27 June 2005

Book Review: License to Deal, by Jerry Krasnick

License to Deal: A Season on the Run with a Maverick Baseball Agent
by Jerry Crasnick

License to Deal Posted by Hello
(Rodale; June 2005; $24.95)

Captain Kirk and his crew took a five-year mission (and seven movies) to "go where no man has gone before." Jerry Crasnick took one year, and did it all by himself.

Of course, Crasnick didn't need a starship for his journey, though after reading License to Deal, I could see why one might think that baseball agents live in a different world. The "maverick" agent Crasnick follows is Matt Sosnick, half of the Sosnick-Cobbe Sports, Inc. partnership that represents some 80 or so major- and minor-league baseball players, including their crown jewel, Dontrelle Willis. The book recounts roughly a year of following Sosnick around in his travels, exploits and efforts in representing his clients, and gives a good amount of background information along the way.

Baseball authors and historians have composed tomes on all manner of baseball subject matter, from player, executive and even umpires' biographies, to ballparks to franchises and teams of certain years and eras, both good and bad, to the scouting business and even uniforms and other memorabilia. But to date no one had yet written about the business of being a baseball agent, despite it being so integral to the modern game, and Crasnick apparently decided that the time had come for someone to remedy that situation.

And what a cure it is. Crasnick, whose columns appear on ESPN.com, is a baseball writer by trade, but unlike some other beatwriters-turned-authors (Roger Kahn and George Plimpton come to mind), he doesn't have a particularly distinct writing style that serves as his trademark. He's a good enough writer, to be sure, but without the eloquence and flowery language of some writers, and without the plodding "just-the-facts-ma'am" approach of others. Rather, Crasnick seems to prefer that the subject matter speak for itself. His vast assemblage of interviews and other conversations give this book the personal feel missing from works composed from a much greater distance in space or time. The "fly-on-the-wall" perspective you get during so many interactions makes you forget that Crasnick must have worked very hard in not only following his characters around and procuring permission to record and write about them, but also in keeping himself mostly out of the interactions, allowing them to ahppen naturally, as he should. Like a good bass guitar player or a quality control engineer, you should only notice a writer/reporter if he's not doing his job properly, and Crasnick does.

Crasnick discusses various current and former clients of the Sosnick-Cobbe agency, featuring Willis most prominently, of course, but also discusses the agent/advisor business on a more general basis. He includes background on Matt Sosnick and Paul Cobbe, whose lifelong friendship forms the backbone of the agency, but also relates some details of the competition and the duo's relationships with other agents. Jeff Moorad, Arn Tellem, Randy & Alan Hendricks, the Beverly Hills Sports Council (affectionately known as "The Sopranos" by Toronto GM J.P. Riccardi) and others. Scott Boras practically gets his own chapter. He does a good job of being even-handed with each character in the book, portraying none as simply a villain or hero, providing both reasons for sympathy and for distaste in everyone. A good journalist you are, Jerry.

Fifty years from now, we will know whether this book was a landmark, the first in a series of tell-all, expose-type volumes on the business of baseball agents, as Ball Four was with regards to baseball players, or if it is simply part of the great landfill like most everyone else's work. By money's on the former.

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08 June 2005

Excerpt from License to Deal, by Jerry Krasnick

I will have a review of this book very soon, but in the meantime...

The following is an excerpt from the book

License to Deal: A Season on the Run with a Maverick Baseball Agent
by Jerry Crasnick

License to Deal Posted by Hello
Published by Rodale; June 2005; $24.95US/$35.95CAN; 1-59486-024-6
Copyright © 2005 Jerry Crasnick

Arn Tellem, a devout fantasy baseball player who runs the basketball and baseball groups for SFX, was once described by Oakland general manager Billy Beane as having the intelligence of Alan Dershowitz coupled with the neurotic behavior of Woody Allen. He’s a profound man as well. It was Tellem, after all, who observed that the average Jewish boy realizes by age 13 -- the time of his bar mitzvah -- that he stands a better chance of owning an NBA team than of playing for one.

Arn Tellem also believes that The Godfather is a wonderful how-to video for aspiring agents, an observation that resonates with Matt Sosnick, even though he's too conflicted to do more than fantasize about ambushing one of his rivals at a causeway tollbooth.

“I can’t decide whether I want to kill myself or my competitors first,” Matt says. As life decisions go, it’s a lot tougher than choosing between the traditional burr walnut and the gray-stained maple veneer for the interior of his Jaguar.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where you stand, given the shifting nature of alliances in the agent game. Several years ago, Matt became aware that Scott Boras’s group was hawking Jerome Williams and Tony Torcato, two San Francisco minor leaguers represented by the Levinson brothers’ agency in New York. So he called the brothers with a heads-up, and Sam Levinson thanked him for the courtesy. Not long after that, the Levinsons took Mets outfielder Jeff Duncan from Sosnick-Cobbe, while claiming, naturally, that it was strictly Duncan’s initiative.

Other veteran agents have taken turns providing counsel to a kid with ambition. Tommy Tanzer, who represents Steve Finley, John Burkett, and others, encouraged Matt in the early going, and Joe Bick, a former Cleveland Indians front-office man who now runs a successful agency in Cincinnati, listened patiently when Sosnick was frustrated by several client defections and needed somewhere to turn.

“He had some issues that were bothering him, and he asked me for opinions on how he should handle it,” Bick says. “He seemed like a nice enough guy, so I tried to give him my thoughts.”

