In times of crisis, people show you who they really are. There are a lot of people who are happy to side with justice, equality and compassion when there are low stakes, and those same people often disappear when a black man is killed by police or when a queer kid is electrocuted. Similarly, there are many who say they side with labor, except for when that labor is in conflict with the owners of a particularly admired baseball club.
Baseball faces a crisis right now, between the dual threats of the COVID-19 pandemic and an existential disagreement over the value of the game’s players. Ownership is showing its true colors - they don’t care about the fan experience and certainly don’t care about paying fair value for the players that generate their revenue. Meanwhile, one of the game’s most powerful figures has shown his character, as Scott Boras continues to be the best advocate for players in decades.
Boras, who represents at least 70 players on MLB 40-man rosters, has had an outsized role in the ongoing negotiations around starting the 2020 season, putting a voice to the very real concerns around the existing power dynamics within the game, writing in an email to his clients last month about this very issue:
Remember, games cannot be played without you...Players should not agree to further pay cuts to bail out the owners. Let owners take some of their record revenues and profits from the past several years and pay you the prorated salaries you agreed to accept or let them borrow against the asset values they created from the use of those profits players generated.
Boras’ career is most famous for the mammoth contracts he’s been able to negotiate for his clients - he worked over a billion dollars in free agent deals just in December 2019, and helped players like Greg Maddux, Alex Rodriguez, and Bryce Harper ink record-setting deals. But to reduce his impact to simply the top tier of the baseball player group is to ignore the power he has on behalf of the MLBPA itself.
Scott Boras gets it; he understands why owners perpetually push down on player earnings, in extraordinary circumstances like this current pandemic, or in everyday scuffles like arbitration. Teams, and more importantly their owners, don’t care about the revenue from gates or TV contracts in order to meet payroll - that’s covered by every club in the game. Boras calls out clubs for turning themselves into real estate empires first, and baseball organizations second, like how the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs have overleveraged themselves, borrowing against the value of their franchises and now fighting against spending in baseball in order to free up cash for servicing that debt.
That kind of calling out is an example of what I like most about Scott Boras - awareness of his own position. Being conscious of the power and privilege you wield, and being able to use that in a positive manner, is one of the most important ways we can equalize the various power imbalances we face every day, in every industry. An individual player can be cowed into keeping quiet about the way owners take advantage of them - especially a player without a large guaranteed contract.
This is where Boras has real value for all players, not just his own clients. He provides cloud cover - a team isn’t going to not negotiate with Boras in the future, because doing so cuts you off from the best players in the game. His position gives him the freedom to criticize ownership and petition on behalf of the entire league...and even the guys that will never be in the league.
When various MLB teams cut or stopped paying minor leaguers, Boras pledged to pay his clients through the end of the year. That’s not allowed by MLBPA regulations, and set off a storm of concern among other agents about paying clients for retention, so Boras donated the equivalent amount to a voting rights nonprofit instead, again understanding how his position affords him the power to make real changes.
The power of Scott Boras has seemingly only ever increased, but it wasn’t that long ago that a lot of folks in and around baseball felt he was old news. The early 2010s saw a rise in comparative “superstar” agents, or at least the recognition of the likes of Brodie Van Wagenen at CAA and Casey Close, who negotiated the contracts for star pitchers like Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Masahiro Tanaka.
A large part of that overshadowing was a mistake on Boras’ part - his at-the-time relative weakness in leveraging advanced stats. He’s famous for holding binders on every single client, but as teams developed better and better analytics and benchmarks for performance, the Boras Binder became outdated, and agents like BVW were better able to speak the new language of baseball, and make bigger splashes in the new world of social media, rather than the traditional media scrums Boras excels in.
That’s changed now. Boras operates two training facilities, one in Florida and one in California, that boast the same Statcast and other analytical tools MLB clubs use. The California facility actually became something of an unofficial spring training two years ago, during a particularly cold free agency period that found several Boras clients in need of pro-caliber workout space in lieu of a major league camp.
Of course there are personal interests underlying Boras’ job - he only gets paid more if he negotiates more for his clients, and not all of his deals are ones to write home about - see Hosmer, Eric. Even within that, I can’t speak for all fans, but I’d rather Eric Hosmer make $144 million dollars he might not earn with onfield performance, than the San Diego Padres pocket that money or use it to buy up real estate around Petco Park.
The struggle between ownership and the MLBPA is no different than the struggle between capital and labor in any other industry - labor will continually be undervalued and capital will attempt to replace expensive labor at every turn. If you don’t believe this, know that there’s a reason why teams continually jettison older talent, even if just a few years older, for the shiny new callup. 80% of the production at 50% of the price will win out every time, and some fans have shown an appreciation for this kind of “efficiency”.
Scott Boras is the best check the players have on that, moving more money from the owner’s pocket into the pockets of those who actually create value for MLB - the players we pay to watch, whose jerseys we buy, who we follow on Twitter and Instagram. Every revenue stream MLB owners rely on comes from young talent, even the franchise valuation and cash flows used to build those burgeoning real estate empires. Boras is just the best lever to equalize some of that disproportionate value.
It would be unfair for us to say that Boras is coming into his own in 2020. He’s been the most powerful agent in sports for a long time, and its most famous. But this crisis facing baseball has underlined just how good he is at his job, and how important an advocate for players he is. Despite the protestations from players who aren’t as smart as they think they are, he’s about as important to the equalization of capital and labor as anyone in the game’s history, including folks like Curt Flood and Marvin Miller.
More importantly, his self-awareness and recognition of his own status, power and privilege is what keeps players signing with him - he represents multiple 2020 first-round picks, including the Yankees’ Austin Wells and first overall pick Spencer Torkelson. The combination of real financial returns for his clients, with his ability to call out disingenuous ownership and provide cloud cover for the PA, is going to keep players upping with him regardless of whether some fans think he’s too bombastic.
It looks like we’re due for a mandated season, after the MLBPA’s executive board rejected the last proposal from the league. For the players this largely comes down to two factors - not being happy with the financial structure in 2020, and looking ahead to the expiring CBA and hedging against permanent changes to the game, like expanded playoffs, that would likely become a need for owners in CBA negotiations. Again, Boras has been vocal about both of these elements, underscoring his vision for both the short and long term health of the game. The new rules for the mandated season are the old rules, the agreement from March 26. This was the last time the owners negotiated in good faith, and it’s all Boras, as a representative of some of the best, highest paid, and most senior leaders in the game, was asking for. He got what he wanted, and it helps the players - it’s a better deal than the “final offer” they turned down.
And this is what makes Scott Boras who he is - he’s able to get what he wants, or at least, most of what he wants, and it benefits the players as a collective. A mandated, truncated season isn’t what anyone would have as their first choice for the 2020 season, but it’s largely come about because ownership has been negotiating in bad faith, forcing the staredown we’re now in. Just like the road we’ve taken to get to this point, the way forward will largely be marked by the public comments and signals coming from the game’s most important actor, and the players are better off for it.