In last night's game wrap, there was a critical discussion on the role of agents in baseball, in particular (of course) Scott Boras. On the whole, they're not viewed in a positive light, and it's easy to see why - the Fan, by definition, supports the Team, and the Team has to negotiate with the Agent to sign the Player. While I'm sure most Fans are happy for Mr Helton and his family to earn 9 figures by playing for the Rockies, they're also aware how much that takes out of the payroll and therefore directly affects the health of the team. Fair enough.
However, it's not really fair to think this way. An agent isn't a parasite, isn't a thief or a conman, stealing loyalties and betraying clubs. He's a professional adviser with specific skills, and I'll explain what he does after the jump.
First, a declaration of interest: I am an agent, representing writers and directors in film and television. So I know little of the specific ins and outs of sports representation and anything I claim about agenting is based on my knowledge and how it might transfer to baseball. Any mistakes and ommissions are made in good faith and I'd be happy to be corrected.
I'm sure most of you have a good idea what an agent does, and why we exist. Essentially, there is a real need for our services. Dealmaking is a signficant skill which involves a combination of experience, specialised knowledge, quick wits, and cojones. It's not something most people can do straight out of the box - even those who are brilliant debaters, skilled liggers, or journeyed hagglers will not have the savvy in terms of legal matters, precedents, statistics or, possibly most importantly, the network of personal and professional relationships which are central to the business.
As a result, most people are not able to negotiate as well, or as comprehensively, as someone trained and experienced in the role. I couldn't go into a classroom and teach, or a kitchen and cook, or onto a diamond and hit .270 in the minors. So expecting a young man without, necessarily much in the way of education or smarts (they may well have both, but that doesn't change much), to deal with a slick corporate machine playing financial hardball is ridiculous.
Many sports have a history of players being genuinely hard up, while the clubs, leagues or officials rake in the profits. As the stakes increase, it's only natural for the players to want a fair share of the rewards, and unions and agents, among others, proved an effective way of ensuring this. While some boggle at the astronomical salaries of top sportsmen, you have to remember two things: only a very few players earn the very biggest bucks, for a finite time; and all industries hugely reward their very best performers.
However, where the big money can be found, you'll also find the ruthlessness and greed of big business. And for the players to deal with this on anything approaching a level playing field, they need advisers, That's where the agents come in. Effectively, we are employed to find the place where supply and demand meet - and then to try and gain any benefit we can above and beyond that mark. We know the business, we know the precedents, and we can form a well-reasoned opinion as to the needs of the buyers and how they match up with our clients, and we do everything we can to take advantage of that.
We also know the small print - I don't know what it might be in baseball, but as an example in film, I know what rights to try to reserve for my client. A film writer will, for instance, want to retain stage, radio and publication rights for their script. They will want to get the material back after a set time period, if the producer doesn't make the film. They will want bonuses based on awards won, on box office figures. They will want an executive producer role, they will want creative approvals, they will want a share of net profits - it all sounds perfectly logical when it's written in front of you, but the producer won't offer a young, naive talent this up front - and without the knowledge that they should fight for it (and what results they can reasonably expect), how can they take on the movie exec at their own game?
On top of this, we have specific legal and accounting advice for our clients (supplemented, I'm sure, by PR people, managers, assistants and the like for top sportsmen), and we have the infrastructure to take care of all the administration. We also do a hell of a lot of work that doesn't have a positive outcome, but we don't charge for it. Not having to worry about any of that is a massive plus for the client.
There are also the "intangibles". If a player had to deal direct with the management, then any argument, any perceived lack of transparency or respct would undoubtedly cause a rift between the people who need, more than anything, to have a strong and uncomplicated working relationship. As agents, we take that role - we get into scraps, we give ultimatums, we bring up unpleasant truths - we can fundamentally be straight up with employers, because that's our job. We don't lie, or cheat, or betray - well, I'm sure it happens, but *I* don't do it and it's certainly not an essential part of the skillset. We DO make sure that everything is represented in the best possible light for the client - and the employer is, no doubt, doing the same for their interests.
In other words, it's a meeting of equals, in both of whose interests it is to make a deal work. A done deal is one which is mutually satisfactory to both parties. It may not turn out that way in the short or long term - Vernon Wells' agent is probably a lot happier about his last deal that Tulo's is (but when it comes to the NEXT deal, who do you think will be smiling?) - but the implicit fact is that all parties are making professionally informed decisions. A player cannot expected to be able to do this on his own.
Of course, all this doesn't change the fact that the existence of the Boras-type agent makes baseball that little bit more unfair, increasing the purchasing power of the big clubs to the detriment of the small ones. That's life. But if this factor is partly responsible for teams like the Rockies putting more into scouting, training, drafting and trading, then in a way it delivers a more satisfying result in terms of creating a team that's more like a community, a family we can feel part of. It must be hell to be a Yankees fan, everything so superficial and subject to the whims of fashion, celebrity and $$$.
So that's why agents exist. Please do comment on and question any of the above, and I'll do my best to respond. I don't think my job is "worthy" as such - not compared to teachers, doctors, firefighters, soldiers, social workers, or even entertainers - but we're an intergral part of the machinery that makes so much of what you take for granted in life work as well as it does.