature bottles of hotel shampoo.

Jason already sported a pair of tattoos – one of a Celtic tribe and another with his middle name. His zest for adventure was exceeded only by his pain threshold. What was the big deal about a few more pin pricks?

"I'll get one too," he said.

Matt laughed. "When?" he said.

"Right now."

Should Matt, a good dozen years older than these kids, have snipped the insanity before the momentum built? Probably. But the boys were already too far gone. They approached the stunt with the sense of exhilaration that comes with hatching a plan to steal your college rival's mascot and knowing that if you wait, someone's better judgment will take hold and you'll reconsider.

The biggest challenge was finding a tattoo parlor open on Sundays. Matt leafed through the Yellow Pages, made several calls, and finally found an establishment just a short drive up El Camino in the town of San Bruno. Wayne's Tattoo Studio is located amidst a mind-numbingly endless string of nail parlors and shares a 100-foot patch of suburban turf with a dentist's office, a dry cleaner, a tuxedo rental place, a Karate Kung Fu establishment, and Madame Dora's Psychic Readings – where palmistry is a specialty.

Appointment made, Sosnick and his players piled into two cars for a field trip of the bizarre. Dontrelle and Jason were resolute in their conviction. Matt and four other minor leaguers – Zach Hammes, Brandon Weeden, Blair Johnson, and Adam Donachie – showed up for moral support.

The tattoo joint was run by a Chinese man and woman, apparently husband and wife, whose politeness was surpassed only by their dexterity. It was comfortingly clean, with a wall full of samples and a fuchsia couch where patrons could relax and flip through books filled with colors and assorted patterns.

The proprietors studied the logo on a Sosnick-Cobbe business card, duplicated it on a piece of paper, then got down to business. Dontrelle settled into one chair and Jason, who wanted his in color, plopped down in the other. "It doesn't really hurt," Jason says. "After 5 to 10 minutes, your arm goes numb." And after an hour, you rise from the chair, watch your agent pay the artists $200 for each tattoo, and realize you have a serpentlike S on your biceps for eternity.

When Dontrelle went home to Alameda and showed his mother his new adornment, she rolled her eyes in displeasure. Joyce Guy-Harris had made it clear that tattoos with women's names weren't permissible, but her son sure had a flair for inventiveness. He came home one year with a tattoo that said "Proven Point," then another with the inscription "Mr. Willis," as if he might forget his own name. But pledging allegiance to your agent? How can anyone be so sure of a relationship in a world where money speaks volumes and so many actions are based on mutual convenience?

"The Sosnick-Cobbe sports logo, I think that was a bit much," Joyce says, "because you never know. . . ."

Or maybe you do. In the spring of 2003, Jason Pridie's brother Jon, a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins chain, became the third Sosnick-Cobbe player to get emblazoned. He remembers the event vividly because of the timing. Just as Jon was settling into the chair, someone rushed into the tattoo parlor with news that U.S. troops had bombed Iraq.

As word of the tattoo escapade traversed the agent grapevine, Matt Sosnick became something of a curiosity in an insular, backbiting world. In December 2000, agent Jeff Moorad achieved a special brand of notoriety by inviting an ESPN camera to tag along for outfielder Manny Ramirez's negotiations with Boston and the New York Yankees. Scott Boras, the Bill Gates of baseball agents, guaranteed his place in baseball history that same year by forging a record 10-year, $252-million deal for Alex Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers, then charming Lesley Stahl into submission in a 60 Minutes interview.

Matt Sosnick, who hopes to attain their level of prominence one day while staying true to his principles as a self-proclaimed "peace and love" guy, is known as the weird, reclusive Californian who's fighting to keep his lunch money in a schoolyard filled with bullies. The players who stay with him care about him enough to turn themselves into human billboards.

"It's a loyalty thing," says Jason Pridie. "I'll stick with Soz even if I'm his last guy. If he dies, I'll go down with him."

Dontrelle Willis, on the verge of much bigger things, concurs.

"Even in the minor leagues, you have to keep in mind that everybody promises something," Dontrelle says. "And you have to keep in mind the people back home. This guy has done a good job for me thus far. I've been with Matt since I signed out of high school, so I don't want to feel like I'm switching now just because I'm having success. We've had the same relationship since I was in Rookie Ball. That goes a long way."

Matt Sosnick/Paul Cobbe
Longtime friends Matt Sosnick, left, and Paul Cobbe run an agency near San Francisco.

They lingered at the accident scene for maybe a half-hour, talking to the patrol officer as he jotted down information. When Matt looked at Dontrelle – incredulous that he had crawled out of that mess intact – he wondered how he would have felt if the kid had been lying motionless in the car instead of standing in front of him, looking frightened but perfectly fine.

"We were so close, I just thought if he had died, how it would have changed my life," Matt says. He called Dontrelle's mom, who rushed over from her job as a welder at the San Mateo Bridge project and met up with them at Matt's Burlingame apartment. When Joyce saw Dontrelle without a scratch, she burst into tears and praised Jesus. Then she saw the photographs and was rendered speechless.

But the photos had nothing on seeing the car up close, in all its decimated splendor. A day after the accident, Joyce went to retrieve Dontrelle's baseball equipment from the trunk of the Mustang. "Your son must have an angel," the guy from the tow truck company told her as they surveyed the damage.

"It was like death," Joyce says. The Mustang was so far gone, Dontrelle's baseball equipment would never see the light of day. The only item that could be retrieved from the vehicle was a Bible in the backseat.

Images of the accident haunted Joyce's sleep for the next four nights. She had nightmares about her baby losing an arm, or a finger, or an eye, or crushing his skull. She stayed home from work for two days to squire him around town just in case he lacked the nerve to get behind the wheel again. But Dontrelle was young, resilient and naturally unflappable, and he recovered quickly. Mazonie Franklin, Dontrelle's best friend from the old neighborhood in Alameda, theorizes that he handles setbacks better than most because of his astrological sign.

"Capricorns are mellow and they go with the flow," Mazonie says. "I tell Dontrelle, 'It's because you're a Capricorn, dude,' and he's like, 'Whatever.'"

Joyce walked into Sosnick's living room after the accident and found Dontrelle in a state of shock, but not hysterical, as might have been expected from someone who had just flipped his car on Highway 101. Her baby was sitting on the sofa and staring at his foot. "Hey, I scratched my tennis shoe!" Dontrelle said, sounding more than slightly annoyed.

The evening was devoted to quiet reflection at the Sosnick duplex. Dontrelle's girlfriend, Kim, and Mazonie came over, along with Matt's father. Ron Sosnick is a tall, friendly man with a business mind and a tendency to get emotional with friends and loved ones on special occasions. He burst through the duplex door, headed straight to Dontrelle, wrapped him in a bear hug and kissed him on the cheek.

"Is that the first man who's ever kissed you?" Matt later asked his friend.

"Besides you," Dontrelle said.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer