Agent Scott Boras, Washington Nationals thrive together

October 3, 2012

Scott Boras can see the future. He looks into his orb — more cowhide than crystal — and creates a compelling narrative. He bends numbers, exploits rumors and inflates truths and half-truths with the best of them. All to bolster a story, all for the sake of the narrative.

Often cast as a villain, baseball’s most powerful players’ agent is alternately called the worst and best thing to happen outside the lines in the past quarter-century. At his simplest, most basic form, Boras, 59, sees himself as just a scout, a lifelong baseball man.

Five years ago, he got a call from Kurt Stillwell, a former client who now works for Boras. Stillwell had spotted something growing in the Las Vegas desert. “I need you to come over here right away,” Stillwell said.

“That’s usually good news,” Boras responded.

“It is, but I need to caution you on something. This kid is only 14 years old.”

Boras had seen sluggers Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., at similar ages. The 14-year old Bryce Harper had “it.” “Best power I’d ever seen from someone that age,” Boras says.

Then, just a few months later, Stillwell called again about a 19-year old pitcher named Stephen Strasburg, who was too chubby then and relegated to the San Diego State’s bullpen. “But we saw something there,” Boras says.

He saw the future. He’d try to represent both phenoms, knowing each could change a ballclub’s trajectory. He’d even joke with some owners that if they could lose in spectacular fashion in back-to-back seasons, the future of baseball would be secure in that particular market for years to come.

That market turned out to be Washington.

As the postseason begins, the team with at least a share of baseball’s best record has Boras’s fingerprints all over it. He represents five players on the Nationals’ expected 25-man playoff roster, including Harper, outfielder Jayson Werth and second baseman Danny Espinosa. Strasburg would have been No. 6 if the team hadn’t shut him down last month. Boras also had represented pitcher Edwin Jackson and catcher Jesus Flores, but both left him in the past year. And he controls some of the Nats’ most promising prospects.

Boras played a key role in the Nats’ turnaround, though the exact level of his responsibility – the amount of credit due to him – is up for debate. Like all things Boras, it depends entirely on two things: 1) the narrative, and 2) who’s telling it.

Trusting his instincts

Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a better picture. A teenaged Boras grew up on a small farm not far from Sacramento, Calif., and would spend hot summer afternoons riding a tractor and milking cows. He’d finish for the day and race to the baseball field, playing under a bright setting sun.

Here’s a Boras story:

“My dad, he loved to plant things and grow things. I was an inquisitive kid, so I’d ask, ‘Dad, we put this in the ground. How do you know it’s going to grow? You don’t know if you’ll get enough water.’

“’Well, son, life is like this, the greatest decisions that you make will have few followers at inception. When you plant the crops, a lot of people are going to tell you they may not grow. . . . No matter what judgements you make, everyone won’t agree with you, but that’s the reason you make decisions. You make them because you have information, you have your instincts. The most important thing you must understand is why you’re making a decision.’”

It’s a quintessential Boras parable, casting his own story in a romantic light but also providing context. No, Boras’s decisions and methods are not always popular. Pundits and owners have often said his tactics and demands would lead to baseball’s economic ruin. But the game is still healthy as ever, and baseball’s annual revenue is estimated at well over $6 billion. Boras said he always had faith he was doing right by the sport, trusting an instinct that only a scout really understands.

With 82 major-league clients, the Scott Boras Corp. negotiated more than $250 million in contracts for the 2012 season. Assuming a standard 5 percent cut, Boras’s take-home salary is more than most baseball players.’

Boras has the stocky, compact build of a catcher, his light brown hair combed neatly to one side. His office in Newport Beach is straight from the future, a silver, metallic structure in an office park of bricks. Though his business has grown and is structured much like a baseball team’s – he has researchers, a psychological staff, a conditioning coach, a sports fitness institute – it all hinges on the scouting component. That, after all, is how Boras got in this agent game.

The credential of which he’s most proud is his brief, unspectacular baseball career. Boras spent five seasons in the Cardinals’ and Cubs’ organizations in the 1970s.

