In late September, super-agent Scott Boras extolled the virtues of Tampa Bay closer Rafael Soriano in an interview with Sports Illustrated's website. Boras called Soriano "one of the top closers in the game," and cited his presence on the free-agent market as evidence that this winter's crop is stronger than it appears at first glance.
Boras' glowing endorsement was baffling to some in the industry, given that Soriano happened to be represented by New York-based agent Peter Greenberg at the time. But it made perfect sense a week or so later, amid reports that Soriano had signed on as the newest member of Boras' "special" clientele.
This is not an isolated case in Scott Boras' world. He built an empire from scratch by outworking the competition, and he operates with 100 percent conviction that he's the best -- if not the only -- option for elite players looking to realize their full market value. When Boras takes a player from a struggling young agent or an established competitor, he doesn't care that he might be hurting someone else's livelihood. He believes he's doing the player a favor. And if people consider him a bully, then hey, they're missing the point.
So when The New York Times published a story Monday detailing Boras' alleged loans to needy prospects in the Dominican Republic -- a potentially serious violation of Major League Baseball Players Association rules governing agent conduct -- there weren't a lot of sympathetic phone calls flooding the switchboard at Boras' Newport Beach, Calif., offices. Coca-Cola rejoices when Pepsi's sales figures lag, and vice versa. Honda and Toyota don't care for each other a whole lot. And it doesn't bother Boras' competitors, big or small, to envision him bunkered down in a sweat as he contemplates his next PR move.
Just as a recent SI story detailing the admitted abuses of former NFL agent Josh Luchs created a buzz, Michael S. Schmidt's Boras piece in the Times is making the rounds and generating reactions from outrage to glee throughout the game. Boras, whose company reportedly loaned Dominican shortstop prospect Edward Salcedo $70,000 from 2007 through 2009, comes across as especially hypocritical given his sense of umbrage in condemning Luchs during a recent ESPN appearance.
"A lot of these agents begin the process with social relationships, with bartering with the athletes, providing mundane services for people who have very little," said Boras, who pointed out that Luchs' association with athletes through illegal benefits provided his "foundation to entry" to the business.
So what happens now to Boras, whose reported abuses don't appear all that far removed from Luchs' behavior? Once the hysteria dies down and the facts come out, could the Times report mark the beginning of the end for Boras and his agency?
Just for the fun of it, I called a prominent agent whose work I respect and asked him what fallout he thinks will ensue from the Times story. His response helped confirm my belief that: (a) Boras is bulletproof; and (b) agent regulations make for great Christmas wrapping paper.
"I think there will be zero repercussions," the agent said. "If people answered honestly on the declarations that the union sends out, they would have to come down on two-thirds of the industry. I don't see any backlash at all."
I've spent more hours than I would care to admit looking at this issue. Five years ago, I wrote a book called "License to Deal" that chronicled the life of Matt Sosnick, a passionate-yet-quirky young agent in San Francisco who overcame his lack of baseball connections to build a thriving agency with his boyhood friend Paul Cobbe. Although my book didn't provide many specific examples of money changing hands or illegal inducements, I talked to a lot of mom-and-pop agents who discussed the seamy side of the business and the rampant client-stealing involved.
It's not always about payouts, loans or cut-rate commissions. A former minor league pitcher named Chris Rojas told me the story of Dennis Tankersley, a former Sosnick-Cobbe client and then hotshot prospect who was relentlessly followed around the California League by a Boras associate named Jim McNamara in the summer of 2001. According to Rojas, McNamara eventually wore down Tankersley's resistance, until he finally dumped the Sosnick group for Boras.
The Salcedo case is different, of course, because he's a teenage kid in the Dominican just embarking on his career, and there appears to be a money trail as evidence of impropriety. But it's all the same in the end: Agents need clients to justify their existence, and powerful agents are in a better position to exert control over young athletes by stalking them, or paying them, or finding other ways to win their affections.
It's also true -- now and forever -- that the general public has no sympathy for agents regardless of where they sit in the food chain. Moviegoers loved "Jerry Maguire" because Tom Cruise was a lot more likable back then and Renee Zellweger's kid sure was cute. But as a general rule, sports fans tend to lump all agents into the same boat: as sharks, sleazeballs and opportunists who deserve whatever they get.
If Boras' agency is going to take a hit, it's because players flee him in droves. Given his brilliance as a negotiator and flair for landing lucrative deals, that's unlikely. Remember the winter of 2007, when Boras was vilified for exercising Alex Rodriguez's opt-out clause during the World Series and nearly running A-Rod out of New York? Lots of people wondered: How could Boras survive that hit to his reputation?
Here's the answer: Since the A-Rod episode, Boras has negotiated $100 million-plus deals for Mark Teixeira and Matt Holliday and dominated the annual June draft as an adviser to the likes of Pedro Alvarez, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. If anything, he's doing a better job of big-footing the competition than ever.
For a long time, Boras knew he had the backing of the players' association when other agents criticized him for client-stealing. Gene Orza, the union's longtime No. 2 man, famously said that if he had a son, he would want Scott Boras to represent him. In the union's eyes, Boras didn't necessarily walk on water. But he walked on a huge pile of money, and he created the rising tide that helped lift all boats, financially speaking.
Michael Weiner, the new MLBPA leader, has his ear closer to the ground, and he's making a genuine effort to ensure a fairer landscape. Several months ago the union sent out a new list of regulations designed to crack down on abuses by agents. But client-stealing is still prevalent, and an industrious agent can always find his way around the rules. Sometimes it just means exercising greater caution in covering your tracks.
It's important to note that we've yet to hear from Boras, other than a statement to the Times that he has conducted himself in a way "consistent" with union rules. If history is any guide, Boras will emerge with a sophisticated defense. And when he's done talking, chances are he'll make himself sound like Mother Teresa with a briefcase and a law degree.
Will the players' association go "all out" to investigate the situation, as one prominent agent predicts? Quite possibly. Is the Times report a black eye for Boras? It sure looks that way.
Is it the first step in the fall of the great Scott Boras empire? We'll believe that when we see it.