In 1981, the Seattle Mariners had no closer. Seven Mariners saved at least one game, and nobody saved more than eight. Shane Rawley, he of the eight, walked more batters than he struck out, with an ERA worse than the league average. In March of 1982, he gave up 12 runs in 11 spring training innings. Days before the season began, Rawley was traded to the Yankees for Bill Caudill and Gene Nelson, both young pitchers, and cash. Saves weren’t quite such a big deal yet—just one pitcher in the American League had saved more than 20 in the strike-shortened 1981 season, and only five reached even a dozen—so the Mariners entered the 1982 season without a closer.
But Caudill pitched well, surprisingly well, and in Seattle’s 15th game, Caudill earned his first save. The trade to Seattle "was the biggest break of my life,” he said after the game. “I just love being here. I'm finally getting a chance to play. I was a mop-up man.” He would get 26 saves that year and 26 the next. In 1984, he was traded to the A’s, where he saved 36 games and made his first All-Star team. After that season, he was traded once again, to the Blue Jays, and that’s where the fun begins.
Caudill was eligible for arbitration that offseason. He would be eligible for free agency after the 1985 season. His agent was Scott Boras. Or, as a shocking amount of news articles at the time incorrectly identified him, Steve Boras. It was basically the first time anybody had heard of Scott Boras, or Steve Boras. “The attorney from Sacramento is a mere 31, an age when most Perry Masons are still chasing ambulances,” according to the Sacramento Bee. Boras was a former minor-league player, and Caudill was one of his first major-league clients. Caudill and Keith Hernandez had hired Boras around the same time. Boras recalls the players telling him, “We reach out to our reps, but we don’t have anybody that we can talk about the game with, who understands the game from a player’s perfective. I don’t trust them.”
Caudill’s contract would be, as Boras calls it, “my first introduction to owners and negotiators.” But if it was new to Boras, the negotiations revealed an agent who in many ways was already the fully formed super-agent everybody knows now. You know how, after Prince Fielder signed with the Tigers on Tuesday, you heard people talk about how Fielder had belted batting practice home runs out of Tiger Stadium when he was 12 years old? Boras was sort of like that, too. Way too young to be this good, but totally this good.
Negotiations between Boras and the Blue Jays began just before Christmas in 1984. Blue Jays executives Pat Gillick and Paul Beeston flew to Washington for a five-hour lunch with Caudill and Boras. They offered “a multi-million-dollar contract believed to be the most lucrative in the club's history,” according to an impressed Globe and Mail article. But Boras spurned the offer, and the two sides prepared for arbitration.
The Blue Jays submitted a figure for arbitration in January 1985. It was $850,000. Caudill asked for a lot more than that. One wire-service headline was sort of amazing and blunt:
He requested $1.3 million. That was the most that anybody asked for that year, matching Fernando Valenzuela, who had been an All-Star four years in a row. Tim Raines asked for $1.2 million. Wade Boggs asked for $1 million. Dave Stieb, the Blue Jays’ ace, was making $900,000.
Gene Orza, the assistant general counsel of the player’s association, called Boras to complain that Boras was setting Caudill up for an arbitration loss. “I had filed a number that was perceived by them to be rather high,” Boras recalls. “He said, ‘You have no chance of winning this case.’ I said I wouldn’t worry about it.”
The Blue Jays and Boras continued to negotiate, but the discussions didn’t go well. Caudill felt insulted that the Blue Jays, who liked him enough to trade for him, wouldn’t pay him as much as they had offered the free agent Goose Gossage a year earlier.
"Every time we try to talk to them, they play hit and run," Caudill said. "By that, I mean that they sound like they want to talk, then they stop and say they'll get back to us. But they go on a trip or something for a week. They obtain you for two good players but they don't think enough about you.”
He declared that, if the Blue Jays took him to arbitration, he would almost certainly leave as a free agent after the season. “I feel like we’re getting farther apart.”
Boras suggested in the media that if the Blue Jays weren’t going to pay Caudill enough, they could trade him to the Yankees, convert Dave Righetti back into a starting pitcher, and let Caudill close for big money under George Steinbrenner.
“Toronto's chances of signing Caudill before the arbitration hearing remain dim,” wrote the Canadian Press wire service. “Initially, Caudill, through his agent Steve Boras, had been seeking a guaranteed long-term deal with the team, or failing that, an extremely lucrative one-year deal. But the Blue Jays have a club policy against guaranteed contracts and didn't offer enough in a one-year contract to satisfy Caudill. Hearing scheduled for Feb 20 in Chicago.”
Meanwhile, Boras was building a case. Without the databases of information available to him today, he and his wife sifted through stats and built stacks of evidence about Caudill’s value, Boras says. “This arbitration process was amazingly labor-intensive. And, certainly, in preparing for trials and law school, you’re taught this methodology of coordinating evidence and building data and a theme to the case and all these dynamics. The legal training was absolutely necessary to do a competent job.”
When there were data points that hurt his clients, Boras found ways to ignore them. Murray Chass pointed out that the Blue Jays had concerns about Caudill’s lifestyle. ''He's a free spirit, no doubt about it,'' Boras said. ''But he got a bad reputation with the Cubs in the early '80s. He showed up late at the ball park at times. But he was a young man then. He got married before the '83 season and he's changed his career direction. He's a leader now.''
