Joshua Kusnick is an MLBPA-certified agent who periodically writes about his experiences representing professional players. You can subscribe to his podcast on iTunes, and reach him via email at JoshuaKusnick@aol.com and on Twitter @JoshuaKusnick.
When one decides he or she wants to have a career in baseball, one must have a crystal clear idea of which area of the industry they would like to work in. Let’s start with the area I know best, player representation. If someone of any age were to write me a letter asking me for a job, the first thing I’d look at would be their writing skills. Communication is what this job is about, and if the person writing me wants to be an agent, they have to be able to communicate at the highest level.
Next I look at the person’s experience level. Lack of experience can sometimes be an asset, since veterans tend to be set in their ways. Here is where the line between failure and success becomes evident. If you are inexperienced and can problem solve with some guidance, you have a chance to work as an agent. But if someone were to email me a list of questions when asking me for a job, such as “How do you secure endorsements for players?”, “How do you recruit amateur players?”, and “Do minor league players get endorsements?”, I would likely pass on that person—just not for the reasons you might think. All of those questions are quite reasonable, but they are far down the line and have nothing to do with securing a position in an agency.
Finding a job with an agency comes down to one thing: your ability to make the agency money, either via the draft, by marketing the current player roster, or by securing what we in the industry call “earners.” An earner is a player who will pay a fee someday. Signing marginal guys who’ve had a cup of coffee is a great accomplishment, but like everyone else, I have a life and business to support, and thus I need to find players who will someday generate an income for my company.
That leads me to another very important point: In order to be an agent you have to be able to scout. You cannot solely rely on publications or word of mouth to discover players; you have to know as best you can how to scout all by yourself. You have to know what you’re looking at, what you’re investing your time and money in, and what you’re devoting your life to.
Being an agent is not a hobby or a game for me. This is my career, and if I fail at it I’m homeless. I went all in on this, and anyone I work with would need to do the same. I met with someone at the Winter Meetings who flat out told me that they wanted to dip their toes into the agent business, and that if it worked out they’d keep at it but if not they’d keep their day job. It was the worst thing that person could have said. Being an agent is a difficult job, because it requires you to manage so many personalities and their professional lives—a responsibility that’s not to be taken lightly.
Clients are not fantasy baseball players or video game characters. Among my clients, Michael Brantley (who just signed a long-term extension) was a groomsman at my wedding, and I attended David Herndon’s wedding last year. To agents, representing players isn’t just a hobby or a game. It’s our lives, and if anyone wants a chance to work on the agent side of the industry, it needs to be their whole life as well. The bottom line is that you have to give up everything to have a chance at success, and if you want to get hired, you need to be honest, outwork everyone, and generate money.
And lest I forget, education is also important. I enjoyed my time at FSU, and I absolutely loved Tallahassee. I signed my first players there and would never have “discovered” Michael Brantley, Lorenzo Cain, Darren Ford, Jaye Chapman, Barret Browning, and Steve Clevenger had I not lived there. I will also say this: Nothing I learned within my sport management major at FSU helped me at all in my career, so I can look back and say how useless that degree ended up being. In fact, it was an affront to education, with one class, “Facility and Event Management,” that was taught by a Volleyball Hall of Fame coach and loaded with athletes who concluded our final exam with the important question, “List your five favorite stadiums (25 points).” At that point, I knew that my degree probably couldn’t help me do what I wanted to do with my life, and a lot of what I learned I had to learn on my own by going to the games and being around the fields.
May of the traits valued on the agency side translate to the team side, on which I haven’t worked for many years. For all the worthlessness of my degree as an agent, degrees are very important when it comes to positions with clubs. If you’re interested in working for a team, it makes sense to pursue higher-level learning.
If you do land a position with a team, your trials are just beginning. I know from experience how hard it is to work for a ballclub. The hours are long, the money is terrible at the entry level, and it’s hard to advance, because at some point you price yourself out and end up getting replaced by people who are the same age you were when you started. Teams always have the advantage when hiring, because so many people are willing to work for next to nothing just to get their foot in the door.
