Pitching In

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

When you go to a baseball game, you’re going there to relax. When Joe Urbon goes to a baseball game, he’s going there to work. Urbon, a graduate of Kentridge High School and Washington State University, has taken an unlikely path from playing baseball to becoming one of the game’s budding power brokers as agent to some of the bigger names in the game.

Along the way, he has gone from being a player in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, where his career was shortened by a knee injury, to becoming a partner in CAA Baseball, a young but fast-growing wing of CAA Sports, which itself is an offshoot of Creative Artists Agency, which represents some of the biggest names in entertainment.

When Urbon was a player, he had an agent, but he admits, “I had no idea what an agent did, really.”

How, in less than 20 years, has he gone from that to being one of the top agents in the game?

It started with a chance encounter in a physical therapist’s office.

“I was rehabbing my knee [after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament for the second time] and I got talking to this guy next to me, a pretty cool older guy who was a high-powered attorney in D.C.,” Urbon says. “The job chose me more than I chose it.”

The attorney, Michael Cardozo, suggested that with Urbon’s background in baseball, he might make a good sports agent. Cardozo had done some work with the predecessor of Octagon Sports, which at the time handled the biggest name in sports, Michael Jordan, among others, and Cardozo got Urbon a job interview.

Urbon, now 43, was still an active player at the time (1992), and he wasn’t ready to give up on that career. But he wasn’t an active player for long. He went to spring training that year, realized he was never going to be the player he had been before the knee injury and, after consultation with his fiancée (now wife), Katherine, he became an intern at Octagon.

He had his first client within weeks. Kevin Stocker was the younger brother of a former teammate of Urbon’s with the Phillies. Stocker was about to make it in the big leagues, and he needed an agent.

“When I heard through Stocker’s brother that he didn’t have an agent, I flew out to meet him,” Urbon says. “He was going to interview some others, but after we talked, he hired me on the spot. The next year [1993], he was the starting shortstop in the World Series for the Phillies.”

There were fits and starts, to be sure, but over the course of 19 years, Urbon has gone from novice to expert. Using Washington state as his base, he has steadily built up a client list of 25 big-league players that includes Everett’s Grady Sizemore, an All-Star center fielder with the Cleveland Indians, and Everett’s Travis Snider, an outfielder with the Toronto Blue Jays. Through his relationship with Sizemore, Urbon also signed British Columbia native Jason Bay, a three-time All-Star who signed a four-year deal with the New York Mets in December 2009.

“When you go after a recruit for the first time, you are going in there to give the player and his family a sense of your history and what you can do for them immediately,” Urbon says. “At that point, you are not the agent, you are the adviser. It’s a thin line, and confusing with the NCAA’s rules, but you are there to help the family and the player navigate the waters of the draft.

“By and large, those families just go through this one time, maybe twice at the most. They don’t have the first idea what to expect.”

Sizemore, who was being asked to choose between playing football and baseball for the University of Washington or signing with the Montreal Expos, was one of those athletes.

“Joe was recommended to me through a high school coach,” says Sizemore, who will be 29 in August and is making $7.5 million with Cleveland this season. “I wasn’t really going to go with an adviser; I was really planning on going to college.”

Sizemore recalls that the visit went well. “But when you are 16 or 17, you don’t set your sights beyond a few days.... I think I left in the middle of it all to go to a party. It was more [left to] my parents than me. I trusted my mom and dad, and they trusted Joe.”

More than any other word in the dictionary, trust is the one that rings out in Urbon’s line of work. His clients, who aren’t inclined to wait for a Jerry Maguire-style epiphany, trust that he will do his best for them from the start.

“I can’t ever remember him wanting me to do anything I don’t want to do,” says Jason Bay, who now lives in Kirkland and who, at Urbon’s urging, has done charity benefits, corporate meet-and-greets and personal appearances that will enhance Bay’s brand. “He knows where I draw the line. He might rarely ask me to do something a second time. If he does, I know it’s his way of begging me. And I’ll consider it, because I know he has my best interests at heart.”

For the best agents, those interests are front and center 365 days a year. That means being ready to drop plans at a moment’s notice to get a deal done. Case in point: Christmas Eve 2009. Bay was one of the premier players available in free agency, and the Mets had upped their offer to the point where a deal hung in the balance.

“I remember sitting in the bedroom of my mother’s house [in Auburn] that night when the rest of the family was in the living room,” Urbon says. “It was just one of those things when the pieces all fell together. I was in Washington, Jason was in British Columbia, Omar [Minaya, then the Mets’ general manager] was in Costa Rica and Jeff [Wilpon, the Mets’ chief operating officer] was in his plane either on the ground in Israel or flying over Israel.

