The brokering behind ball game

How an ambitious Jewish upstart struggled to succeed as a big league sports agent in an unscrupulous industry.

baseball book 88 298 (photo credit: )
baseball book 88 298
(photo credit: )
License to Deal: A Season on the Run with a Maverick Baseball Agent By Jerry Crasnick Rodale Publishing 312pp., $24.95 They don't call it "spring" training for nothing - because hope springs eternal in every baseball fan's heart. All teams are created equal during those first few idyllic days (okay, except for the Yankees, who pay to be a little more equal than everybody else). The winter doldrums - sparked by the absence of box scores and daily play by play - are only occasionally interrupted by rumors or reports of trades, arbitration and all the wheeling and dealing that takes place behind the scenes. While the players may be relaxing in Hawaii, the players' agents and the teams' front offices are as busy as ever - planning strategies, making offers, counter offers and searching for that player who may become the next Barry Bonds. That dynamic business arena is the milieu for License to Deal, the maiden book of veteran ESPN baseball writer Jerry Crasnick. Call it a real life version of Jerry Maguire - the winning Cameron Crowe film about a fictional agent played by Tom Cruise with a heart of gold... but without the love story. Or perhaps there is a love story - between agent Matt Sosnick and baseball. Sosnick, a young, American, Jewish type A personality, left his successful job as a CEO of a San Francisco hi-tech company to pursue his lifelong dream of being involved in the business of baseball - as an agent. Together with childhood friend Paul Cobbe, he plunges headfirst into the shark-infested waters filled with unscrupulous general managers, ego-laden college baseball talent who see dollar signs whenever they reach first base and ruthless agents who have never heard of the word integrity - and he does it with the enthusiasm and resiliency of a kid flipping baseball cards in a schoolyard. With total access to Sosnick's work and life over the course of a year, Crasnick provides rolled shirtsleeve-reporting detail, taking the reader inside every facet of Sosnick's Don Quixotic obsessive quest to establish himself as a big league agent. And thanks to his lively "put you in the scene" style and astute insights that bring the characters to life, Crasnick makes "closing the deal" as riveting as an extra inning game. Like Maguire's film manifesto, Sosnick sees the relationship between player and agent as paramount - superseding the money and the prestige. And a good part of the book focuses on that philosophy unfolding through his complicated relationship with his one star client - Florida Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis, whose loyalty to Sosnick is manifested by the tattoo of the logo of his agent's company on his arm. Sosnick and Willis are more than agent and player - when Willis totals his car, his first call is to Sosnick. But that loyalty is atypical in the wild and wooly world of the baseball meat market. Crasnick doesn't gloss over the mostly unglamorous and downright unpleasant side of the business - the exhausting efforts of both time and money to woo potential clients, sucking up to both parents and to players and fending off the blindside poaching of more established agents like superstar Scott Boras. Besides Willis, Sosnick and Cobbe don't have much of a talent stable - it's almost exclusively "prospects" - recent high school and college draftees and potentially great minor leaguers. They're venture capitalists in a baseball startup, hoping that one of the budding big leaguers will explode into superstardom. But hope doesn't buy food, and that uncertainty leads to a stress-filled life for Sosnick - who comes across as part neurotic Woody Allen and part overbearing entrepreneurial Duddy Kravitz. He's the underdog with plenty of faults of his own, but by portraying Sosnick with warts and all, Crasnick paints a captivating character portrait, more complex than one would expect from a baseball book. Ultimately, Crasnick's empathy for his main character seeps through, and the reader finds himself pulling for the underdog, who's described as "fighting to keep his lunch money in a schoolyard filled with bullies." Crasnick's attempts to expand the narrative to include chapters explaining the origins of the multi-billion dollar baseball economy - from free agency and Marvin Miller in the '60s and '70s on to uber agents like Boras - provide a welcome perspective. But those chapters tend to sap some of the momentum that Sosnick's story deserves. But the story line thankfully always returns to Sosnick, his endless multi-tasking insecurities, his ambitions. Because of its ability to expose the baseball diamond beyond the field, License to Deal will be a worthy companion this spring to any baseball fans who find enjoyment in perusing their team's roster and planning their own starting nine.