Now Batting for Bernie Williams: Superagent Boras Squeezes Yanks

“Joe Torre is here,” said George Grande, “and Scott Boras is here, too.”

A banquet hall full of amateur and professional baseball players, coaches, writers, players’ association officials and mayoral advance men stiffened a little when Mr. Grande, the master of ceremonies for amateur baseball’s Golden Spikes Award dinner on Nov. 11 at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, mentioned the Yankees’ manager and the Yankees’ current nemesis in the same sentence.

Mr. Boras, the most powerful agent in the major leagues, represents Bernie Williams, the Yankees’ star center fielder, and he is currently guiding the soft-spoken Mr. Williams into a tabloid-ready contractual game of chicken with the Yankees’ principal owner, George Steinbrenner.

Mr. Grande went on. “If you guys could get a little closer together,” he said, grinning deviously in the direction of Mr. Torre and Mr. Boras, sitting 15 feet from each other, “then maybe we could get Bernie Williams to sign.”

It was a silly idea, of course. Everyone knew Mr. Torre had no say in the matter; they also knew that Mr. Boras has the Yankees by the jockstrap. And on this night at the Waldorf, in these player-friendly quarters, nobody objected. Around here, Mr. Boras was a star, not a scourge.

Mr. Boras, a 44-year-old former minor leaguer and medical litigator, is widely regarded as one of the toughest negotiators in baseball and as thorough and imaginative a player-advocate as there is in the game. Owners hate him; general managers hate having to deal with him. More than any other agent, he has whipped them in arbitration and has repeatedly raised the bar in the free-agent market-his client Greg Maddux, the pitching ace of the Atlanta Braves, just signed the most lucrative contract in baseball, for an average of $11.5 million a year. He has some 35 major league clients, among them Steve Avery, Carlos Baerga, Tim Belcher, Jay Bell (who on Nov. 17 signed a $34 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks), Andy Benes, Kevin Brown, Charles Johnson Jr., Andruw Jones, Alex Ochoa and Alex Rodriguez.

Baseball executives have likened Mr. Boras to a cult leader, pitching adherents a blend of statistical logic and holistic self-enhancement to get them to buy into his program and launch protracted and often bruising battles with management. He describes himself as “father, priest, lawyer and disciplinarian,” a man whose business it is to build up a client’s self-esteem-”I tell them who they are before they are,” he explained-and then sell this confident, swaggering package to baseball’s general managers.

A Full-Service Agent

Mr. Boras’ services don’t stop at the bargaining table, and his claims to success are not restricted to contracts. This is a man who gets into the head of his clients, a man who will call a team’s top executives and tell them how to coach his client.

Mr. Boras made a convert of Keith Hernandez after the first baseman left the Mets for the Cleveland Indians in 1990. “I was miserable in Cleveland,” Mr. Hernandez said. “My career was coming to an end. Injuries were catching up to me. My career was not ending the way I wanted it to. I was very upset. Scott actually got me into psychiatric therapy. I don’t think a lot of agents have that kind of savvy, that breadth of knowledge.”

Mr. Boras referred Mr. Hernandez to Harvey Dorfman, who serves as a sports psychologist and a consultant for the Scott Boras Corporation. “Harvey came out and spent a week with me and helped me through a really tough time in my life,” Mr. Hernandez said. “He got me involved with therapy. I continue with the therapy. I find it enlightening.”

“We make it part of our system,” Mr. Boras said of Mr. Dorfman’s services. “We don’t wait for an issue to arise. It’s more an academic and holistic exercise than it is an exercise in need.”

Of course, there are needy players out there-emotionally needy, that is. And Mr. Boras isn’t shy about explaining the role he plays in shaping his clients’ minds as well as their wallets. Charles Johnson, the Florida Marlins’ fine catcher and a client of Mr. Boras, was having a tough time at the plate last spring. Nevertheless, he was selected for the All-Star Game.

Mr. Johnson confessed to feeling unworthy of the honor. And Mr. Boras was there for him.

“Seventy percent of what I do,” Mr. Boras said, “is sitting down with a Charles Johnson at the All-Star Game. He was hitting .218 at that point, and he was really having a difficult time being there because he was hitting 70 points below anybody there. And we talked about his value in the game, his value to the team. I got him to talk to [Braves and National League All-Star team manager] Bobby Cox. Bobby came by and I said, ‘Bobby, why don’t you tell Charlie why he’s here?’ And Bobby said, in a very special way: ‘I’ll tell you why you’re here, Charlie. I selected you because I wanna fucking win. That’s why. You’re the best damn defensive catcher in the game, and I don’t give a shit what you hit.’ And Bobby walked away, and Charlie said, ‘Wow.’ And I said, ‘Charlie, he doesn’t say that to just anybody. What you need to know from that conversation is that the batter’s box, from heretofore, should be nothing but the fun zone. Let it go. Who cares?’ He hit .310, .320, in the second half, and he hit for power. He now has the understanding.”

