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Circle of life

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It is twenty minutes before noon, barely ninety minutes into the June 2004 MLB draft, and on the eighty-eighth selection, Matt Sosnick is thrown his first twist. He's spent the last hour haggling with Mark Newman of the New York Yankees---either talking his top client of the day, Jeff Marquez, into an extra $15,000, or out of another $10,000, depending on one's point of view---and now a kid named Cory Dunlap is selected early in the third round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Dunlap's selection is an apparent surprise. Baseball America has overlooked him. So has Sosnick, inexplicably; Dunlap, after all, is a graduate of Alameda's Enicinal High, which just happens to be the alma mater of Sosnick's most famous client.

From right under Sosnick's nose to a slot on the draft board, Dunlap now stands to earn a signing bonus of at least $400,000. Sosnick quickly calculates what four or five percent of that figure is and decides the kid, a first baseman at Contra Costa College with a verbal commitment to play the next season at UC-Irvine, is worth an inquiry. Sosnick has a business partner and at least a couple of employees, and those employees don't scout for miles on end at no cost. Plus, Sosnick has an ace in the hole:

"Bitch, that guy is yours!" Dontrelle [Willis] says, laughing. "He used to hang around my house and eat my scraps!"

With that kind of reference, one would suspect Soskin had it made in the shade. Yet, as he met Dunlap at a restaurant in the Oakland airport, he knew Dunlap would be as tough a sell as he was a surprising selection. First, Dunlap had the hard-edge emblematic of a young athlete driven to prove his detractors foolish. In one year's time, Dunlap had shed seventy pounds and seemingly replaced them with a chip---of the shoulder, not potato, variety. If he projected a steely edge to Sosnick on that first meeting, it might have had something to do with the fact that it wasn't their first meeting; previously, at one of Willis' high school basketball games, Sosnick had met Dunlap, but simply disregarded the kid as young and overweight. Second, Dunlap had gotten this far without an "adviser," so why should he donate five percent of his signing bonus to a man who hadn't been by his side when he impressed Dodgers' scouting director Logan White at a workout two days prior to the draft? Third, Dunlap was already represented, sort of. Miles McAfee, an agent of some reknown in a previous generation (McAfee represented Rickey Henderson and Chili Davis, among others) and most recently assisted Mister P's ill-conceived agency, had trudged up to the Dunlap family's doorstep hours before the Dodgers made their pick, an authorization form in hand. (When Dunlap signed, his verbal commitment to UC-Irvine meant nothing; he was now ineligible to continue as a collegian.)

Cory Dunlap was embittered, emboldened, and under contract with someone else.

And, by the time Soskin picked up the check, he had a new client. All it took were equal parts groveling (Soskin agreed to only 1.5 percent of the signing bonus, noting, "It's not like I'm trying to do you a favor") and trashing the competition ("Good luck trying to contact [McAfee] on the phone," Sosnick's employee, Jason Hoffman, announced). Dunlap relented and, in subsequent meetings, warmed up to Sosnick. On his mother's advice, he even moved in with Sosnick for awhile, as Willis had a few years before. Everybody was happy---except for Miles McAfee, of course:

[McAfee] appears at [Dunlap's mother's] doorstep the day after Cory signs and vows to file a complaint with the commissioner's office. McAfee, agitated by the current state of affairs after 25 years in the profession, promises that some "heavy controversy" is imminent.

"I've enjoyed the business," Miles McAfee says. "But it's one of the crookedest, most unprofessional things around. No one polices the situation. If you're an agent and I'm an agent and there's someone you want to go after, you just go after them."

Don't feel too much contempt for Sosnick, though, and certainly don't smile too broadly for him. If Dunlap pans out as a big leaguer, chances are good Sosnick won't be his agent for long.

* * * *

If there exists an unstated theme of Jerry Crasnick's License to Deal: "A Season on the Run With a Maverick Baseball Agent" (Rodale, 2005), it is the attempt to cheat death. Crasnick's protagonist, Sosnick, is one-half of Sosnick/Cobbe Sports, yet another small-time agency that opened its doors in the 1990s with the dual goals of wheelin'-and-dealin' the baseball world and livin' the dream. The "Cobbe" in the partnership is Paul Cobbe, Sosnick's closest friend since childhood; the agency's website features a photo of the pair as three-year-olds, a bit of memorabilia one suspects not many other baseball agents display. Sosnick/Cobbe isn't anywhere near the big-time---"bottom-feeders" would be pushing it, but anything above "middle class" is overstating things---and the possibility exists that just about any individual on its client list will jump ship to the one of the Big Boys when the time comes. Sosnick knows the stakes, Crasnick writes, but so do Sosnick's competitors/feudal overlords like Scott Boras:

Most small agents prefer to avoid run-ins with Scott Boras at all costs, under the theory that it's a fight you can't win. But the specter of losing [Jesse] Foppert, [who had agreed to allow Sosnick to serve as adviser for the '01 draft], struck such a nerve with Sosnick that he confronted Boras, quietly but firmly, away from the crowd behind the stands.