“The deal was worked out except for the last-minute details—the payment schedules, no-trade-clause issues, little stuff like that. But when you have a deal like that one [four years, $66 million, with an option for a fifth year at $17 million], even the little details take a lot of time to hammer out.

“Then, Christmas Day we spent at my in-laws’ [in Tacoma], and I was back on the phone again, trying to get it done. It got done, but it’s the kind of thing you can’t really explain at the time. You just go ahead and get it done and apologize later for the time it took. I bought a lot of great Christmas gifts last year, I can tell you that.”

Bay had to give up a substantial portion of his holiday, too, although the payoff was well worth it.

“I know that Joe is not working for me every minute of every day,” says Bay, 32, who was also weighing an offer from the Boston Red Sox. “That is not the way the business works. But when you go through free agency, that changes. And if it means closing the deal on Christmas Day, well, that’s the way it goes. Most of the time when we talk, it’s just a few minutes on baseball and then it’s catching up.

“As a baseball player, the window for playing is very short. That’s why I was looking for a guy like Joe when I went looking for an agent. I didn’t want to be ‘learned’ on. I wanted someone who already knew the ropes of representing players, and Joe does.”

Of course, the trust can’t be one-sided. The men on the opposite side of the baseball equation have to trust you, too. Alex Anthopoulos, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, says one of the reasons Urbon does well for his clients is that, as a former player, Urbon understands the ball club’s side of things.

“He’s a good communicator and a straight shooter when you deal with him,” says Anthopoulos. “He does a good job for his clients. At the same time, he’s a realist. He knows what clubs can do and what they can’t. When you’re negotiating with him, you can trust what he says.”

Urbon has continued to mine Washington’s baseball fields to the point where, last year, two of the state’s top prospects, Josh Sale and Drew Vettleson, became his clients. Both are outfielders, and both were drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, champions of the American League East Division last season. (Sale, from Seattle’s Bishop Blanchet High School, was the 17th pick overall in the 2010 draft; Vettleson, from Silverdale’s Central Kitsap High, was the 42nd overall pick.)

Urbon approached both of them the same way, more through their parents and families and a statewide list of baseball contacts than directly. And the goal is always the same.

“There are so many unknowns, and your job is to peel back the layers and prepare them for the process,” Urbon says. “Does it make sense to play pro or go to college? And the answer is not the same for everyone.”

For an agent, the only way to grow the business is to start representing players when they are first ready to sign, but there’s not a lot of money in the early stages. In the case of Toronto’s Snider, there was a $1.7 million signing bonus, but it will be after 2012 before the possibility of salary arbitration kicks in, and free agency looms three years after that. That’s when the real money awaits.

And the money is indeed real. Major League Baseball players will make about $2.8 billion in cumulative salary in 2011, and while there is no cap to the fees agents can charge their clients in baseball—as in pro football and basketball—most players pay between 3 and 5 percent of their salaries to agents.

“In a lot of ways, when you sign a kid like me out of high school when he’s 18, the agent has to be a baby sitter as much as anything,” says Snider, who was the youngest position player in the game when he made it to the big leagues at age 20 in 2008. “When I signed and was away from home for the first time, I was on the phone to Joe every day, sometimes two or three times a day.

“Agents have to know their psychology, especially for a client like me.... And Joe does. He helped me get through a difficult time [when Snider was sent back to the minors after experiencing some success with the Blue Jays].” With Urbon’s help, Snider, who is making $435,800 this year and has paid another visit to the minors, got over it.

In the end, it’s the agent’s job to be more than baby sitter, hand holder, contract negotiator and financial adviser. Finding a player a place to live in a new city isn’t an unusual task for sports agents. Neither is acting as chauffeur and big brother.

And then there’s the issue of generating revenue beyond the player’s contract. That step means arranging autograph shows; hooking the client up with a car dealership; handling shoe, glove and bat contracts; maybe even getting him some local gigs as an advertising pitchman.

“If you want to put it in those terms,” Urbon says, “each player is an account. But they are so much more than that. They are all human. Your job is to do what you can to enable them to succeed.”

And that enables Urbon to succeed.

Executive Q&A: Toward a More Perfect Union

Executive Q&A: Toward a More Perfect Union

As president of Seattle-based SEIU 775, David Rolf represents more than 40,000 long-term-care workers in Washington and Montana.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

David Rolf expanded the number of home-care and nursing-home workers in his Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chapter twentyfold — to 44,000 — in the past decade. He was a leader in Seattle’s push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and has received national attention by calling for labor unions to innovate.

