Lyn Watner's phone rings.... A milk company executive wants Cal Ripken Jr. to schedule a promotional appearance. "Nope, I'm sorry, he just can't," she says. "Baseball is his career and he's already at his wit's end. He needs a few days to get himself together."
And it rings.... "Who hasn't paid his bill?" A Baltimore Oriole is late with his car insurance premium. Watner will take care of it.
And it rings.... "I'll accept the charges." It's a ballplayer she represents. Inmate No. 01732-031 calling from a federal prison in Texas. "Hey, Willie, how's it going? Have you worked out yet today? Do you understand your contract? Would you like me to call your mom?"
To Watner, being a good agent not only means reassuring Willie Aikens' mother but also seeing to it that Rick Dempsey has a firm mattress during spring training, giving Eddie Murray a 5 a.m. wake-up call so that he can get up in time to do a McDonald's commercial, remembering to ask Red Sox pitcher Mike Brown about his arm and his love life and telling a young football player he can't buy a new car.
For sure, being the only female agent in baseball isn't easy. People are forever asking, "Look, lady, who do you think you are?"
Not a bad question.
"She's my agent," says Murray. Mike Boddicker says, "When I have a problem, I call Lyn, and she handles it." She has been called both a "life planner" and a "hatchet lady." Dempsey refers to her as a "secretary."
While women agents are commonplace in entertainment and publishing, in sports they're usually limited to tennis and golf. Few women have broken into the network of men who represent baseball, football and basketball players. "I know quite a few agents, and unless they're camouflaged in drag, I don't know any women," says Brian McIntyre, the NBA's director of public relations.
Of the 200-plus agents listed with the Major League Baseball Players Association, Watner, 32, is the only female. She is one of perhaps a dozen women—among more than 500 agents—certified by the NFL Players Association, and she is the busiest.
Watner has already made her mark. Kansas City Royals general manager John Schuerholz said he'd rather do business with her than with some of his own players.
Watner is a vice-president of Personal Management Associates, a Baltimore-based company representing about 80 professional athletes, including 16 of the world champion Orioles. Lawyer Ron Shapiro and Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson founded the company in 1977 after Robinson's finances went bust in a post-retirement business deal.
Shapiro built the company by taking what he calls a "holistic approach" to representing players. If a player signs with the firm, he doesn't just get someone to negotiate a contract. He gets his taxes done and possibly an underwear endorsement. He gets a yearly budget and an investment portfolio. He gets someone who'll listen to him talk about an injury, and he gets consoled after a bad game. He also gets a personal phone call every 10 days, and, if necessary, someone to sit beside him during drug or alcohol rehabilitation sessions.
It's Watner who delivers many of these nontraditional agent services. In her six years on the job she has worked her way up from part-time Spanish translator to full-time partner; Shapiro hired her in 1978 because he couldn't understand a new client, Nicaraguan-born Oriole pitcher Dennis Martinez.
"I really felt inadequate at first," says Watner, who spent hours poring over The Sporting News to learn still another language—sports lingo.
What Watner has going for her is life experience. At 18 she lost her closest friend, her father, who died of leukemia. They used to go to the races together, and he would tell her just how beautiful and how miserable life could be. In fourth grade, when asked where her father had gone to school, Watner responded, "College of Hard Knocks."
Watner is an expert at counseling young athletes on avoiding life's pitfalls; she's stumbled a few times herself. She moved to Mexico when she was 20, was married, divorced, remarried and divorced again, all before she was 25. To support herself she taught English.
When the phone rang one day last July, it was Willie Aikens, and he had stumbled pretty badly. "Lyn," he said, obviously frightened, "the FBI was just here."
By December, Watner and Aikens were attending family night drug-rehabilitation therapy sessions at Sheppard-Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, where Aikens was an in-patient. Aikens had pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted possession of cocaine and faced a three-month prison term.
"I was in a strange town and with no family," said Aikens of his stay in Baltimore. (He was released last month from the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth and hopes to play for Toronto, which got him in a trade with Kansas City.) "Lyn is the one. Every time I need her, she's always there for me. She was the one who stood next to me in court. She was the one who helped me through therapy. And she was the first person to visit me in jail."