"I spend all my time trying to make this business work for me," Matt said. "When you steal a guy's who's being treated well for no reason other than that you're able to wear him down, it doesn't add to the goodness or kindness of the world."

The sermon did not have its desired effect. "I sleep like a baby every night," Boras said, before turning to walk away.

"That's the problem with your life," Matt replied. "You sleep like a baby every night."

There's nothing personal about it, Matt realizes. It's not as if he's going to pull a thorn out of Boras's paw one day and have a friend and a benefactor for life. "I have great players and not much of a track record, so I'm a prime guy for Boras to beat the [tar] out of," Matt says. "He'll do it because he can."

These days, Foppert is damaged goods trying to reclaim some of the potential that drew Boras's (eventual) attention; no big loss, right? But there are bigger fish to lose, and Sosnick has lost them---Travis Hafner, for instance. Such defeats are inevitable. Sosnick must fight the perception that he's a hobbyist, just an enterprising fellow with disposable income who gets a thrill out of hanging out with baseball players. To a great extent, this is true---somewhat exasperatingly so. The author, an baseball insider, writes that Sosnick possesses, for lack of a better description, a non-exhaustive grasp of the provisions of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The thought is astounding, but Sosnick confirms it later on in the book. (For what it's worth, Cobbe is portrayed as the detail-oriented partner.)

So, Crasnick writes, Sosnick offers himself. He's cool and relates to young athletes---almost exclusively high school and junior college players. To the extent that he can in such a b.s.-flinging industry, he talks straight to the players' families. He negotiates in a surprisingly conciliatory manner with the ballclubs---with one caustic and explosive exception, a former Tampa Bay executive---and gets his draftees on the field as soon as possible, which his clients generally appreciate, as they often are second- and third-round talent, not the top players. In short, Sosnick sells expertise but friendship, fraternity not counsel.

Whether this approach is genuine or strategy is never quite clear, but the effect of Sosnick's approach is a sort of co-dependence. He signs relative unknowns, like Hafner, a South Dakotan whose graduating class consisted of eight people. Soskin had great experiences with Hafner---supporting him, teaching him how to tie-a-tie, purchasing a sports coat for the big slugger for his big league debut. Sometimes, this personal grip holds. Sometimes, as in Hafner's case, it doesn't. The kid's star rises, or he faces arbitration, or he wants a full-service agency like Boras provides, and he breaks away. And it hurts; ten of thousands of dollars of therapist bills paid by Sosnick are evidence of that.

* * * *

I first read License to Deal a year ago, when the book hit the shelves. Crasnick's writing impressed me (in particular, he is adept at weaving anecdotes unobstructively into his narrative scheme), but I was a bit ambivalent about the work as a whole. When I decided to compile book reviews about a month ago, I already had a License to Deal review in the can. That review focused primarily on Crasnick's decision to select Sosnick as his protagonist. Sosnick, the review readily conceded, is an interesting figure, and on relection that much is certainly true: his backstory includes a childhood knack for making deals, evidenced by hundreds of thousands of dollars tucked away in shoe boxes by the time he graduated from high school; defeating a gambling addiction; several former girlfriends who readily provide insight as to his character and quirks; and, to my interest, an encyclopedic knowledge of The Simpsons. But is he the most interesting selection for a book about a baseball agent? Not necessarily. Paul Cobbe, for one, might be a more fascinating study. What drives a highly successful consultant, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, on top of his fellow consultant wife's salary, living a fine life in Tokyo, to drop everything (except for his wife, fortunately) and enter into a partnership with a notably peripatetic friend and---just like that, become a baseball agent? The question is not particularly explored. Why is Cobbe so uneasy to reveal he's a baseball agent that he tells airline seat mates that he's a computer programmer? The oddity is explained in about a paragraph. Why is Sosnick, whose talents do not extend far beyond schmoozing, the headliner? For that matter, why not Scott Boras, who on first blush seemed to be painted with a broad, "evil" brush? Why not other, less influential agents who provide some of the expert and instructional services that Boras does---like former big leaguer Jeff Frye, or Mike Moye, who has former hurler Scott Sanderson on his payroll?