“He was a very intelligent kid,” said Jim Saul, who managed Boras at Class AA Midland, Tex. “He was always wanting to learn, trying to figure out how to get better. You never had to tell him twice.”

Boras was 25 when knee surgery ended his baseball career in 1978. The Cubs paid for his schooling, and he earned a law degree and a doctorate in industrial pharmacology. He briefly practiced medical litigation for a big Chicago firm before baseball lured him back.

A young agent, Boras couldn’t sign established big-leaguers, so he sought out the best prospects possible. He built his business through the amateur draft, identifying players who might someday command big contracts, pitchers like as Steve Avery, Ben McDonald, Andy Benes. In the process, he revolutionized the draft’s pay scale. The top signing bonuses had barely budged from $100,000 in 20 years, but Boras kept upping the stakes. Last summer, he negotiated a record $8 million in bonus money for pitcher Gerrit Cole, the top pick of the 2011 amateur draft now in the Pirates organization.

For years, unless owners met his demands, Boras threatened that his clients would not sign with teams. He instead found loopholes and stashed his players in independent leagues, re-entering them in the follow year’s draft. Many stayed clear of Boras clients, figuring the trouble and asking price were too daunting.

But like Boras, the Nationals saw the future. When Washington landed the top overall picks in the 2009 and ‘10 drafts, the Nats knew the key to signing Strasburg and Harper would be effectively dealing with Boras.

An early connection

If Washington’s first taste of the major league postseason since 1933 hinged on Boras’s players, the seeds of the narrative can be traced to two pivotal events, neither of which involve players who’ve worn a curly “W” cap — but both crucial to Boras forging a relationship with Washington’s general manager and perhaps more important, the team’s owner.

The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted a pair of Boras clients — shortstop Stephen Drew in 2004 and pitcher Max Scherzer in ’06 – and that put Boras in contact with the Diamondbacks’ director of scouting, Mike Rizzo. With Drew, discussions were initially bellicose – “animated,” Rizzo says – and the early relationship between Rizzo and Boras tenuous.

“That was kind of the opening on how he and I started to do this thing,” Rizzo said. “It took us 364 days to get done, and we got it done right before the close period.”

Drew signed with Arizona at the 11th hour, and Boras was able to establish a good working relationship with Rizzo, which paid dividends when Rizzo came to Washington in 2006 as an assistant general manager. To hear Boras explain it, the two are from the same cloth: former minor leaguers who had to scrap their way to a baseball livelihood.

“The idea was, we’re going to go out and take this game on anther way to beat it,” Boras said. “We’re going to understand it better, we’re going to know it better. We’re going to try to create a career some other way.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Rizzo has been able to convince his owners, the Lerner family, to meet some of Boras’s high demands. But that’s in part because of the agent’s own relationship with the Lerners, which blossomed over a player the Nats actually missed on.

Following the 2008 season, Mark Teixeira was the best slugger available on the free agency market. Boras says Teixeira met in-person with Ted Lerner early in the process and told the Nats’ owner he’d likely sign with a team closer to contending. Boras said he, too, had several discussions with Lerner, and visited the Washington owner at his home in nearby Palm Springs, Calif. Lerner entertained him with stories about Pearl Harbor and his high school gym teacher, Red Auerbach. According to Boras’s telling, Lerner insisted on making an offer, which was reportedly slightly higher than the $180 million Teixeira accepted from the New York Yankees.

“I think [Lerner] realized I was being upfront with him. . . . I think they appreciated the whole process,” Boras said.

Sure enough, Teixeira won a championship his first year in New York. In 2010, Boras again had one of the top free agents, but unlike Teixeira, Jayson Werth had already won his championship. He had different needs. Boras knew an ideal landing spot would be in Washington, which had promoted Rizzo to general manager in 2009 and had recently drafted Strasburg and Harper. For Boras, the future was becoming clear.

Narrative steeped in dollars

In August 2010, Boras brought the future to Philadelphia in the form of three thick binders. Werth was heading into free agency and was interviewing agents. He invited Boras to town for a meeting.

“In that business, it’s not 100 percent,” Werth said of sports agents. “I don’t know what my exact perception of him was. He just wasn’t what I expected.”