The fraternity usually isn’t this collegial. Talk to almost any agent, and he’ll quickly point out that he works longer hours and has higher standards and a more devoted client base than the competition. The agent will recoil with horror at the slightest negative commentary about his own business practices, while gladly pointing out that Agent B has the emotional and moral depth of your average protozoan.

Professional wrestlers are more inclined to say nice things about each other. Tony Attanasio, who’s represented big leaguers since the early 1970s, appeared on a talk radio show several years ago when the host stumped him with a question: If you had a son about to enter pro ball, which agent would you choose to represent him?

“Once I got past Ron Shapiro and Barry Axelrod, I couldn’t think of anybody,” Attanasio says.

Furthermore, if you had a dollar for every agent who said, “You know, I was the real basis for the movie Jerry Maguire,” you wouldn’t have to invest in a 529 plan to fund your kids' college tuition.

Given the tendency for agents to undercut each other and players to change allegiances so cavalierly, it’s no wonder that insecurity abounds in the profession. At the All-Star Game, where baseball’s best and highest-paid players congregate, agents walk around with their heads on a swivel to make sure rivals aren’t sampling the merchandise. A Major League Baseball official recalls an All-Star tour of Japan several years ago, when agent Adam Katz was so hyper about competitors stalking Sammy Sosa, “You wanted to shoot him with an animal tranquilizer.”

When Paul Cobbe was doing his early research, he came across a profile of David Falk, the king-making agent who represented NBA pillar Michael Jordan. Falk seemingly couldn’t ask for more, but when the interviewer asked him to identify his biggest regret, Falk didn’t hesitate. He said it was difficult for him to get over losing out on Grant Hill.

It struck Paul as odd that an agent could represent the greatest player in basketball history, yet feel such remorse over not representing one who was merely very good. The anecdote showed Paul that for the big boys, maybe it wasn’t just about money after all.


Matt has never operated under the illusion that he would find many friends or mentors in the agent business. For most of his life, he’s regarded his father as his best friend and sagest counsel. Ron Sosnick is a gentle, big-hearted man who ingrained a sense of industriousness and obligation in his son. On the rare occasions when he showed anger, it was prompted by lapses in judgment or the abdication of responsibility.

Late in Matt’s senior year at USC, he called his father and said that he was dropping accounting and wouldn’t be graduating until the following semester. Ron Sosnick got as mad as his constitution allowed. “Here’s what you’re going to do,” Ron told his son. “You’re going back to USC and pay the tuition out of your pocket and you’re going to graduate, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore.”

Ron also believed that his boy should spend a year on his own before joining the company business, so Matt took a job selling fax machines for Lanier and wowing his customers with personal service. He knew that all the machines were basically the same, so customers would be inclined to buy from the salesman they liked the most. He took them to concerts and tended to their needs, and they overlooked the fact that his fax machine expertise began and ended with knowing how to plug one into the wall.

Matt’s next step was running his uncle Howard’s company, a Silicon Valley electronics firm called Allied Electronic Recovery that recycled used computer parts. He hated the job, felt antsy and bored, and knew he was destined for something more.

An escape route was ultimately provided by his mother, the novelist. Victoria Zackheim was living in France in the late 1990s when she befriended the brother of David Morway, a sports agent living in Utah. Victoria believed there was something cosmic about the link, and she passed along a phone number to her son under the assumption that he’d feel similarly.

Within days, Matt made an appointment with Morway and traveled to Utah, where he heard a tale that was both cautionary and uplifting. David Morway had graduated from law school and worked in the San Diego Padres’ front office in the mid-1980s before taking a blind leap into athlete representation. He built a client roster that included Junior Seau in football and Tony Clark and Esteban Loaiza in baseball, and he handled marketing deals for a number of golfers and volleyball players.

Morway gave Sosnick what he calls his “10-cent speech” on the hazards of the industry. He talked about client stealing and the risks inherent in the business model. If you sold pens for a living, Morway told Matt, you could recover from a bad stretch by working harder and selling more pens. If you were an agent and crapped out on the draft, you had to wait a whole year to try again. The only alternative was luring players from established agents, and good luck doing that.

The agent business was also an emotional grind. Agents, no matter how accomplished, had to kiss athletes’ asses all the time. It was degrading when you made phone call after phone call on behalf of a player and still couldn’t find him a job. And just try feeling like a hotshot when you were talking to the general manager and one of your players happened by and asked, “Have you picked up my dry cleaning?”

Morway’s speech should have deterred Matt, but it only served to invigorate him. Determined to become a baseball agent, Matt rushed out and recruited his first client, a San Francisco–born infielder named Lou Lucca who’d been drafted by Florida in the 32nd round in 1992 and kicked around the minors for 6 years. When Matt spirited Lucca away from Reich, Katz & Landis, the firm’s agents didn’t care, because they barely noticed.

David Morway has since left the agent business and is now a high-ranking official with the National Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers, and Matt calls him regularly with updates.

“I’ve had tons of people do what Matt did,” Morway says. “I just try to give them an honest feeling about what they should expect -- the risks and ramifications. He was the one guy who came back for more. He went after it and did it. That’s the amazing thing. He actually did it.”

Copyright © 2005 Jerry Crasnick

Reprinted from: License to Deal: A Season on the Run with a Maverick Baseball Agent by Jerry Crasnick. Copyright © 2005 Jerry Crasnick. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at www.rodalestore.com


Krasnick Posted by Hello
Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com Baseball Insider, has covered the game since 1988, when he followed Pete Rose and the Reds as a beat reporter for the Cincinnati Post. He has since worked for the Denver Post and Bloomberg News and written columns for the Sporting News and Baseball America. He lives in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two daughters. License to Deal is his first book.

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