This is not to say that I was wholly unimpressed with Crasnick's book. Moreover, it is still a timely work. Even on the basis of my first reading, I was ready to recommend it.

I decided to read the book a second time, however, and I now perceive nuances I missed a year ago. The important distinction is that Crasnick never fully champions Sosnick. Now, Crasnick is no doubt fond of the man; his acknowledgement to Sosnick is glowing, as you'd expect----we're talking Moneyball-style access for a full year. But, whereas my first reading left the impression that Crasnick was vaguely displeased with Sosnick's lot in the agenting life---that Sosnick, this fascinating man, deserved better---a second reading reveals that Crasnick understands the process fully and, reading between the lines, sees its logic:

  • A small-time agent discovers small-time talent; a big-time agent is drawn to the big-time talent.

  • The small-time agent performs a certain service to his client----most prominently, he ensures that the player signs a contract, but he also provides equipment and limited promotional revenue and counsels the player when need be.

  • At the same time, the small-time agent is using the player----with some exceptions, there is not much salary negotiation to do, and any young player can use all, not just 95-97% of his signing bonus.

  • The small-time agent is effective for a period of time, but his effectiveness decreases as the player's statute increases.

  • At a certain point---be it just before salary arbitration or in response to an injury at the big league level---the small-time agent's utility decreases to the point where the player's personal relationship with him becomes not an attachment, but a part of a balancing test of the player's interests.

  • The player understands this internally, but is now goaded by a big-time agent, who can (truthfully) offer services the small-time agent cannot provide.

  • The player becomes uneasy---perhaps confused, perhaps emotional---and confronts the small-time agent.

And, it is at this point where Sosnick's skill as a friend and confidant succeeds or fails on the merits. I describe it this way, because it is in a way how Crasnick structures the story: Ultimately, is the player's attachment to Sosnick enough? Has he done enough to convince (or, alternatively, manipulate) the player that his approach, his angle, his relationship is the best that can be provided to the player? Sometimes, it is; Sosnick has known Dontrelle Willis since the young lefthander was a high school employee of the West Alameda Boys & Girls Club, and he was the first on the scene when Willis suffered a horrific and near-catastrophic automobile accident in the 2002-03 offseason. More often, though, it is not enough. At a certain point, the utility provided by Sosnick/Cobbe runs dry enough that an industry leader like Boras, Beverly Hills Sports Council, Jeff Moorad (before his move to management of the Arizona Diamondbacks), and the other powerful agencies is of more benefit to the player. It's not service-with-a-smile, but in most cases, it's more efficient service.

And so Sosnick and Cobbe beat on---boats against the current, so to speak---looking for angles to expand their influence. They absorb Baseball America, and they hit up scouts from various organizations, trying to get ahead of the curve and discover clients before the other non-big-boys get their hands on them. They build good relationships with the big league clubs---too good, according to their rivals---and sometimes, as with the Newman negotiation described in the opening paragraph, can yield a few extra thousand for a draftee by promising the club that the guy will sign and play a half-season while Boras's guys are holding out. (Marquez, referenced above, signed for $790,000, $15,000 above what Newman wanted to pay, but $10,000 below "slot money" for the previous year's 41st pick. The next two picks, Boras clients, both signed for $800,000, but neither signed in time to pitch during the '04 season.) And, while Sosnick himself does not venture much out of his Bay Area comfort zones (he brings his signees to him, with the promise of many nights on the town), Cobbe and the employees seem to log plenty of miles as a demonstration that this is no mere hobby.

One of these employees is a man named Toby Trotter. He is Mike Hinckley's brother-in-law. Sosnick pulled in Hinckley when "One Pocket" (so nicknamed because he was so skinny that it did not appear his pants could support a second pocket)  was a high school senior. One day, Sosnick called Oklahoma and pushed his way into an invitation from Hinckley's mother, Lyn. The next day, Sosnick jumped off a plane, made his way to the Hinckley house, and played Nerf basketball with Mike's younger twin brothers while Mike was at a ballgame. The next moment, Soskin and Hinckley connected. This affinity exists, even though the two have very little in common, from religion to family to home. (Hinckley grew up in rural Oklahoma.) But "One Pocket" swears by Sosnick:

[Sosnick/Cobbe] are incredibly honest, moral and ethical guys. I would of done anything for Matt, and I know that he would do anything for me and my family.

Hinckley's fortunes have gone downhill since Crasnick submitted his manuscript, but one suspects that if Hinckley regains his form and establishes himself in the big leagues, he will not be one to get away.

Though the temptation will always present itself, and you never know . . .