During the last family night session, the therapist let each patient speak. Aikens thanked the therapist, and then he finished by thanking his fellow patients. But it wasn't until another patient had thanked Watner that Aikens realized what he'd forgotten to do. He started crying. "I was so embarrassed. Of all the people there, I really wanted to say something about Lyn. I wanted to say that I had grown because of her."
The week after Aikens left Sheppard-Pratt, Martinez entered a program there for alcohol abuse. Again, for support, Watner attended family nights—16 weeks altogether.
Watner feels less comfortable in one of the more traditional roles of an agent, that of recruiting clients. She became fed up with what some of the athletes said was their bottom line: "I'll sign as long as you're willing to go to bed with me." Now Watner usually leaves recruiting to the male members of the firm.
Being one of the first women in her field poses other problems. One player said Watner's prominent role in the agency kept him from signing for a long time. "As much as I was touted by the other players, he thought I was a secretary, and he didn't want to deal with me," says Watner. But she doesn't dwell on the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated business. "Sure, it's harder," she says, "and if it takes two years longer, so what?"
Lately she's been especially busy working with Cal Ripken and his brother Billy, a minor-leaguer. For Cal she devised a program under which he'll give 2,000 Oriole tickets to underprivileged kids—nice gesture, Cal, and tax-deductible, too. She gave Billy, who has just signed on, a briefing and reviewed his personal financial history.
Watner rarely has time to go out for lunch. During a noon staff meeting, she squeezes in a snack of soup, French fries and grape drink. Midway through, a grumpy, unshaven Boddicker comes in. "I feel terrible," he says.
"I heard you were a little huffy yesterday at the McDonald's rehearsal," says Watner. Along with Murray, four other Orioles were involved in the commercial.
"My feet were killing me," Boddicker replies.
Then Murray and Dempsey appear. Dempsey places his hands on either side of Watner's face and tries to kiss her. She wriggles away, scolding, "Now, don't be bratty."
Watner handles a number of promotional requests each day. Today, Baltimore Magazine wants an Oriole to pose for a spring fashion spread. Watner asks Murray if he can do it.
"I think I'm going to be busy that day, Lyn. You'd better get Cal," he says.
Some players don't like Watner because she pushes too much, says Dempsey. "But they're dumb. She has asked me to call someone at a hospital, to go on a talk show and do public appearances for nothing, and later down the road it has always led to better deals. A lot of guys don't realize how smart she is."
Boddicker knows what an ally Watner can be, especially after the 1983 World Series brought him sudden fame. "I'm a soft and easy person. I say yes to everything-banquets, speeches, commercials and friends. But now I tell them, 'You'd better talk to my agent, Lyn.' She's a tough lady."
"They call me the hatchet lady because one of the biggest things I do is to say no," says Watner. To a young football player who wants to buy a car: "No, you can't afford another car." To Murray, who was eager to invest in a videogame store: "No, too risky." To general managers in Latin American baseball leagues: "Màs dinero."
Watner would enjoy negotiating big league contracts, but so far the firm has limited her to dealing with Latin American leagues. "Negotiating is Ron's forte, and it's a chauvinistic world We live in," says Watner. "The Latin leagues are the pits. Pay is $3,500 a month tops, so you have to finagle your way and see what else you can get for your client—a car, expenses, et cetera."
Watner is in the office by 8 a.m., and some days she's still talking business with Shapiro at midnight. Four hours of sleep suffice; Watner rises at 4:45 a.m., walks three miles and then works out on Nautilus machines or plays tennis, often before sunrise.
As the sun sets this day, Watner is mumbling about the 1984 Roberto Clemente Award, which Ron Guidry has won. She thought Murray deserved it.
Her last appointment of the day is with a young man seeking her advice on how to become an agent. Watner spends half an hour telling him just how difficult it can be.
GENE SWEENEY JR.
Watner can be both tough and understanding.