The Devil’s Doorstep: A Visit with Scott Boras
Posted By Matt Taibbi On February 23, 2009 @ 4:43 pm In Cover Stories,Sports
In the middle of the hot stove season I flew out to Southern California to interview baseball superagent Scott Boras and immediately encountered a problem: no doorknob. The building that contains the Boras Corporation, in the beautiful coastal town of Newport Beach, is striking even before you reach the entrance. It looks like a three-story spaceship, or maybe a giant interstellar microwave oven. But the front door is your first lesson in bargaining tactics. It’s a huge, sheer slab of steel, easily weighing a ton and a half, nothing like a handle anywhere in sight.
I stared at it for a good two minutes. Maybe there’s a retinal scanner in the weeds, I thought. Maybe you need a magic word.
“Signability concerns,” I offered, whispering at the slab.
No movement. “Negotiations are moving toward completion,” I tried again.
Nothing. Finally someone inside must have spotted me on a security camera, for the great door swung open from within and a pretty girl hustled me past a hall full of heroic digitized portraits of various Boras clients — Madonna paramour Alex Rodriguez, visiting-Martian Manny Ramirez, even “Is he still in the league?” Brad Wilkerson — and into a huge conference room. Mr. Boras is busy, I’m told. His meeting is running late. Feel free to watch these five massive flatscreen televisions while you wait. He might be a while. Eventually another Boras employee appeared out of nowhere and introduced me to the remote-control unit, a piece of equipment the size of a small briefcase that is hanging on the wall and that I had missed at first because I thought it, itself, was another television.
The neo–Dr. No supervillain lair was a bit more than I expected, but it fits the style of baseball’s most ferocious negotiator. Something tells me that when you visit Arn Tellem’s office you don’t find yourself wondering if Pirates GM Neal Huntington is locked up in the basement, being lowered headfirst into a bubbling tank of fugu puffer fish.
Finally I was led upstairs. Boras is a former ballplayer — his career in the Cubs’ and Cardinals’ farm system was “derailed by injury,” as they say in sportswriting parlance — but he doesn’t look like an ex-jock. With his squat boxer’s build, casual SoCal clothes, and vaguely menacing eyes, he looks more like a cross between an Orange County golf instructor and a Serbian police official.
“Hi,” he said. “Come on in.”He had just finished kicking someone’s ass on the telephone. It seems a writer for CBSSports.com had just put out some bullshit from “a source with knowledge of the Angels’ plans” to the effect that the team was going topass on Boras’s prize free agent Mark Teixeira because of concerns about his knee. You haven’t seen angry until you see Scott Boras ambushed by an internet story in which an unnamed source claims that Boras’s would-be $200 million slugger is damaged goods.
Boras sighed and said the internet should have a new name. “It should be the intersuck.”
Boras said he had fixed the situation by getting the reporter on the phone and hounding him into admitting his source wasn’t a ranking team official. It couldn’t be, Boras knew, because a team can’t legally dirty up the market for a free agent player by releasing his medical information. Next Boras got Angels GM Tony Reagins on the phone and in a snap had him reassuring the agent that Teixeira was the team’s “top priority.” The reporter’s ball-sucking correction/follow-up story, “Angels GM: Teixeira’s Knee Isn’t an Issue,” was out on the Web before I left Boras’s office. (Eventually, the Yankees would outbid the Angels for Teixeira with an eight-year $180 million deal.)
This little Hogarthian morality play about the rags-to-riches-to-humiliating-rags progress of an intersuck sportswriter, told against the unmistakable backdrop of implied litigation, is my introduction to the world of Scott Boras. He is arguably the most powerful man in baseball, controlling as he does a large percentage of the sport’s best (and highest-paid) players. In some ways he acts like a one-man players union, fighting against every negotiating advantage teams have traditionally had.
The amateur draft, for instance, used to be a free lunch for teams; post-Boras it can be ulcer-inducing. Back in 1997, Boras announced that then-ballyhooed amateur J.D. Drew wouldn’t sign for less than $10 million. The Phillies thought Drew was kidding and drafted him anyway. After all, what’s he going to do, turn down the “standard” $2 million bonus offer? Actually, yes: Boras had Drew tell the Phils to stick it, and Drew instead spent a year playing for the Bill Murray–owned, independent-league St. Paul Saints. The next year he signed with the Cardinals for a guaranteed $7 million.
“There’s always leverage,” Boras told me.
Boras is also credited with the “mystery team” technique (a team that thinks it’s the only bidder for a free agent reads the papers one morning and discovers that some other unnamed team is now the frontrunner) and the cancerlike spread of the “early opt-out” clause, which lets a player escape a long-term contract for an even more lucrative deal elsewhere. Among his most amusing tools are his famous “treatises,” which break down the skills and revenue-generating potential of his clients and can run well over 100 pages. He massages often arcane stats to turn great players into gods and mediocre players into once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunities. His book on A-Rod compared the player to Michelangelo and da Vinci. And Johnny Damon, when he read his own, is said to have remarked: “He made me feel like Ty Cobb.”
