Summarizing baseball’s feelings about Scott Boras, the sport’s most successful player agent, the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Morrissey once wrote, “He is a very, very bad man. Exquisitely bad, in a foreclose-on-the-farm sort of way.” When Boras brokered his latest jaw-dropping contract—a 10-year, $252 million “merger” between the Texas Rangers and shortstop Alex Rodriguez—the animus only intensified. Writing in the April issue of Esquire, Scott Raab called Boras “the Most Hated Man in Baseball, the heartless bastard hell-bent on destroying our National Pastime, the keen-eyed pimp of ball-hogging, bat-whipping, splitter-hurling youth.”
Sportswriters usually save this kind of stuff for major-league owners, the commissioner, or the head of the players union—the people who run things. But now Scott Boras runs things. He’s the Most Important Man in Baseball. He produced the most important change to the sport’s salary structure since Marvin Miller won free agency for players in 1977. But that change has nothing to do with Alex Rodriguez, Greg Maddux, Kevin Brown, or any contract Boras has brokered in the past few years. In fact, Boras instituted this change nearly 18 years ago, when Rodriguez was still playing tee-ball.
In 1983, six years after free agency engulfed the sport, baseball’s owners still exerted tightfisted control over one institution: the amateur draft. Unlike top prospects in the NFL or NBA, amateur baseball players rarely found agents willing to represent them. The agents who did show up were usually handpicked by team owners, ensuring that players signed whatever contract a team put in front of them. Salaries stagnated: Rick Monday, the first pick in the 1965 draft, earned roughly the same bonus, $100,000, as Shawon Dunston, the first pick in the 1982 draft.
That changed when Boras courted Tim Belcher, a pitcher from Bethany Nazarene College in Ohio, whom the Minnesota Twins drafted with the first pick in 1983. When the Twins offered a $100,000 signing bonus, Boras told Belcher to reject it. Belcher then entered the sport’s winter draft and elicited a better offer, just over $150,000, from the New York Yankees. In one swift stroke, baseball’s amateur draft went from the owners’ cheapest and most reliable way to hoard talent to a system heavily tilted toward the players.
Today, if Boras’ clients don’t like the size of their bonuses, he tells them to return to college or, if they’ve run out of eligibility, to play a year of semi-pro ball. The owners howl about this strategy—and a few of them refuse to draft Boras clients altogether—but as with Boras’ major-league clients, the agent always finds at least one owner who will fork over the cash. In 1997, the Philadelphia Phillies used their first pick on Boras client J.D. Drew and offered him $3 million. Boras told Drew to pass. After a year in semi-pro ball, Drew re-entered the draft, was again selected in the first round, and snagged an $8 million deal from the St. Louis Cardinals.
When it comes time for Boras to renegotiate the contracts of major-league superstars—many of whom he has represented as amateurs—he’s working from a higher starting point. In large part, that’s why contracts rocketed toward the $20 million-per-year range. And that’s given Boras an entrée into a few major-league front offices, places agents once feared to tread. Bob Daly, the chairman of the Los Angeles Dodgers, admits that he consults with Boras about personnel decisions because Boras represents nine of his best players. The press regards this unprecedented access with fear, but is it so awful to have a front-office regular who cares about the players’ well-being?
Granted, Boras doesn’t care quite as much about players’ well-being as he claims. He says he began representing amateurs to help the minor leaguers who get cut before they ever receive a lucrative major-league contract. In the late 1970s, Boras was a minor-league ballplayer himself, enduring four mediocre seasons in the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals organizations. It was his time in the minors that Boras says inspired his no-holds-barred negotiating style. He told 60 Minutes last month that minor-leaguers “have no jobs, no education, they’ve signed out of high school. All of a sudden the guy who is the brilliant athlete is going home to nothing.” (Boras was slightly better off. The Cubs paid his way through law school at the University of the Pacific after he was forced to retire because of three knee surgeries.)
But Boras represents only five or six of the best amateur athletes each year. While that almost guarantees that those players will receive a huge initial signing bonus, the vast majority of amateurs drafted between the fifth and 50th rounds—i.e., the Scott Borases of the world—still make only slightly more than the minimum wage.
Still, Boras is in pretty good company. Back in the ‘70s, the press thought Marvin Miller was going to ruin baseball, too. Now, he’s rightly viewed as one of sport’s most influential (and positive) figures of the past 25 years. Scott Boras is the Marvin Miller of his age—the man the owners claim they can’t afford, but the players can’t afford to live without.
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