It is three weeks before the Amateur baseball draft, and the two preeminent player agents in the game can be found on the road, taking their typically divergent avenues to success. Scott Boras prefers the back roads. He is tracking a hot prospect in Baton Rouge, or maybe Sarasota, Fla., or Starkville, Miss., or some other college town or high school hamlet. All the while he is adding to the 900,000 miles in his frequent-flyer accounts and to the stable of gifted youth who entrust their careers to him.
Dennis Gilbert does not care about the draft. Gilbert's road is Hollywood Boulevard, and tonight the traffic is light. Behind the leathery wheel of his white Mercedes 500 SEL he has the look of a man who knows that the boulevard and the night and—oh, why not?—this whole town of make-believe belong to him. After all, hadn't Nicky and Charlie over at Nicky Blair's on Sunset welcomed him with hugs and offered him his usual table, the one near the painting by Tony Curtis?
Yes, it had been a good day, starting with the top page of his yellow legal pad on which he had written TO DO AND CALL in pencil above a long list of items. Barry Bonds had called earlier from a plane to request that a limo meet him at the airport. It was quickly arranged. Bobby Bonilla had called about a matter that needed checking, so one of Gilbert's associates at Beverly Hills Sports Council promised to get to it pronto and leave a message on Bobby Bo's 800 number. Tomorrow would bring a breakfast meeting with a high-ranking network TV executive.
But now the car phone and the car fax are silent, the Gucci watch on his wrist (pssst! it's a knockoff) says it is 11 p.m., and the marinara stain on his Canali suit does not appear to be setting (thanks to a dousing of mineral water). Gilbert is cruising the boulevard with no destination in mind. It is a rare moment of repose for a man known as Go Go, a man who has not taken a vacation in more than 10 years.
"I love this place," he says. Then he points toward a hillside where there is "a nice little restaurant" called Spago. Does he have a table there too? "No," he says, "but I have an understanding with them. I can get one when I need one."
If you're Dennis Gilbert, why bother with the amateur draft? He leaves that to others, people like the indefatigable Boras, who is the most despised agent of them all around baseball front offices. "When you find out that Boras is representing one of your players," says one National League executive, "it's, 'Oh, no!' " Such is Boras's notoriety that he sometimes resorts to scouting amateur players incognito or under an assumed name.
Says Gilbert, "Why should we compete in that arena when we're getting people and doing very well just by testimonials, people saying, 'These guys really take care of me.' We get 100 percent of our clients from referrals. I know the rap on us: 'Too big. Too Hollywood.' We have the best players in the game. We're not right for everyone, and we know that."
Boras and Gilbert are the agents of change in a financial marketplace they continually help redefine. Boras is a former medical litigation attorney who is loathed for his combative style. He represents many of the best young players in the game, including Jim Abbott, Steve Avery, Carlos Baerga, Kevin Brown, Greg Maddux and some of the top minor league talent. Gilbert made his mark by selling insurance to Hollywood stars, but his expanded services now attract the marquee names in baseball too. Bonds, Bonilla, Jose Canseco, George Brett, Bret Saberhagen and Danny Tartabull are among his 60 or so clients. Gilbert is the kind of guy people describe as "well connected."
"One guy's a salesman, and the other's a warrior," says Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. "Dennis is smooth. While he's taking your money, he makes you very happy. Boras presents problems because of his approach. One of the biggest differences between the two is that Boras wants to get the last bottom dollar out of you. Gilbert wants that last dollar too, but not at the expense of hurting a relationship between the player and club. I believe Boras doesn't care about relationships. Boras has done more than anyone to raise the price of amateur talent, and Gilbert has a knack of attracting the important stars. So they're both very important players on the baseball scene."
Gilbert, 45, was a minor league outfielder in the Boston Red Sox, New York Met and Kansas City Royal systems between 1968 and '71. At age 23, realizing he ought to seek another career, he started selling life insurance in Los Angeles, much of it door to door. Seven years later he established his own agency, and by the time he was 35 he was driving a Rolls-Royce with GO GO 19 plates (19 was his number in the minors) and making a name as "the insurance salesman to the stars," with Michael Landon, Rod Stewart and Sally Field among his clients. On his way to meetings with Lorne Greene, he would hum the Bonanza theme song.
Bonanza, indeed. "Dennis makes more money in life insurance than in baseball," says Rick Licht, a Beverly Hills attorney who has worked with Gilbert. "It's not even close."
