Back in the days of Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, the notion of baseball free agency didn’t even yet exist. And yet free agency, when it was introduced in 1976, changed the game forever.
Prior to 1976, most players played for the same team their entire career, unless they were subjected to a trade to another team (or even sold to another team) – and almost always not by their own choice. In fact, in the early days of baseball, the notion of the player-manager wasn’t unheard of; and player-managers were sometimes traded, too. At times, players actually became player-managers only because the team manager had been traded.
And there were some interesting scenarios that developed as a result of various early baseball trades. But the advent of free agency changed the MLB world forever; and in fact, we could say it even changed the minor league baseball world forever.
Free agency, at a minimum, has led to players having more control over their own destinies in the sport, a strong voice for the players’ union, owners competing for players in a way that never existed before, big-spending owners creating more of a divide in team equity, and even to some players being marginalized by not being signed at all.
Free agency has also given minor league prospects a larger financial goal as an incentive; but on the flip side, it’s impacted the world of trades for these same prospects, and helped shape when some get called up to the majors and when some simply languish in the minors – due to lengthy contracts handed out to their team’s most coveted free agents.
In the present-day incarnation of major league baseball, the current commissioner of MLB, Rob Manfred, has been both lauded and decried for the direction the game has taken during his tenure at the helm. And let’s face it, he’s been mostly decried.
But a more covert, if you will, participant in the direction baseball has taken is the sports agent, rarely discussed as shaping the game – but actually playing a very large role in formulating how the game looks today.
Reggie Jackson #44 of the New York Yankees poses for a portrait circa 1977-1981. Jackson was among of the very first free agent class in MLB. (Photo by MLB via Getty Images)
Prior to free agency, it was rare, if not unheard of, for a baseball player to have an agent represent him to negotiate his contract. As we had mentioned, players didn’t change teams much; and when they did, it wasn’t usually by their own choosing. When their term was up with their current team, they negotiated their own new contract. And if they didn’t reach an agreement with ownership or general management, they could ask to be released. But that was a risky move, because there was almost never an agent combing the market for them to find a new job with a different team.
In fact, how agents were used in baseball in, say, the 1950s and 1960s, was to secure commercial endorsements for high profile players. Frank Scott, who had been traveling secretary for the New York Yankees, eventually represented Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays for commercial spots. But he had no leverage in terms of negotiating team-player contracts. That was between the team and the player.
Well, all that was about to change. Enter the era of free agency, and that coincided with the rise of player agents in sports more generally. In 1979, Nolan Ryan was the first player to negotiate a contract for a million dollars per year, with the Houston Astros. And that was through the work of his agent, Dick Moss.
But in recent years, there is no agent either more feared or revered (depending on how you look at it) in the baseball business than Scott Boras, founder and owner of the Boras Corporation based in Newport Beach, California. In the first decade of the 21st century, he negotiated two of the richest player contracts in history to that point, both for infielder Alex Rodriguez. Both in 2001 and in 2008, Rodriguez was awarded contracts in excess of $250 million.
Alex Rodriguez, center, is introduced to the media by club owner Tom Hicks, right, and Rodriguez' agent Scott Boras during a press conference at The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. (Gary Barber/ALLSPORT)
In the 22 years since Nolan Ryan’s 1979 $4-million dollar contract over four years with the Houston Astros, the existence of free agency and sports agents had jumped the shark on that particular deal – from engendering the first contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $1 million to producing a contract (Rodriguez’s 2001 contract) with an AAV of $25.2 million, at a total of ten years for $252 million.
In the current 2022-2023 offseason, Boras’ client baseball contracts are presently up to a cool $1.513 billion, and counting. That‘s billion, not million. And you can be sure that total will continue to climb at least until spring training.
Boras represents about 175 baseball clients, and is one of the most articulate speakers in the industry. People listen to him talk just for his turn of phrase, and he’s certainly not shy about expressing his views. Born in Sacramento, CA in 1952, Scott Boras played baseball as a walk-on for the University of the Pacific while pursuing a degree in pharmacy, and went on to play minor league baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs organizations, respectively.
Knee problems shortened Boras’ playing career, however; and he returned to the University of the Pacific to pursue a law degree. After earning his JD, he worked for a while in a Chicago-based law firm.
But by 1980, Boras determined that his calling was really as a baseball agent; and eventually he left his law firm and opened the Boras Corporation. It appears he made the right decision, as in 2014, the Boras Corporation was named by Forbes Magazine the most valuable single-sport agency in the world.
National League MVP Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Sports Agent Scott Boras poses for a photo during the 97th annual New York Baseball Writers' Dinner on January 25, 2020 Sheraton New York in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
The Boras Corporation’s hallmark, if you will, is negotiating the most expensive free agent contracts in MLB. And when you set the standard for how much the top players are getting paid, you’re influencing the game as much as any other aspect of the world of baseball.
The Boras Corporation operates out of a $20 million, 23,000-square-foot, two-story, glass-and-steel building. If you drive by the edifice, it’s definitely noticeable. Subsidiary companies include Boras Marketing, which does memorabilia, marketing, and endorsements, and the Boras Sports Training Institute for strength and conditioning and sports psychology. The training institute is famous in baseball circles for providing an offseason haven for players, who can maintain their skills – or better yet, improve upon them – along with their colleagues in the sport.
Many of the staff are former major leaguers, and the company has scouts across the United States, Asia, and Latin America. Staff also includes an MIT-trained economist, a former NASA computer engineer, multiple lawyers, multiple personal trainers, and an investment team, although the firm does not provide investment services for clients. Also on staff is a sports psychologist and a research staff – charged during the season with watching each day’s games and reporting on them, personally, to Boras.
If you’ve never been to Newport Beach, it’s one of the most attractive and high end beach communities in the country. Scott Boras chose well for his company’s location; it has benefits that go beyond what the building itself contains. It’s a place where players might want to bring their families to vacation a bit, while they work out in the offseason. After all, the best agents think of everything their clients might need.
Oakland Athletics first round draft pick Matt Chapman goes over his first MLB contract with agent Scott Boras prior to the game against the Texas Rangers at O.co Coliseum on June 16, 2014 in Oakland, California. The Rangers defeated the Athletics 14-8. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)
Though not unilaterally, the Boras Corporation is one of the agencies that sets the standard for the largest factor in professional baseball payroll today. Boras also impacts how players train in the offseason, setting an expectation that clients remain in baseball shape even during the time they aren’t officially playing. And the corporation welcomes clients’ player colleagues to come and train with them, which is good for the client and can be advantageous to the agency itself.
All this helps shape the game in ways that original baseball agents didn’t – and couldn’t. Although endorsements remain alive and well in all sports, including baseball, the focus of player agents is no longer on the peripherals of how their clients earn their keep, but on how their bread is buttered on a daily basis.
And in turn, team ownership has to be responsive, or they cannot remain competitive. Much of the “haves” and “have nots” scenario of 21st century baseball has been the result of the work of hard-bargaining agents, who to some extent set the bar for what a contending team’s player payroll looks like.
All of this adds up to what I like to call “The Boras Factor.” Great representation gets players results. It also impacts baseball in ways many fans rarely think about. When Scott Boras talks, people listen. And when people listen, the game of baseball becomes just a little bit less about what the fans in the stands think; and just a little bit more about what player agents actually do.