The way I got started involved an incredible amount of good fortune. As a teenager, I started selling autographs in lieu of working at Wal-Mart. I soon realized that going to A-ball games was a good strategy for securing more autographs; if I just got the right guys to sign stuff, I could make a lot of money. (It’s why I have 10,000 autographed cards in binders.) I inadvertently taught myself how to scout at a very young age with a lot of guidance from a lot of wonderful scouts such as Joe Butler of the White Sox, Murray Cook of the Tigers, Jay Lapp of the Brewers, and Tom McNamara, Tony Blengino, and Jack Zduriencik in Seattle. These are titans of the industry in my estimation, and without Joe Butler I never would have had my career. He was the first scout to give me his business card, and he stayed in touch with me all through college, even before my agency opened. And it all began because we started chatting at a Jupiter Hammerheads game in which Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera were playing.
I soaked up as much information as I could just by going to showcases and games, and from that I gained the confidence to start my own company. I am nearly certain that I could have taken a different path and worked for a team, and I can see why someone would want to, but I have always wanted to work for the players. I can’t imagine how rewarding club-building must be, but being an agent was a better fit for my personality—I never could get past the idea of signing a kid as a scout and not profiting from that discovery. It’s capitalism at its purest, but that was a major factor that pushed me toward the agency side.
With 12 years of perspective, I’ve learned that supporting a player and then seeing him make it is the biggest reward of all, beyond the potential financial rewards that being an agent can bring. I will never be able to put a price on being at several of my clients’ MLB debuts. I even attended a game in which a client hit his first MLB home run. In a full suit, I ran to the right field bleachers, found the fan, and reacquired the baseball.
Another piece of information that convinced me to give up on the idea of working for a club is that for all that scouts mean to teams, they are criminally underpaid. I have enormous respect for all scouts at all levels because of how much work they do for such little recognition or financial reward. You have to know that scouting is definitely what you want to do before you jump into it.
The last aspect of the industry I can discuss is working in the media. (Full disclosure: I do have several media clients, including John Buccigross at ESPN.) I’ve noticed a new phenomenon that is potentially a dangerous industry trend: the self-proclaimed Twitter expert. Twitter has the ability to make or destroy someone’s burgeoning media career in a flash. I have been inundated with information requests on Twitter to the point where it has become a real issue. If you want to be a writer, my advice is to write as much as you can and submit to as many websites as possible. Most websites need content, and if you are a competent writer you can likely find someplace to publish your work.
I’ve heard people tell me they’d rather be first to break news than be right, but racing to break news does not make you a great reporter or writer. Nor am I impressed by anyone who just tweets out every meaningless move made by a team; eventually, they end up on the transaction wire, and we all find out about them. Want to build your contacts? Don’t tweet at or direct message someone who has them; go out and get them. Get them in person, at games, at showcases, at the Winter Meetings, at events, anywhere but the internet. Internet “contacts” are about as trustworthy as a man driving a white van with the words “free candy” scribbled on the side. Asking people to do your job is a no-win proposition; those of us who do work in the industry built our contacts and friendships the hard way and are better off for it. Don’t refer to sources as friends unless they actually are (if you haven’t met them, they aren’t your friend). And whatever you do, don’t name-drop. Nothing gets you a trip out of the game faster, no matter which of the three areas of the industry you’ve chosen.
Finally, no one should work in sports media if their goal is to become famous. You’ll never be more famous than the men on the field, and if you try to be, you’ll lose sight of the main priority: the player.
There are no shortcuts in any of the three fields I’ve discussed, unless you want to be an agent and your best friend happens to be the next Mike Trout. That scenario aside, it takes hard work all the way. As clichéd as it may seem, honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic, and skill are the keys to working in any business, and baseball is no different. You have to separate yourself from the pack while being true to yourself. It’s a fine line to tread, but if you’re talented enough, someone will give you the chance to work in the business. But that chance might be your only one, so don’t cheat yourself: make sure that you’re ready to make the most of it.