The booming business of baseball has led to some agents becoming household names on a par with the players that they represent. While the larger agencies unquestionably have their advantages and operate on a large scale for a reason, many players opt to sign with agents that have a smaller stable of clients. Burton Rocks, an accomplished author turned agent, knows what it's like to be represented by a big agency and aims to give his clients many of the same benefits with a more personal feel.
"I had the big agency experience in a different field and I convey to my players that the most important part of it all is understanding a client's real desires. In the end, the players who are stable and want a long career, they really want stability in temperament, in the way you behave, and the way that you interact with people," Rocks explained. "I've built a Rolodex of contacts with Major League executives and it has worked to my advantage in benefit of the doubt situations."
Understanding a player's goals comes in part from a personal relationship between the player and the agent. In conversations with multiple agents with smaller offices, the case often was made that it is easier to build that type of rapport with a client when there's more time and attention that can be spent on each individual. Jim Munsey of Munsey Sports Management, who represents Sean Burnett, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and others, understands that concept may be cliche, but he says that he finds it to be very true from his own personal experience.
In the case of Alex Esteban, who represents Yuniesky Betancourt and others at Miami Sports Management, he believes the cozier nature of his firm allows for him to be highly detail-oriented in a way the bigger fish might not be. Betancourt is one of his primary clients and he joined up with MSM after several stops around the big leagues, including his most recent tour of Kansas City where there was a public rift between him and manager Ned Yost. Esteban says his client was portrayed as a clubhouse disruption, an image that couldn't be further from the truth for a guy he believes is a tremendously positive influence in the locker room. To avoid a repeat when the infielder signed with Milwaukee, Esteban hatched a plan to help endear him to fans that he says most agencies out there wouldn't consider.
"We wanted to find the perfect walk-up music for Yuni. Basically we did a market study of Milwaukee and their fan demographic and from there, we looked at what types of music that demographic would respond to. We basically had a list of songs together and according to that we wanted to focus on a song that would kind of create a positive fan response. We wound up with "Good Vibrations" by Marky Mark [and the Funky Bunch]...Soon after there was an article when Yuni was playing well and the whole thing was about the 'good vibrations' he was bringing to the team."
"I think the misconception about larger agencies is that they're a one-stop shop and I think a lot of smaller agencies, people say, don't have that capability. But I would argue differently. because we can focus on something as small as a player's walk-up music," Esteban said.
Signing with a power agency often means there are people in-house to handle taxes, make investments, book vacations, and hunt down lucrative endorsement deals. That level of convenience is a massive draw, but smaller agencies can often find ways to make those connections happen. Rocks draws off of a deep Rolodex of people with whom he has networked over the years from his time in baseball and in the literary world. Munsey has a similar list of trusted people who specialize in those areas and argues that a player is better off working with someone whose specific expertise lies in, say, accounting or the stock market, while he and his colleagues zero in exclusively on baseball matters.
Munsey has built a strong list of clients over the years with that pitch, along with his vast knowledge of the business of baseball and friendly demeanor. He signed Saltalamacchia and Burnett as 17-year-olds getting prepared for the MLB Draft and both players eventually blossomed into MLB notables. The pitch of a small agency will work in some situations but fall flat in others. Munsey recounted his attempt years ago to represent fellow New Hampshirite Jeff Locke, only to see him sign with ACES. While Munsey made a strong impression on the the left-hander and his family, ACES was able to boast a lengthy client list full of All-Stars, and that ultimately made the difference in a close call.
While there is a shared loyalty between Munsey and his players, he says it hasn't stopped larger agencies from going after his clients in the past. To help tackle the problem head on, he's now a part of an oversight committee that features fellow agents Alan Nero and Casey Close. In Munsey's estimation, the problem of player poaching has improved in recent years and that's something he attributes to the new MLBPA regime led by Michael Weiner.
"The old administration didn't seem to care. [Weiner], who I can't give enough credit to, he is one of the smartest guys I ever met, he got it," Munsey said. "If a guy has been in the big leagues for a year, another agent can come along and tell him that he can get a guaranteed $20MM when you and I know that if he goes year-to-year, he'll be getting $25-40MM...The problem is, that hurts the market tremendously and hurts the greater good and Weiner was the only guy to understand that."
One could make the case that a player's choice between small agencies and large ones comes down to a matter of comfort and not dollars and cents. Jim McDowell, who represents big leaguers such as Casey Janssen and Travis Ishikawa, believes the playing field is more or less level in 2013.
"From a contract negotiation standpoint, a couple factors serving as 'equalizers' these days are the incredible amount of readily accessible information available for all agents (for which MLBTradeRumors should be among those taking a bow), as well as the Players Association's involvement in most significant contract scenarios," McDowell wrote in an email. "Any agent that denies the significance of the Players Association's contribution to this business is full of it."
Just like there are small and big market teams in the game of baseball itself, there will always be agencies with more money and resources at their disposal than others. And those smaller agencies will always have a market, as some players will prefer what they feel is a more personalized experience.