Charles Pierce has an excellent profile of Scott Boras in the April 1st Boston Globe (thanks to the Big Lead for the link). Pierce is a talented writer (and not exclusively a sports writer) who's done a better job than one would have expected of not demonizing Boras. Pierce makes clear Boras' impact on baseball:
“My job is to represent my client,” Boras says. “The only part I have difficulty with is when journalists sit down and write, 'He's a tough negotiator.' Those are the two words I have the greatest problem with. 'Tough' means obstinate. If by tough, they mean prepared or diligent, then I'm fine with it. Say that [I'm] qualified, that I'm a good attorney. Writers don't write that a player has a good, efficient counsel. They write that he has a 'tough negotiator.'”
“First and foremost,” says Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, a longtime Boras client, “he represents the player and not the club. Always.”
Over the past quarter century, Scott Boras has made himself the single most influential figure in baseball who does not work directly for the game. His roster of clients, most of their careers nurtured by Boras from their very beginnings, includes some of the biggest names in the game, all of them paid salaries – as a result of Boras's, ah, zealous representation – that would have seemed extraordinary 25 years ago. An enterprising Associated Press reporter last December put together a 25-man roster of Boras clients that had a total payroll for the 2007 season of $253.4 million, almost $55 million more than the payroll of the 2007 New York Yankees, the most free-spending team in baseball. It should be noted that Boras's fee is 5 percent of his client's money. So – for those of you keeping score at home – Boras's take on just the players that the AP counted comes to a little short of $13 million.
Sports commentators, including sports talk radio hosts, callers and fans more generally hate Boras. They see him as an unwelcome interloper who's ruined baseball and, by extension, that his kind have ruined sports, turning it into a cesspool of greed, selfishness and lack of concern for the greater good - namely selfless striving for team success. By making money the bottom line, guys like Boras are perceived to have infected sports with the worst values and have made profane everything that was sacred about sports before the era of free agency, effective player unions (at least in baseball) and mega-contracts. As I have mentioned in some of the recent discussion of O.J. Mayo, part of what I think pushes people's buttons about Mayo is the perception that he's not just a pliant kid who happens to possess a multi-million dollar body but is, instead, fully aware, it seems that he possesses a valuable commodity and intends to exploit it for himself. That self-awareness and concomitant rejection of the traditional hierarchy in sports rubs lots of folks the wrong way. Boras represents another side to that challenge to traditional values - traditional hierarchies in which some people in life are supposed to call the shots (namely the owners) and others are supposed to be grateful for what they have.
Pierce subtly cuts through some of the hypocrisy in this discussion by noting that Boras only succeeds because in business, it always takes two to tango:
Boras is as controversial as he is influential. While one of baseball's great urban legends is that there are teams that will never negotiate with his clients – baseball executives would have negotiated with Hitler if Goering could have hit a three-two curveball – there is no question that teams consider very carefully drafting a young player whom Boras represents. However, whatever ill will arises in one case is usually quickly forgotten in the next. No team was angrier at Boras than were the Red Sox when Damon was signed away by the Yankees. Boston believed that Boras had euchred them with offers elsewhere that may not have existed. The Red Sox, nevertheless, dove eagerly into protracted negotiations this year with Boras in order to sign Drew and Matsuzaka.
Pierce also quickly disposes of one of sports' biggest shibboleths:
Among fans, he is the face of rising salaries and rising ticket prices, two concerns that are always wedded in the public mind, even though they're economically unrelated.
Try telling that to a sports talk radio host. But, more importantly, Pierce rightly sees Boras as a necessary by-product of the massive changes that engulfed baseball in the 1970s:
What is equally plain is that somebody like Scott Boras was bound to emerge, given the radical changes that came to the structure of baseball and the equally radical changes that came to the society of which baseball is a part. When free agency came to baseball, agents became inevitable.
In the mid-1970s, when free agency started and the sport lost its reserve system, under which teams owned the rights to their players in virtual perpetuity, it became much harder work being a baseball executive. Information became a valued commodity. As teams had to compete for players within what was becoming a more open marketplace, the numbers became an end in and of themselves. This dynamic helped shape a new way of looking at the game. It happened in the front offices, as a younger generation of executives took over and began to apply their own innovative theories to building a ballclub, most of which depended purely on information – on new statistics and on old statistics looked at in new ways, a phenomenon described most vividly by Michael Lewis in Moneyball, his best-selling study of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. In this context, agents are accepted as simply another element of doing business.
“Everything about the interface is more comfortable than it was,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who has written extensively on the economics of sports, baseball in particular. “There used to be an acute level of acrimony and distrust because of the newness of the institution of free agency and the residue of how [the late former commissioner] Bowie Kuhn had reacted to it. Agents were part of that acrimony.”
The typical discussion of Scott Boras often sounds as if, were it not for Boras, the game would somehow still exist in its own idyllic past. But, there are three realities that no amount of sentimentality can escape: 1) baseball owners have always been greedy 2) free agency, contrary to reactionary folks like Bowie Kuhn, was going to have to happen eventially and 3) the economic transformation of the information and entertainment sectors of the economy in the past thirty years meant that major professional sports would be awash in cash and there is no compelling argument for why the stars of sports - the athletes themselves - should not receive a substantial share of that new wealth. Boras has made himself a fortune by figuring out how these unfolding developments would affect the business and the opportunities it presented. But, whether Boras can be said to be responsible for the current shape of the economics of the sport is questionable. Which reminds me of an exchange on Seinfeld between Goerge and Jerry in at Monk's Diner. The two are talking about their favorite explorers and George offers De Soto. Jerry asks "what did he do?" When George replies that he discovered the Mississippi river, Jerry's common sense rejoinder was: "Oh yeah, like they wouldn't have discovered that anyway?"
Times have changed and Boras read those changes better than most. One need not approve of his methods, but big-time athletics were going to become swamps of cash, greed, conflicts of interests and disregard for the average fan with or without Scott Boras. Boras may well be an SOB. But, why should anyone care so much when he's playing ball with the likes of David Glass( former CEO of Wal-Mart), George Steinbrenner and Tom Hicks, SOBs all?