An entire wall of Gilbert's Beverly Hills office is filled with autographed publicity shots of his Hollywood clients. Two other walls offer views of Rodeo Drive. The fourth is filled with signed pictures of his baseball clients.
(A man named Sam, who stocks Gilbert's aquariums at work and at home, pops into Gilbert's office and shakes his head. "He has $500 fish and doesn't even know it," Sam says. "He's a killer. Doesn't feed 'em. Five-hundred-dollar fish!")
In 1980 there were no baseball stars on Gilbert's wall. He eased into the business of representing ballplayers through a friendship with Bobby Brett, George's brother. "With Bobby came George, and with George came respectability," Gilbert says. In 1984, Gilbert added Saberhagen, one of Brett's Kansas City teammates at the time. Three years later Gilbert landed Canseco, who had been named American League Rookie of the Year in '86. "He had about 15 people after him, and he chose us," Gilbert says.
What makes Gilbert so alluring? "You know what it is?" he says. "It's the insurance business. It's the personal touch. That's the difference."
Gilbert stunned the baseball world in 1990 by negotiating a five-year, $23.5 million deal for Canseco with the Oakland A's. Thus began a streak in which a Gilbert client set a major league salary record for three years running (box, above): A deal between Bonilla and the Mets (five years, $29 million) was struck in 1991, and a monstrous contract between Bonds and the San Francisco Giants (six years, $43.75 million) was signed last December. Gilbert also persuaded the New York Yankees in January 1992 to sign Tartabull to a five-year, $25.5 million contract, though Tartabull had been a free agent for two months without any other team showing an inclination to make that kind of investment in a productive but injury-prone player. With Gilbert's 5% cut, Beverly Hills Sports Council, will take in more than $6 million from those four deals alone.
"The Tartabull deal was the deal of the decade," Reinsdorf says. "Dennis created the fallacy that there was a market for the guy. Amazing. He can make people believe there's interest from other teams without lying. There's a fine line between lying and, well, let's call it 'puffing.' Certain guys—and Dennis is one of them—never cross that line."
California Angel general manager Whitey Herzog, though, blew up at Gilbert at the 1991 winter meetings over Gilbert's "puffing" of Bonilla. Herzog thought he was close to a deal with Gilbert, only to see him shop that offer to the Philadelphia Phillies and then to the Mets. Gilbert says he merely followed Bonilla's orders.
Nonetheless, the Bonilla deal—a $29 million package for an athlete who was not, in the minds of many baseball people, a franchise player—galvanized Gilbert's reputation as a smooth negotiator. Eight months later Bonds, then represented by Rod Wright and only four months away from free agency himself, walked up to Gilbert at an All-Star Game function and said, "If you want a new client, you can have me tomorrow."
"He gets results, man," says Bonds. "Beverly Hills Sports Council has done more for me in less than a year than Rod did my entire life."
Bonds has become the prototypical Gilbert client: fabulously rich and enormously pampered. Gilbert dotes on his clients like a father, often insisting that they stay at his suburban Los Angeles mansion when they are in town. His players have official Beverly Hills Sports Council gear, including leather jackets and garment bags. His firm has booked clients on The Arsenio Hall Show and VH-1 and in feature films. He still brags about the financial success of Canseco's 900 telephone line ("If you want to know why I had that gun in the car...."), though it was a public relations bomb that only underscored Canseco's reputation as a self-centered problem child. If his clients are going to rank with the best in the game, Gilbert doesn't hesitate to make sure they know it.
About 50 miles south of Gilbert's operation, Boras sits at the desk in his office in Newport Beach. "I am not a salesman," he says. Boras also played minor league ball for four years, with the St. Louis Cardinal and Chicago Cub organizations between 1974 and '77, and he too has an aquarium in his office. The similarities between the two agents end right there.
"I'm not the kind of guy to provide a chauffeur," says Boras. "I don't cater. I give clients a legal service. My business is not sales or patty-caking my clients. I'm not a schmoozer. I don't have pictures on my wall of players I represent. We try to run our practice like a law firm."
Boras, 40, earned a doctorate in industrial pharmacy at the University of the Pacific in 1977. He wrote his thesis on an antacid tablet he developed. In the off-season during his baseball career, he attended McGeorge School of Law at the suggestion of a professor who told Boras that law was the best avenue to take if he wanted to become the president of a pharmaceutical company. In 1982, Boras found a job with a law firm in Chicago while representing infielder Mike Fischlin and pitcher Bill Caudill in his spare time. In three years he was working on his own as a full-time agent.
