CARLSBAD, Calif. — The joke was either seven years in the making, or it rolled off the top of Scott Boras’s head.
Either way, the agent was ready to unleash it when asked about client Bryce Harper at baseball’s general managers' meetings Wednesday.
“Well, certainly Harper’s bazaar has begun,” said Boras, likening Harper’s free agency to the classic women’s magazine, and he did not stop there. “It’s fashionable, it’s historical, it’s elite, global certainly. And certainly it has inspirations that deal with great shoes and great hair, inspirations on the part of Bryce.”
The delivery — dry, deadpan, direct — was very Boras. So was the setting, outside at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa, at the top of a short flight of stairs, with dozens of reporters packed tightly around him, recorders on and iPhone cameras fixed in the air. It was all an on-the-nose reminder of how much of this week and this offseason centers on the 66-year-old. All of Major League Baseball is wondering where Harper could land after he declined the Washington Nationals' 10-year, $300 million offer, which materialized at the end of September and would have been the largest free agent deal in the history of U.S. sports.
Boras offers this sort of State of the Agency address at each annual general managers' meeting, and it is part examination of the sport’s issues, part promotion of his clients, part chance to see how many metaphors he can use to describe baseball and its free agent market. This year’s hinted at how he is selling Harper to teams, and just how much he thinks the 26-year-old is worth.
And he laid that out in a way only he can.
“When you’re in a category of talent and player in the game that rarely is there, you’re talking about a process I think that is very unconventional because you’re dealing with a generational player,” Boras said. “And what is a generational player? That is that he holds the qualities of elite performance, he holds the youngest age in free agent history to be available for the greatest number of elite years of performance.”
“I know that anyone who’s done what Bryce Harper has done at 25, if you’ve done that you are almost a lock to be a Hall of Fame player,” he continued. “And we have exhibited this in our documents to the owners we have met with, and we clarified this 14 different ways.”
He did not go through those 14 ways Wednesday, at least not with reporters, but his pitch was broken into clear segments: Harper is young, and he would only be 36 at the end of the decade-long deal Boras seems to be seeking. He is marketable, hair flip and all, and had a large hand in helping the Nationals raise television ratings and attendance numbers since he debuted as a 19-year-old phenom in 2012. And he has been close to peerless at the plate throughout that time, compiling a 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging percentage during his MVP year of 2015, which put him in the conversation with Hall of Famers such as Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Willie McCovey, Hank Greenberg and George Brett.
This is what Boras will tell any interested teams in the coming couple of months, and the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs are a few franchises that have been linked to Harper, along with the Nationals. Washington’s offer included no opt-outs and is believed to be “off the table," since the team set an expiration date to give itself time to approach the market with a Harper-less future in mind. But the Nationals could circle back to Harper, according to multiple people familiar with the situation, and sweeten their initial deal.
“To suggest that Ted Lerner is not savvy about acquisition of rights, I think he’s the wealthiest owner in the game, so I’d say that he’s adept and wise,” Boras said when asked about the Nationals principal owner’s approach to Harper’s free agency. “And obviously if you’ve got the ability to negotiate and present something when no one else can, I think any owner would want to take opportunity to advance it and let the player know how they feel before he exercised his right and went on to the process.”
That all led Boras’s anticipated appearance to become even more of a spectacle Wednesday. It was not on the event’s official schedule — the league would never do that — but “Boras talking at 2” started to course through the lobby and hallways by late morning. At 1:40 p.m., reporters trickled into a courtyard flanked by boutique stores on one side and the resort’s front entrance on the other. They scattered into pockets of the open space, stuffing hands in pockets, burying faces in phones, looking unsure of where to stand, as if everyone were thrust back in time to an awkward middle school dance.
Close to an hour later, once Boras emerged with his large entourage, the crowd was herded down a small hill to where the agent stood at the top of those steps. He held a three-page packet in his hands, with notes on baseball’s waning attendance numbers, Harper and some of the other notable free agents he represents. Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson walked up and joked that once Boras arrived, everyone stopped talking to him and migrated in the agent’s direction. Boras laughed, introduced Jackson and then dived into a 64-minute session that started with a breakdown of baseball’s popularity problems.
He described the culture of tanking, intentionally stripping down a roster to expedite a massive rebuild, as “cancer.” He noted that Louisiana State University’s baseball team had a better average attendance than the Miami Marlins. He suggested that “fans in Florida have brought the M-I-A to Miami,” that turnout is so bad in Minnesota that “sometimes only one of the Twins shows up,” and Toronto Blue Jays fans must be dealing with the “blue flu” because they sure aren’t heading to Rogers Centre to see games.
Soon he circled around to Harper, the player he believes could elevate excitement in any city, who can lift a television market on his own, who pours people into seats with the power that rests in his bat. Harper is on the market with 26-year-old shortstop Manny Machado, a star who should demand a similar-size contract, and they will be the talk of baseball until their futures are worked out. Boras did not indicate where Harper may end up at the end of this. It would be really difficult to know that quite yet. But he did imply, rather earnestly, that any destination for Harper will be decided on with a steep, steep price.
The bazaar has certainly begun. Next we will see who intends to shop.
“I think Bryce is open to opportunities. He’s listened to a lot of things,” Boras said. “I think owners do a great job of forecasting the benefits of their franchise, and many have done a really good job of talking about what they need to improve on. So as we go through this, I think he is going to hear everything from everyone and certainly make an informed decision.”