I was clearly a friendly — I had explained to his secretary in an interview request that the phrase “the Abraham Lincoln of balls” would appear at least once in my story — but any professional relationship with Boras seems to involve, first of all, letting you know what things piss him off and then what the consequences of being on the wrong side of that anger might be.
For instance, I wanted to talk about why America only seems to criticize greed when the villain is a union, a trial lawyer, an agent, and never the people with the actual money, never the employers.
But Boras mostly wanted to talk about the stupidity of the Pittsburgh Pirates and how its owners use their revenue-sharing money from the league not on free agents but to pay down debt service on their stadium. The moral outrage that this inspires in Boras is a truly awesome thing to behold.
“When you have an owner that takes on debt, and then he says, ‘We’re going to reduce our debt, and that’s going to improve our franchise’ — no, it’s going to improve the owner’s wealth!”
He glared at me, as if to say, Right?
“Right,” I said, junking my questions and getting out of the way.
“Why don’t you pay cash?” he added sternly.
I tried to ask him about something else, but within 30 seconds he was back in Pittsburgh.
“And then,” he said, waving a finger in the air, “they sold off Xavier Nady. They sold off Jason Bay. They’re selling off the shortstop. These players are 28, 29 years of age.”
I don’t think I’m going to get to my questions, I was thinking.
“In their primes!” he continued.
Wow, I thought to myself. This guy really hates the Pirates. He seemed almost crazy. But I could see how it could be a useful kind of crazy. I imagined being a GM and calling Boras up to sign one of his AAA utility infielders, then hanging up 10 minutes later on the hook for seven years and $126 million of Barry Zito. It could happen.
Talking to Boras about baseball executives is like talking to a lion about red meat. Obviously, his comments get under management’s skin. When I told Pirates president Frank Coonelly about Boras’s criticism of the team’s trades, he replied with a prepared statement that said, in part: “We appreciate Mr. Boras’s unsolicited input, but we will continue to build this team in the manner that we know will be successful.” And he called Boras’s assertion that the team is using revenue-sharing money to pay down debt “patently wrong.”
That he has made a career out of horrifying the baseball establishment, in my mind, makes Boras both hilarious and an awesome force for good. For more than a century the sport has been home to more dug-in, backward, stone-headed traditionalists than any other subset of American society; baseball owners make the Republican Party seem like the Paris Commune.
Owners hate Boras because he walks into their offices on behalf of an Alex Rodriguez or a Mark Teixeira and asks them for $200 million. The fact that this almost always turns out to be the correct market price is irrelevant. The way things work in Boras-land, after almost every move he makes he gets whacked for being at best a symbol of modern American greed and at worst a sporting Shiva god of destruction, sent to Earth to wreck all that is holy.
When you ask him about stuff like this, Boras’s voice gets superquiet. I think he was trying not to sound pissed off, but he gets so calm that he ends up sounding like Ralph Fiennes’s muttering schizophrenic character in Spider — you have to lean over to pick up the words. “I remember my old law professor, who helped me prepare for my first couple arbitration cases,” he told me. “He said, ‘You’re going to be good at your job, but because of the way the system is set up, 90 percent of what is said about you is going to be negative. Because the teams have a public relations machine.’ ”
In those moments when you can get Boras to stop campaigning — if he’s not hammering the Pirates or the Dodgers, he’s talking up his ideas for a nine-game World Series with two neutral-site games, or an “extraordinary play” defensive stat that subjectively credits a highlight-reel play — you will find him somber and even hurt by the negative attention. “I’m a good Catholic boy,” he said. “I don’t appreciate being called Satan.”
A lot of critics have tried to make the point that Boras, like many comic-book supervillains, is an antihero driven to vengeance by his own disappointed love for the game, an ex-player who fell in the acid bath of injury and rejection and resurfaced years later armed with a law degree to take his revenge. He scoffs at this. “Everything I have in life has been given to me by baseball,” he said. “The Cubs and the Cardinals treated me very well, and I’m beholden to them.”
It’s not hard to see that this is a guy who has a complex relationship with his own reputation, which psychologically is probably not a great place to be. “I represent millionaires against billionaires,” said Boras. “It’s not fathomable that someone can make that kind of money.” Then he spent a half hour telling me why he doesn’t care about that, except that he clearly does. If there’s one part of Boras’s ex-jockhood that feels very real, it’s that deep down he does give a shit what fans think of him, no matter how stupid they are.
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