Pitching In

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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: Cougar Goals

Executive Q+A: Cougar Goals

The dean of WSU’s Carson College of Business is intent on creating new undergraduate opportunities.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
Larry W. “Chip” Hunter, a scholar of human resource management and industrial relations, became dean of Washington State University’s Carson College of Business in March 2015. He aims to make Carson College the premier place in the Northwest for an undergraduate business education.
 
EARLY YEARS: I was born in Kansas, lived in Minnesota during grade school and moved west to Moscow, Idaho, when I was 12. My father was an administrator at the University of Idaho. My mother opened a children’s clothing store. My first paying job was washing dishes at Allino’s Hoagie Shop in Moscow. The place has been remodeled and is now called Gambino’s and is owned by Nancy Swanger, the director of our School for Hospitality Business Management! 
 
WHY BUSINESS: I was curious about workplace conditions and how money creates opportunity. As a professor, I began to wonder if we could get students thinking about how they, as managers and leaders, can create opportunities for others.
 
EDUCATION: I got my master’s at Oxford University, where I worked for legendary professors of economics, politics and philosophy. I also learned to play cricket. While working on my doctorate at MIT, advisers encouraged me to get out from behind my desk and understand the world, focusing on questions that matter. 
 
U.S. BUSINESS EDUCATION: We are very good at training students in technical business skills, and by encouraging them to take courses in liberal arts and sciences, we help them develop critical thinking and communication skills. At research universities, professors also do research and inspire rigorous ways of thinking about problems. That said, we don’t always do the best job of training students to translate their technical skills and abstract thinking into defining and solving real problems. We also don’t do a good job of teaching them to confront their mistakes and learn from failure. 
 
CARSON COLLEGE: Employers want students who have all the required technical skills in things like finance and accounting and who are analytical, but they also want students who can communicate, collaborate, take initiative and be entrepreneurial. There isn’t enough time to teach all that separately, so one idea is to infuse a lot of that thinking into existing courses. Accounting students, for example, might use online “adaptive learning” technology to learn technical skills, but then work in groups in class explaining the concepts to each other and working on issues they don’t understand. That encourages collaboration. We have a task force looking at these kinds of approaches and how to diffuse it into the faculty. 
 
WORKFORCE READINESS: We need students with strong entry-level skills, but we also need to shape their ability to learn. One approach is to work closely with employers to structure great internship opportunities, and encourage students to engage in global experiences, networking events and business-plan competitions. The best predictor of getting a job is having an internship. All studentst should have an internship as part of their education. 
 
PULLMAN: Having our main campus in Pullman can make it difficult to bring in experts and attract a diverse group of students. But we are creating diverse campuses across the state. Our Tri-Cities campus has a deep expertise in wine business management, our Everett campus works with experts in senior living management, and in Vancouver, our students do hands-on consulting with a local business in their senior year. We’d love to work with alumni to raise a fund to invest in innovative ways of teaching business.  
 
ONLINE EDUCATION: We are learning more and more about how to work in the online environment. I’d like to use more “adaptive learning” technologies to guide students through their more technically oriented courses, identify areas they have trouble with, and have facilitators and instructors there to help students get through challenging bits. 
 
DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP: There’s interesting recent work that shows introverts and extroverts are equally likely to be effective leaders. Self-awareness is a common theme among successful leaders. How do you play to your strengths? How do you compensate for your weaknesses? And how do you discover what those strengths and weaknesses are? Many leaders are really good listeners who know how to strike the balance between listening and acquiring information and not waiting too long to make a decision.
 
FIVE-YEAR GOALS: We want to make our online programs the best in the Northwest for the price. We also want to provide a lot more business education to non-business students, including courses in financial literacy so they know what to ask if they’re buying insurance or taking out a loan. When I was [associate dean] at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we offered a one-week immersion course in entrepreneurship for scientists.
 
TEN-YEAR GOALS: To be among the top 25 public undergraduate business programs in the country — the first place students choose for an undergraduate business education in the Northwest. We also want to become the place that the business and policy community goes to for critical thinking about the Northwest. 
 

TAKE 5
Get to Know Chip Hunter

  1. DIVERSIONS: “I’m a trivia nut and went on Jeopardy! in the ’90s. I lost.”
  2. BOOK SHELF: “David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a great guide to personal productivity and effectiveness at work. Between the World and Me [by Ta-Nehisi Coates] is a deeply moving book about the reality of black experience in America. I just started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.” 
  3. FAVORITE DRIVE: “From Seattle to Pullman, with its changing geography, over the Cascades, into the high desert, and then finally into the Palouse.” 
  4. ADMIRED LEADER: “I am in awe of Lincoln — an amazing combination of steel spine and flexibility in approaching problems, of deep unwavering principles combined with pragmatism.” 
  5. DREAM VACATION: “A golf trip to St. Andrews, Scotland, with a group of my buddies.”

EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.