By mid-February of 1985, the themes of Boras’ career were already evident: the seemingly outlandish initial contract demands; the cases built around thematic presentations of statistics, leading to the famous Boras binders; the tension with team executives over hardball tactics; the confidence that, ultimately, the money would be there in a sport where revenue was growing far faster than the larger economy.
Boras, Caudill, and the Blue Jays edged toward an arbitration hearing on Feb. 20. The night before the hearing, the Blue Jays offered five years and $5 million. “You should take this,” they told him. There was too much uncertainty in going year to year, they stressed. Boras rejected it.
“I realized this is a lot like (playing) baseball,” Boras says. “You’re there, you’re worried it’s personal, your client, your dynamic is on the line. I didn’t sleep too much that night.”
The next morning, he and Caudill drove to the hearing. It was snowing, but Caudill was sweating so much his shirt was spotted. “I appreciate the confidence,” Boras told him.
When they get there, 25 minutes before the hearing—eight minutes before the hearing, according to a New Yorker profile in 2007—Gillick and Beeston offer him a new deal. Boras and Caudill got their contract: five years, with a true value of $8.7 million, according to Boras’ economic advisors. Those were roughly the same terms as Rickey Henderson had signed for that offseason. It was more than the Blue Jays had offered Goose Gossage a year earlier. It made Caudill the sixth-highest-paid player in baseball, according to Boras. "Now when I have children, I can put them through college," Caudill said.
Besides the guaranteed money, Caudill received the rights to use the Toronto Blue Jays’ logo. He was the first player to get this in his contract, and it allowed him appear in uniform for endorsements. (According to the Globe and Mail at the time, it would also let him put out a line of Blue Jays apparel, but that might have been false.) There were other bonuses that could have pushed the contract’s value to $10.5 million. The final two years weren’t guaranteed, but Boras took out an insurance policy that would guarantee them in case Caudill didn’t pitch enough for those two years to vest. Boras, the new star, appeared in Sports Illustrated the next week. “Get used to hearing about the selling of Bill Caudill,” the Globe and Mail promised.
The thing that most strikes me about this story is that, in 2011, when Scott Boras was speaking at a SABR convention—that’s where many of these quotes come from—he said this about the contract:
“The deal worked out great for everybody.”
And there—in my interpretation of that comment—seemed to be the subtle dishonesty, or delusion, or optimism, or whatever you want to call it, that makes Boras so effective and so maddening. It’s 25 years later, and Boras is still saying the deal worked out great for everybody. The deal didn’t work out great for everybody. The deal didn’t really work out great for anybody, except Boras and Caudill’s kids, who presumably could afford to go to college. (Caudill now works for Boras.)
Within months, everybody was unhappy. I know the Blue Jays weren’t happy, because in early July, Caudill lost his job as closer—stopper, as it was known then. Three months into a five-year deal, Caudill had been replaced. "The scuttlebutt in Toronto is that Caudill's fastball couldn't get through customs,” said the New York Times. “It was left at the border."
I know Caudill wasn’t happy, because that offseason the Post Wire Services ran a story headlined “Blue Jays’ Caudill Unhappy.” The Blue Jays made the playoffs, and Caudill didn’t pitch.
"I'm not a crybaby," he said. "I'm not one for making excuses and I'm not the kind of guy who can be happy with all his money while sitting back and watching. If somebody had told me I could give back half the money and pitch, I'd probably have done it… Mentally, I felt like I had about six brain tumors this year."
Boras pulled a “Best Shape Of His Life” that offseason, promising that Caudill was working with a secret strength trainer.
Caudill "will be the hungriest and most motivated player in baseball,” Boras said. “I can't emphasize how badly Bill wants to do well next season. He's a very frustrated individual and he's venting his frustrations by beating his body to death. Bill's committed himself to demonstrating to people that he is in fact the pitcher he was purported to be."
But the next year came, and Caudill was even worse. He had a 6.19 ERA and pitched only 39 innings. Boras hired an airplane to fly over Exhibition Stadium with a banner reading: "Jimy—give Caudill the ball!" Just before the third season of his contract began, the Blue Jays released him. He went back to Oakland, pitched eight innings for them in 1987, spent most of the year in Triple-A, and was out of the game by age 30. The returns on his five-year contract: 114 innings, 4.43 ERA, 17 saves, 10 losses, three seasons pitched.
About 10 days after Caudill and the Blue Jays agreed on the contract, Boras’ law firm—his employer—suggested he bring the agency work into the firm. Boras’ immediate response was that it wouldn’t work. But he did have to decide whether to leave law and do something that, he thought, “is probably going to lose money for the next decade.” Boras was newly married and, as he says, “at a moment in my career when I have to make a decision. One of the things was, when I went through the process I never, ever, ever felt anything but focused. I’d never been more passionate about what I was doing. Never felt more connected. I wasn’t representing brick buildings or major companies. I was representing people, who played baseball. That meant more to me.”
Sources: Contemporary news accounts, including but not limited to the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, the Financial Post, and various wire services; Baseball-Reference.com; and Scott Boras’ keynote speech at SABR41.