"Around '82, when he first came on the scene, he was something of a schlemiel," one agent says. "Then all of a sudden he burst back on the scene."
Beginning in 1988, Boras, who also charges a 5% fee, began his own streak (box, above), annually breaking the signing-bonus record for draft picks. From Andy Benes in '88 ($247,500) to Ben McDonald in '89 ($350,000) to Todd Van Poppel in '90 ($500,000) to Brien Taylor in '91 ($1.55 million), Boras kept pushing the envelope—not to mention the patience of baseball executives—with his threats of returning his clients to school, threats he made good on in several cases. He has become such a pariah that teams sometimes won't draft a player if they know he is represented by Boras, which may explain why standout catcher Charles Johnson of the University of Miami was only the 28th selection in last year's draft. "If you have a case where two players are similar and one of them is represented by someone who engages in warfare, you'll go with the other guy," Reinsdorf says.
Boras has tried to counteract such tactics by keeping his client list confidential before the draft. "I went back to my hometown [Elk Grove, Calif.] for a Little League banquet recently, and they introduced me as, 'And now the guy who makes people crazy...,' " says Boras. "I have general managers who tell me, 'We don't mind what you do to us on the major league level, but don't mess with the draft.' The very reason I'm doing it is I want them to change the system."
Boras says he wants high school players excluded from the draft, except for the five or six best players. This, he claims, would encourage the others to continue their education, which, at the same time, would strengthen college baseball.
Meanwhile, Boras gives plenty of headaches to the owners on behalf of the 35 or so major league players he represents. He relishes the courtroomlike challenge of arbitration hearings, having taken 10 of his 39 eligible cases (26%) to hearings over the past two years. (The arbitrator ruled in his clients' favor in six of the 10 cases.) In that same time, non-Boras clients accounted for 28 hearings out of the other 236 filings (12%).
"I know there's not a lot of affection held for Scott Boras, who makes baseball players multimillionaires," says Boras. "I'm in a position where I must take the heat. But my identity should reside in my players' wallets."
Moreover, the Angels say Boras forced them to trade Abbott (he turned down $16 million over four years and then lost to the Yankees in arbitration, after which his salary was set at $2.35 million for this season). Boras places most of the responsibility for the trade on the Angels. "Jim was willing to compromise," said Boras in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last February, "but the Angels' position was that's all they were going to offer. At the same time, the philosophy of the club changed. They're going into a youthful direction.... It no longer became urgent for the Angels to sign him."
In Maddux's case, the Cubs say Boras delivered the pitcher to the Atlanta Braves, contrary to Maddux's wishes to remain in Chicago. Two sources say Maddux, without Boras's knowledge, phoned Cub officials about three days before he signed with Atlanta in December to say he would accept their last offer of $27.5 million for five years. The Cubs told Maddux it was too late; they had earmarked the money for pitchers Jose Guzman, Randy Myers and Dan Plesac. Maddux left for only $100,000 per season more. Boras says it was Maddux who chose to test the free-agent market after the Cubs gave the pitcher just four days in November to decide on a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
In April, Baerga signed a contract extension with the Cleveland Indians over the vehement protests of Boras, who had advised Baerga that as a free agent he could redefine the market for his position, second base. "I tried to give him what I call adversarial information," Boras says. "I said, 'They're trusting in your talent, why shouldn't we?' My job is to provide information. I had one client throw a chair at me. But the bottom line is that the final call always belongs to the player."
While Gilbert employs charm—he likes to greet people with magic tricks and bad jokes—Boras uses argument as if summarizing a case to a jury. "We're totally different, and we represent different players," Gilbert says. "We probably wouldn't appeal to his players, and he wouldn't appeal to ours."
Says Boras, "Agreed."
Boras's diligent predraft roadwork has yielded him yet another prize: high school shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who was the first pick in the draft last Thursday and who, Boras says, "is good enough to play in the big leagues right now." But if someday Rodriguez wants his own 900 phone line or a cameo in a Hollywood flick or a table at Spago, he just might go looking for Gilbert.
JOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA LIAISON
Boras travels the back roads and boondocks to make his pitch to hot prospects.
PETER READ MILLER (GILBERT)
RONALD C. MODRA (BONILLA)
JOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA LIAISON (BORAS)
FOCUS ON SPORTS (TAYLOR)
PETER READ MILLER
A former minor leaguer, Gilbert has some tips for daughters Shannon and Ashley.