Feinstein: Boras Botched Bryce Harper's Free Agency

Harper remains unsigned for many reasons – mostly Scott Boras' "super-sized ego," John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
February 27, 2019 - 11:41 am
Scott Boras Bryce Harper MLB Free Agency

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Whenever I write fiction—which I’ve now done in 14 books—there are two things you can be sure about: there will be at least one heroic reporter and at least one bad-guy agent.
         
The reporter part makes sense since that’s what I am and what I know best. Making a reporter the protagonist in my first mystery ("Running Mates"—1992) also gave me a pretty clear hint about where my first marriage was headed when my then-wife suggested that I have the reporter die at the end of the book.
         
That aside, the reporter as hero makes sense. My all-time favorite movie, after all, is All the President’s Men. Very high on the list are Spotlight and The Post. Of course Casablanca makes the list too, but I mean, Ingrid Bergman for two hours? How can that not be great?
         
Which brings us to the question of bad-guy agents. Again, this is an area where I have a good deal of expertise. My first real experience with an agent was in 1980 when I was covering what was then The Washington Star International—which has been Washington’s local tennis tournament under various corporate names for the last 50 years.
         
I was the kid reporter at The Washington Post and thrilled to cover the tournament. I’d grown up loving tennis—the first trophy I ever won was in a tennis tournament, and it was the one sport my dad played and enjoyed.
         
The tournament was in July—which was why I was assigned to cover it. Barry Lorge, the Post’s brilliant tennis writer, always took a long vacation after covering the Italian and French Opens and Wimbledon.
         
Naturally, the weather was searing hot, the humidity thick enough to peel each day. The tournament began with a high- noon match on Monday. Fred McNair, who would later become a friend, had to retire midway through the match after getting sick on the court.
         
Welcome to being a tennis writer, John.
         
In those days, PBS televised two matches on the weekend throughout the U.S. summer circuit: a Saturday afternoon semifinal and the final on Sunday.
         
One semifinal involved two foreign players: Jose-Luis Clerc and Corrado Barrazutti. Both had played quarterfinals on Thursday. The other was two Americans: Gene Mayer and Brian Gottfried. They had played on Friday. Additionally, Mayer had been on court until after midnight Friday night playing doubles.
         
Given the heat—and Mayer’s penchant for cramping—it made absolute sense for the Americans to play the night match and the better-rested Clerc and Barrazutti to play in the afternoon. Except for one thing: television wanted the Americans.
         
Enter, Donald Dell. Even though his pal John Harris had the title of tournament director, Dell ran the event. His company, ProServ, lined up sponsors, players and television. It distributed the profits. In fact, the color commentator on the telecast was—you guessed it—Donald Dell.
         
The Americans played in the afternoon. It was impossible not to think that TV’s Donald Dell had overruled the tournament’s Donald Dell. It became even more of an issue when Mayer, after losing a tight first set, began cramping and limped to a 6-1 second set loss, clearly worn out.
         
I had to talk to Dell about what looked like a clear conflict of interest.
         
I found him, introduced myself and asked—very politely and probably timidly—given who he was and who I wasn’t—if perhaps he’d been caught in the middle because of his dual roles.
         
As soon as he realized what I was asking, Dell began shouting: ”What is this some kind of f---- Watergate investigation? How dare you question my integrity. Just who the hell do you think you are?” He stalked away muttering about the Post sending "children" to cover "my" (as in his) tournament.
         
I had all I needed. I went back to the trailer that served as the media room and began writing.
         
Charlie Brotman, the tournament’s PR director forever, had heard the conversation.
         
“Are you writing that?” he asked me.
         
“Of course I am,” I said.
         
A few minutes later, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Dell.
         
“You got a minute?” he asked, his voice now soft and soothing.

We went outside. Dell said he was sorry if I had misunderstood what he had said earlier. I didn’t think I’d misunderstood anything.
         
He launched into a lengthy speech about how much he loved Gene Mayer—“like a son”—and would never do anything to jeopardize his chances to compete. He finished by saying how much he admired my work, adding, “You’re always fair, unlike that guy (Tony) Kornheiser.”
         
I had only been back covering sports for a week. The previous two years I’d covered cops and courts in Prince George’s County. I suspected he hadn’t read much of my work. I resisted the urge to bring that up or to tell Dell that I considered Kornheiser a mentor.
         
