Josh Kusnick periodically writes for Baseball Prospectus about representing professional baseball players and broadcasters.
Baseball, as everyone knows, is a game of failures. It is how people deal with their specific failures that determine how successful they are within the confines of the game.
How is an individual person's life measured, though? Is life measured by the amount of success one has at the time of his passing or by how a person overcame specific failures in spite of all odds to excel? I tend to be in the middle. I believe everything just is. I have always taken things as they come at the most basic of levels. Things happen, people react, events occur, and that’s life. It’s how people deal with these events that determines individual success or failure.
Two people can be dealt the exact same hand and end up on opposite sides of the spectrum. Two kids could be given the exact same professional opportunity in baseball and for one reason or another one could end up in the big leagues and the other could end up watching from the stands. As an agent, one of the most difficult parts of the job is watching someone you work for give everything they have effort-wise only to realize that they are not good enough to make it to the top.
What is the road like that determines failure or success? There are two kinds of players in the minor leagues, the prospects and the players who get to play with the prospects. There is an old adage that says if you have a uniform then you have a chance. That’s true to some extent, but more often than not minor-league players will fail in their attempt to reach the major leagues. The lower a player is drafted the less likely that he will become a major-leaguer. The draft is where it all begins. As an agent, my philosophy has always been straight forward. The round a player is selected in is secondary to the amount of money that a player receives as a signing bonus. It is really common sense. The more money a player receives as a signing bonus the more chances he will be given to fail. It is better to be a 50th-round pick who signs for $1 million than a first-round pick who gets $850,000. Due to the draft being 50 rounds, most prospects who end up signing a professional contract receive a minimal signing bonus, which, in turn, means these players are signing knowing they have little more than the chance to chase their dream.
When a player signs his first professional contract, he ships out to the drafting club's spring training complex in either Arizona or Florida as his road begins. If a player signs out of high school at 18 and climbs the organizational ladder year by year, that player would be projected to reach the major leagues at 24. If a college player signed at 21 and was forced to climb the organizational ladder at the same year-to-year pace as a high school player, he would reach the major leagues at 27. So it can be reasonably argued there are more opportunities for a high school player to succeed as opposed to a college player just because of age. From a business standpoint as an agent, there are pros and cons to representing both college and high school players. In theory, the high school player tends to have the higher level of potential while the college player tends to be more mature and thus closer to reaching what is generally his lower ceiling (speaking in generalities, not absolutes). If an agent were to sign a high school position player after the draft, he would be making a massive long-term financial commitment due to the fact that there would be no income generated from the signing bonus. So with that being said, an agent better be certain that that this player who is not going to pay them for many years is not only talented enough to potentially make it to the big leagues, but is of such strong moral character that he does won't leave the agent high and dry by switching representatives once he gets to the majors.
I have represented many players who have not made it to the "promised land" and several that have. I have made the conscious decision to run my company as hands-on as possible. I could never give my life to this career without the relationships I have built with my clients. I have beaten that point to death in these columns but I think within the confines of this article it is again a merited point. The absolute hardest part of my job is watching someone I care about fail. Sometimes a player's talent takes him to a certain point and then it's over. Other times, injuries derail a promising career and that’s that. The hardest part of this job is watching a kid walk away. I stay in touch with several of my retired players. For me, the agent relationship doesn’t end just because the career does. It is my sincerest hope as an agent that I become engrained in these people's lives so much that the relationship transcends the player's career.
The second player I ever represented was a Cubs farmhand named Nathan Mitchell. Nathan was a pitcher who had a good deal of success at the University of Houston but was never drafted, signing as a free agent with the Cubs in 2002. I signed Nathan in 2003 after meeting him at a Jupiter Hammerheads game in the Florida State League. I became quite close with Nathan over the next three years because I felt this man gave me an opportunity to live my dream when just about everyone else thought I was crazy. I knew I would do everything I could to help make this man's dream come true because he had done the same for me. Nathan got all the way up to Triple-A in 2005 but injuries derailed his career and he was released. After one season in independent ball, Nathan called it a career. We have stayed in touch since and admittedly we are not as close as we were during his playing career but that doesn’t change how I feel about what this man did for me with respect to my career. We still talk and email a few times a year and if he ever needs anything, I would drop everything to help. Nathan has a regular job, a wife, and a child now, and I couldn’t be happier for him. Nathan Mitchell is the kind of human being you would run through a wall for and I still wish there was something I could have done that could have helped him break through to the major leagues.
Each player has his own breaking point on whether to continue on with his or to give it up for the 9-to-5 world. The boundaries are different for everyone. Some players are content playing until the uniform is torn off their back and other guys will only play as far as their talent will take them. It is hard to watch players fail that give up everything to play professional baseball. Their lives are put on hold in pursuit of a childhood dream. Obviously if a player reaches the big leagues then every ounce of the struggle was worth it. It also could be reasonably argued that even if a player doesn’t reach the major leagues, the struggle was still worth the effort. Maybe the reward is the opportunity and not the end result, when it’s all said and done? I really don’t know.
So that takes us to now. It’s May again and about a month away from the draft. An entire generation of future baseball players is about to its first steps down a path so long and winding that these guys cannot possibly fathom everything that it entails. I never get over the fact that when I start working with certain players I will have made first contact with them when they were teenagers, and if all goes as planned, I am still with them when they become fathers. It’s such a unique experience that I am not sure I could compare it to anything else. A large part of my job is being the educator on this draft process because it is such an uncommon process. I am the person charged with the specific responsibility of using my expertise to help guide a family through something they usually have no experience with. It is incredibly stressful knowing I do not have the luxury of being wrong because one wrong move and I not only damage my career but I could potentially negatively impact a player's career from the get-go. That’s another story for another day. The point is this, my responsibility as an agent and advisor is to help give the best advice possible so that when a player decides to make baseball his professional life he is making each decision with the best available information. After a player decides to become a professional player, my responsibilities are also altered. The role of an unpaid advisor greatly constricts what I can do with an amateur athlete and his family. However, when the player turns pro and if I am retained, I am finally able to speak on behalf of the player, which greatly expands his career opportunities.
At this point in a player's career, I believe the most valuable thing an agent can provide to his client beyond his expertise is his voice. The agent is the player's voice to the organization and provides a third party to deal with any and all issues regarding his career. It is so important to have that voice in your corner when you are coming up through the ranks because any good agent does not act as a yes man. As an agent you have to have an open dialogue with your client or the relationship is wasted. A player needs to be told the reality of all situations no matter how bad things may get. And that takes me back to my story of Nathan Mitchell.
Despite putting up absolutely stellar number at just about every stop in his career, Nathan was labeled an organizational player because he was an undrafted free agent who had spent four years playing college baseball. Shaking that label is an incredibly hard thing to do but it is not impossible. I believe, and not solely in the interest of self-preservation, that every player playing professional baseball or every amateur athlete interested in becoming a professional baseball player could greatly benefit from having an agent or advisor. With some players the athletic-agent relationship can end at mid-career. With other players, the relationship lasts well into retirement. When I get hired, I fully expect to be in these players lives forever. Maybe I am still a bit naïve but that is still how I look at my job.