Werth said he was most impressed by Boras’s friendly demeanor. The player thought they’d be talking dollars but those binders sat untouched.

“I never opened them up our first three meetings,” Boras said. “He kept asking me, when are we going to look at those books. I said that’s the business side of things. I want to talk about you some more.”

Werth signed with Boras and that winter agreed to a deal with Washington worth $126 million over seven years. For the Nats, it was another step, both in their relationship with Boras and in the construction of their ballclub. For the rest of baseball, it was another Boras heist.

“He has mastered the simple game of negotiating and using any deceptions he can to maximize his players salaries and his own income,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College and author of 20 books.

Perhaps no Boras orchestration stands out more than when Alex Rodriguez left the Seattle Mariners in 2000 and signed a 10-year contract for $252 million with the Texas Rangers, a history-making coup for Boras but a contract derided by many. The next season, the Mariners set a league record with 116 wins, 43 games ahead of Rodriguez and Texas. How were they able to do it?

“Because we didn’t have any Scott Boras guys,” said the team’s president, Chuck Armstrong, according to Jerry Crasnick’s 2005 book “License to Deal.”

Such are the baseball world’s mixed feelings on Boras: credit for his role in sending clients to championship teams, such as 2003 Florida Marlins and the 2007 Detroit Tigers, criticism for crippling others, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1990s.

“You always get tagged with, ‘You are about money, you’re about greed,’ ” Boras said, tapping a finger on the table to emphasize his words. “Still to this day, having done nearly $5 billion worth of contracts, you realize that part is not going away. Every fan in every city is going to see that as the primary motivation.”

There have been five baseball contracts in excess of $200 million and Boras has negotiated three of them. He says his aim, though, is pure: for the betterment of the game but also to maintain the equitability of the system. It’s simple free-market economics: If the game’s coffers grow, so should players’ wallets. Boras’s dealings have helped grow salaries of players throughout the sport, not just his own clients.

“My job is to make sure the evaluation of these performances is to the standard of the revenues. That means if revenues go down, the value of those performances go down,” he said. “If they go up, fine.”

Boras builds convincing narratives and creates leverage where none existed. To him, it’s all money earned. Any purported altruism, however, is debatable.

“I thought people would understand after doing this a long time that it can’t be only about money,” he said. “But they never do. That part’s never going away.”

It’s one part of the narrative Boras can’t change.

‘That’s his job’

In Washington, the dominoes fell according to Boras’s plan. In August 2009, Strasburg signed what was a then-record $15.1 million contract with the Nats. Twelve months later Harper signed a $9.9 million deal and Werth jumped on board less than five months after that.

No other agent represents more than three players on the Nats’ likely postseason roster, which makes Boras’s position a unique one. Ron Shapiro is a Baltimore-based agent and attorney who at one time in the 1980s represented 21 players on the Orioles roster. He says it’d be difficult for any agent to do that today because so few stress the importance of a long-term relationship with a community.

“You don’t have to leave for the highest bidder,” said Shapiro, who authored a book called “The Power of Nice: How to Negotiate So Everyone Wins—Especially You!” “There are great advantages. There’s so much value to relationships.”

Boras’s own role in helping assemble this Nats team is open to interpretation. In August, he was quoted in a Washington Post column taking credit not usually afforded to an agent. He said: “Rizzo and I put this team together. I got eight or nine guys on the team.” The columnist, Mike Wise, listened to the tape of his interview with Boras again and later wrote that Boras actually said, ‘When Rizzo and I put this team together with eight or nine of my guys on the team…”

Boras says he’s not interested in running a baseball team and joked if he had really taken a lead in building the Nats, it would probably look a lot different. Boras says his job isn’t to funnel his players to one particular team; his loyalty and energy is devoted to getting the best deal possible for his client.

“These situations aren’t about a group of players, it’s about the individual needs of each player,” he said.

From his perspective, Rizzo says he thinks Boras’s priority is clearly his clients’ interests, not the Nats’. “He’s fair-minded and professional, and he does what’s best for his clients. That’s his job,” Rizzo said. “I respect the job that he does.”

Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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