After the Waldorf dinner was over, Mr. Boras worked the banquet hall as it emptied. He was puffy-cheeked and a little pink, and he had gone to some lengths to disguise his thinning hair, but he looked fit in a double-breasted olive brown suit. He exchanged a few light punches with one young prospect, then settled down to talk business with Mr. Johnson and his wife, Rhonda, who were at the dinner. The two listened intently as Mr. Boras said of a Marlin official, “He needs to hear from the heart of his players.” He touched his heart. The couple nodded. They had the understanding.

Mr. Boras was the last to leave the hall. With some of his younger clients and a colleague in tow, he moved through the hotel lobby, leading them toward the Loews New York Hotel across the street, where they were staying. Among those following the agent was a tall 18-year-old pitcher named Matt White, who, thanks to Mr. Boras, had recently become a millionaire 10 times over. Mr. White seemed amused that anyone would want to write a story about his agent. “This pond scum?” he deadpanned. Mr. Boras laughed it off and marched ahead. Outside he made a wrong turn, walked half a block in the wrong direction and joked, “We’re going to Yankee Stadium!”

For their part, the Yankees are not making jokes about Mr. Boras, although some executives might second Mr. White’s jocular assessment of him. In 1991, he persuaded the team to fork over $1.55 million to sign hot pitching prospect Brien Taylor. The Yankees took a lot of heat for that one, especially after Mr. Taylor hurt his arm in a brawl and ruined his career before it had started. Later, Mr. Boras got the Yankees to pay $20 million for hurler Kenny Rogers. Mr. Rogers was a bust, and the team had to pay to get rid of him earlier this month.

The Yankees and Bernie Williams have a checkered past, too. Mr. Boras has represented Mr. Williams since he first met the 16-year-old prospect in Puerto Rico. “He was a gazelle,” he remembered, “a very unusual athlete for baseball.” Mr. Boras has watched Mr. Williams fulfill some of the promise he saw in him 11 years ago. And he has repeatedly heard the Yankees describe Mr. Williams as good , but not great . That’s not what Mr. Boras, builder of self-esteem, likes to hear.

Mr. Boras earns his nonnegotiable 5 percent of his clients’ contracts by convincing them that they are invaluable, that they are worth the money he’s trying to get them. He teaches players to appreciate their own talents. Then he sells the package. “I’ve had a player come to me and say, ‘I wanna see you tell my story in arbitration.’ And I said, ‘But what if they make you a pure offer beforehand?’

“And he said, ‘No, I wanna hear the story.’ And I’ll tell you something. That’s my job: to go ahead then and tell the story.”

“Any time I’ve had a player go to arbitration, win or lose, they’ve had a great year the next year,” he said. “They understand themselves. My job is to help the players understand themselves.”

These days, Mr. Boras is trying to help Bernie Williams understand himself. The Yankees have offered Mr. Williams $37.5 million over five years; Mr. Boras has indicated that his client would rather have about $70 million over seven years. If the two sides can’t manage to work out their differences (by January or else, Mr. Boras insists), Mr. Williams will be a free agent at the end of next season-at which point the Yankees probably will have to pay him the $10 million a year to keep him. The team’s other option is to trade him now, before they lose him later.

To hear Mr. Boras tell it, Bernie Williams isn’t greedy. He’s just a little curious. Like most players, Mr. Williams wants to know not just what he’s worth on the open market, but what everyone thinks he’s worth. He wants to be shown not just the money, but the love. “More often than not, free agency isn’t about money, it’s about curiosity,” Mr. Boras said. And when it’s about curiosity, Mr. Boras is the best in the business at exploiting the situation to his and his client’s benefit. As he likes to say, “What I’m about is information.”

Mr. Boras’ information, from his “statistical packets” to his intimate knowledge of what keeps ballplayers awake at night, helps turn curiosity into money.

Follow the Leader

After he found his way to the Loews Hotel, Mr. Boras was sitting at a table in the bar, drinking an iced tea. He checked his watch-a St. Louis Cardinals watch given him two decades ago by Stan Musial when Mr. Boras was named the best player in the Cardinals’ minor league system. It was around midnight, and he still had work to do. He had young clients upstairs, and they’d want him to hang out with them.

For the moment, though, Mr. Boras was reflective. “I’ve been fired,” he said, talking about his less successful ventures in agentry. “If you’re good at what you do in this business, you’re gonna get fired. I went to a guy and said, ‘You’re overweight and you’re out of shape.’ And he goes, ‘No. The teams don’t offer me a contract because they’re mad at you, because you beat them in arbitration.’ And I go, ‘But I won the case for you . You made an extra million because of that case, and now you’re saying that’s a negative? If you continue to play well …’ And the player goes, ‘No, no, it’s not me. It’s you.’ And I’m going, ‘No, it is you , it is you .’”

A colleague came by and gave him a message; he should call Kevin Brown, the Florida Marlins’ ace pitcher and one of Mr. Boras’ clients. Mr. Brown had been the subject of trade rumors, a development that makes even the most secure athlete jittery. Such an athlete needs a healthy dose of Scott Boras. So after finishing his iced tea, he excused himself at 12:30 A.M. to head upstairs, call Kevin Brown and rejoin his young clients.

“I don’t run my life,” he said, shrugging.

And then he was off to attend to the business of running other people’s lives.