FAMILY: I grew up in a middle-class family in Cincinnati. My great-grandfather on my dad’s side was the president of a distillers’ union. My grandfather on my mom’s side was born into poverty in Appalachia and worked on farms and at timber mills. It was joining General Motors and becoming part of the UAW that moved him into the middle class. 
 
INJUSTICE: I was brought up believing that people were fundamentally good and that if you worked hard, you would be treated fairly — which is either the most naïve or most dishonest thing you can teach a child. 
 
EDUCATION: At college [Bard College in New York], I spent as much time on picket lines as I did in class. As a student government leader, I supported all the progressive causes, but the place I felt I could make an 
authentic contribution was in the labor movement. I supported the janitors when they organized into the SEIU in 1989. Later, I did an internship at an SEIU local, and they ended up offering me a job.
 
ORGANIZING: I worked for a scrappy, heavily African-American local union in Atlanta, organizing public-sector employees like hospital orderlies and bus drivers. I always thought of unions not as talent agencies or negotiators but as social movement organizations that help ordinary people share in prosperity. I spent 20 years organizing some of the biggest union campaigns since the 1930s.
 
EPIPHANY: For decades, I thought that by being smarter and more strategic we could reverse the decades-long course of labor decline. But by early 2012, we had seen a generation of right-wing governors take office and repeal union rights. I began this quest to figure out how we could replace the model that we have with something that is stronger and more effective.
 
CHANGE: Unions grew because of the Great Depression, the large proportion of workers in factories, the unpleasant work conditions, and mobsters who were looking for new profit centers and promoted unions to loot their treasuries and extort employers. Factory owners decided that dealing with a union was better than waking up and not knowing if their factory was going to produce anything that day. But today, capital can be moved around the globe with a few keystrokes. You can source labor almost anywhere. The power of the industrial strike has been crushed. There is no Communist Party cranking out anti-capitalist organizers, and there is 
no Mafia. Good riddance, but still. People today take more jobs before they are 25 than those in my grandfather’s generation had in their entire lives.
 
WAGE STAGNATION: Now we’ve suffered 40 years of wage stagnation. Who would have imagined in the 1970s that if women doubled their workforce participation, the take-home pay of the bottom 90 percent of households would not increase at all? Who would have imagined that we would create more wealth in 30 years than humans had created in their entire history and none of that wealth would go to the bottom 90 percent? 
 
COMPETITION: If the unionization system is opt-in site by site, you create an incentive for employers to bust unions. Even a highly moral employer will say, “If I’m the only one with a union, I’m at a disadvantage.” If you employ janitors in Seattle, you’re fine because it’s 95 percent union here. [Landlords] aren’t competing based on the price of labor. But in the hotel sector in Seattle, only a tiny percentage is unionized. That tends to force wages down. 
 
ALTERNATIVES: Germany has the world’s largest middle class by percentage of population. Its automobile workers make twice what ours do and they still produce twice as many autos as we do. Their unions set minimum standards by sector and by region. We could do the same for the fast-food sector or the maritime sector. 
 
ORGANIZING BY TECHNOLOGY: In the old days, there were hiring halls where you would go to find construction workers. Now, you just get a message on your smartphone that tells you where to show up. One can imagine an app that helps workers engage in collaborative price setting and cut out the middleman, such as all these VC-backed platforms like Uber. Alternatively, Uber workers could meet and form an organization and collectively decide to turn off their apps until prices reached a certain point.
 
WIN-WIN: People characterize unions as “members first, pale, male, stale and possibly in jail.” But whether it’s protecting the bad teacher or the drunken guy on the assembly line, those were designed features of our collective-bargaining system. If you were going to design something for the 21st century, you would want a system that scales to touch millions of people so it doesn’t put individual firms at a disadvantage. Things like work councils and co-ownership also tend to promote efficiency and a win-win strategy.
 
DONALD TRUMP: American workers have been taking it on the chin for 40 years, so it’s not surprising that people are angry. Every time that happens, someone will offer a scapegoat to blame. The simplistic, populist appeal of someone like Trump doesn’t gain traction when people feel as if they’ve bought into the system in which they are working and voting. 
 
$15 MINIMUM WAGE: The cities with the most restaurants per capita — Seattle and San Francisco — are the cities with the highest minimum wages. Phased-in increases, even relatively steep ones, give businesses time to change and adapt. I met with labor leaders in Europe and among them were McDonald’s workers making $20 an hour under their union contracts.
 
GLOBALIZATION: It explains why we only sew 5 percent of our clothes in this country — down from 95 percent in the 1960s. It doesn’t explain why the guy who puts fuel in jet aircraft makes a minimum wage today versus $60,000 and benefits in the 1970s. 
 
EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.