Naturally, I used the Watergate quote instead of the flowery, “I love Gene Mayer like a son” line. One answered the question I had asked. The other answered nothing.
         
The next day, when I arrived for the final, the first voice I heard was Dell’s, booming across the grounds: “Couldn’t resist, could you? Had to try to make me look bad. You Post guys are all the same.”
         
Actually, we Post guys are all quite different. It’s the agents who are pretty much the same. Years later, when I caught Tom Ross, another tennis agent who was actually a friend, in a flat out lie, he was unapologetic.
         
“Sometimes part of the job is to lie,” he said.
         
I asked him if he was, at least, sorry.
         
He gave me an honest answer: “I’m sorry you caught me.”
         
I think often about moments like this, every time Scott Boras – the so-called baseball "super-agent" – opens his mouth. Boras is very good at his job and very good at whispering in the ears of those in the media he considers important: mostly so-called "insiders," who often float his trial balloons for him.
         
But Boras has badly botched Bryce Harper’s free agency. His ego (the only thing super about him as far as I’m concerned) has put Harper in a difficult position.
         
Don’t get me wrong: Harper’s going to sign with someone for hundreds of millions of dollars. But I can’t imagine he’s enjoyed this winter; all the pointless meetings with team reps; the speculation about where and when he will land somewhere and what he’s doing right now: nothing. Spring training is well under way – in fact, the start of the season is only four weeks from now – and Harper is sitting at home without a uniform to call his own.
         
He’s a baseball player. At this time of year, he’s supposed to be playing baseball.
         
But he’s not. The reason is Boras—specifically Boras’ super-sized ego.
         
As Commissioner Rob Manfred pointed out recently, it doesn’t do anybody any good to have an agent bragging about how much a player is going to make three YEARS before he becomes a free agent.
         
That’s what Boras did, whispering in the ears of his media minions that Harper was going to be baseball’s first $400-million free agent. The way it was reported, it appeared to be a GIVEN that Harper would get $400 million—maybe more!!—when he hit free agency.
         
That’s why Boras brushed aside the Washington Nationals offer of $300 million (for ten years) last fall, before Harper actually hit the market. No way was Boras going to take a number that wasn’t at least higher than the $325 million extension the Miami Marlins had given Giancarlo Stanton in 2014—even if the Stanton deal was for 13 years.
         
I don’t claim to know Harper well, but when I have dealt with him, I’ve found him to be the kind of guy who probably would have been fine with $300 million, especially if it meant not changing uniforms or changing his in-season residence.
         
Now, there’s no question that Harper could have ORDERED Boras to accept the Nats offer, but the way most agent-player relationships work, the player does what the agent "advises" him to do. That’s why he’s paying him.
         
How bad has the Harper situation become? Thomas Boswell, the Post’s superb baseball writer, attacked Boras in a column last week, writing: “No one will ever convince me that Boras hasn’t done one of the worst jobs of any agent in misjudging the free agent market.”
         
I’ve worked with Boswell for most of 40 years. He is not one of Boras’s whispered-to minions, but he IS close with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and was an adamant defender of the Rizzo/Boras decision to shut Stephen Strasburg down seven years ago when the Nats, with baseball’s best record, had a serious chance to win the World Series.
         
When I wrote a column that summer suggesting the Nats should ignore Boras and rest Strasburg in August rather than October, Boz cornered me at the U.S. Open (golf) and said: “Don’t you understand. If they don’t do this, they’ll never sign be able to sign another Boras client.”
         
I pointed out that Boras would sign a player with ANYONE—including most of the world’s tyrants—if the money was right. Rizzo went along with Boras, the Nats lost in the first round and Boz and I agreed years ago to disagree.
         
Boz ripping Boras means that Boras really deserves ripping.
         
But, of course, Harper will sign for a lot of money sometime soon (I hope) and Boras will spin it as if this was the plan all along. Or, he’ll blame the owners. Or the media. Or perhaps Woodward and Bernstein.
         
One way or the other, it won’t be his fault. He’ll laugh all the way to the bank.
         
Boras—and his ilk—are why agents are always the bad guys in my books. And why are reporters the good guys? Because most of us ARE good guys – regardless of what agents or my ex-wife might think.
 
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,” which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for two months. His latest fiction—in which a reporter is the hero and agents, equipment reps and a runaway father are the bad guys—is, “The Prodigy,” which is about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters.