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March 30, 2010

An Agent's Take

Flexible Morality

by Joshua Kusnick

Everything in baseball tends to run in cycles. Players come and go, money comes and goes, children become fans and fans later have children, who also become fans. Teams win and lose and players are gods for a day, then sit at home the next day. Even the agent world tends to be cyclical. A generation of agents has its reign over the industry while the next group anxiously waits its turn to run things.

It’s hard breaking into this industry; I don’t think anyone would dispute that. Being an agent takes equal parts technical skill and showmanship. You can have an agent who is the most intelligent guy in the world but has no clients because he has zero charisma or "it" factor. On the other hand, you can have a guy who is the most vocal and flashy guy in the room, but without any substance, that agent won't have any clients, either. I have worked very hard at having a balance of flash and skill. Some days, I struggle with keeping the flash in check. Other days, I’m all business. If you’re not careful, it could be very easy to forget who you really are.

One of the major issues I have had to deal with in my career is the issue of "professionalism." You know what I have to say to all that? Fine. It's 2010 and everyone has a certain way of running their business and doing their job. I have seen many agents in my career, and I don’t want to become them. Elliott Smith said it best "But they can't be people/not if I'm one/if I have to be like them/I'd rather be no one."

I don’t want to lose the human element. I choose to be the way I am, completely out there and totally accessible. Other agents can say they do things a certain way or claim they want to run an agency like it’s a family, but 99.9 percent of the time it’s total BS. I know how deep I get into my players' lives, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve been fired and I’ve cried over losing a player, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the money. When you lose a client in this business and you care about the player and the family as much as I do, you should be upset over getting fired. You learn from each experience, but the hurt never truly goes away, because in some small way, it's still a reflection of your work as an agent, and ultimately the player decided that I had let him down.

The movie Thank You For Smoking has a tremendous concept within the film and I believe it applies to being an agent as much as it does the cigarette industry. It's called flexible morality. Morality, in its descriptive sense, refers to values that helps determine right and wrong, whereas morality in its normative sense refers to a more absolute definition of right and wrong, such as if a specific act was to be "immoral." The concept of flexible morality was something that has always resonated with me since seeing the concept in the movie. Obviously the term and concept are meant to be satirical in nature, but I think that within the confines of my specific field of work, flexible morality is a very active and present concept.

Morality, by definition, cannot be flexible. It is an absolute concept. Thus, the idea that it could be somehow flexible is a flawed concept. Yet I have seen many instances where an agent could be considered to have flexible morals. There are things you do as an agent that you would never carry over into your personal life. For example, if an agent were to lie to the media during the course of a public negotiation, does that mean the agent would do the same thing to his wife? If a player was currently represented by an agent but then went to dinner with another agent, does that mean the player would also cheat on his wife? Can you be a bad person but be a good agent? Better yet, can you be a good person and a bad agent? I don’t have the answer to those questions; nor do I have a definitive opinion on flexible morality. I just think that a concept such as flexible morality should at least have a place in the discussion regarding professionalism.

I’ve discussed professionalism in addition to discussing what it’s like to get fired and the impact that it has mentally and professionally. However, I haven’t really discussed some of the uplifting things that this job has allowed me to experience. I think the most fulfilling part of my career is experiencing the totality of a player's career on and off the field, starting in high school and ending in the big leagues. I get to experience a great deal of self-discovery every day that I work in baseball. I have been so fortunate to learn so much about myself at such a young age I can't imagine what my life would be like without having done so.

Before I was an agent, I started a small company that sold autographs and trading cards of professional athletes. I would go to the local baseball card stores shops and shows. It was there that I learned how to negotiate. Around the time I was 14, I realized that it was far too difficult to acquire major-league player's autographs, so I started to attend Class-A Florida State League games. The closest team to where I lived was in West Palm Beach, then an affiliate of the Montreal Expos. In the very first game I attended, I watched Brad Fullmer, Hiram Bocachica, and some skinny outfielder by the name of Vladimir Guerrero. The visiting team was the Lakeland Tigers that sported a lineup of Daryle Ward, Juan Encarnacion, and Mike Darr. Several years later, all six of those players were in the major leagues, and I had not only seen them play before they were major-leaguers, but I had also met them and obtained their autographs. Experiencing this process was arguably the biggest thrill of my teenage years. Research a player, scout him in person, get an autograph and then repeat. Though the process was time-consuming, it was substantially rewarding. It’s hard to put into words what it's like when your scouting efforts are validated.

As an adult, the process hasn’t changed much for me. Instead of starting in the minor leagues, I begin watching kids in high school. Instead of determining the future value of a player's signature, I try to determine a player's actual value. The one constant feeling between the two experiences is that of validation. Knowing you were right about a player and his abilities is a feeling that can't be duplicated. Scouts, teams, and agents are wrong about players more often than they are right, so in the rare chance you get one right, it results in total elation. So as a teenager, if I got a player right, I had a really cool autograph. As an adult, if I get a player right, I have a career. There are some little things that go into the job that one wouldn’t normally think about, but that doesn’t mean these little things don’t leave a big impact.

From a personal standpoint, one of the most exciting moments of my career was when I first negotiated baseball card contracts for my clients. As a kid, I was a huge autograph and baseball card collector. I probably have 10,000 autographed trading cards in storage from my old business. The first contracts I got to negotiate were in 2004. Companies like Just Minors, Donruss, Topps, and Upper Deck all made cards of my clients that year. I will never forget making phone calls to my clients giving them the good news. Part of the excitement came from knowing I wasn’t totally inept at my job, but the major portion came from knowing I was partially responsible for a trading card coming into existence. Getting card deals for my players is about as close as I will ever get to having a card of my own, but that doesn’t take anything away from how wonderful an experience the process was to me personally. I almost take getting card deals for my clients for granted these days. I've done hundreds of deals for my clients over the years and even secured a trading card deal for ESPN’s John Buccigross. Now, it's just another part of my job with scouting, traveling, and negotiating. I don’t think the job has jaded me yet, but with that being said, certain things don’t retain a residual value. Even though it has gotten easier for me to negotiate trading card contracts and the mystique of that experience has dissipated, it doesn’t make the experience any less important for the player. Without fail, one of the happiest times of a young player's career is when they get their first card. I still remember the first time guys like Michael Brantley, Lorenzo Cain, Darren Ford, and Luke Montz saw their first cards. It’s one of the last pure moments of a player's career. You can see it in their faces, that childlike curiosity and the shock that the card that they are staring isn't one of a childhood hero but their own card. Helping make that dream come true is absolutely one of the best parts of my job.

 People within the industry have their opinions of me. Some people think I’m crazy, some think I have a ton of potential, and others don’t even know I exist. None of that really matters. What matters is what my clients think of me, and more importantly, what I think of myself. I have no idea what kind of agent I am, I have never been one to label myself, but I do know I have never sold out to compromise what I believe in to excel at this job. I have always stayed true, no matter the cost. Have I lost out on certain players because of who I am? Probably. It doesn’t bother me , though, because I can go to bed every night with a good conscience knowing I did everything I wanted to professionally on my own terms. Res Ipsa Loquitur.   

Related Content:  The Who,  The Process,  Autographs

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