HE ALSO MAKES HIS PITCH: : Jacobson Saves Best Stuff for Negotiations
When Oakland A’s rookie Mike Warren pitched a no-hitter Sept. 29, 1983, against the Chicago White Sox, Kevin Jacobson’s reaction was a mixture of fantasy and reality.
The fantasy was knocking in the winning run or preserving the no-hitter with a dazzling play at third base. Jacobson had played third behind Warren in Class-A ball at Modesto three years before, so the fantasy wasn’t far-fetched.
In reality, Jacobson backed Warren with his brain instead of his bat or glove. The 26-year-old was Warren’s agent, and he used the no-hitter as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations the following year.
Two years later, Jacobson, 28, would still rather be battling on the field than bantering with executives over the fine points of contracts. But the intensity with which the Thousand Oaks man played the game has been redirected into his new career.
“All I wanted was to be a big league ballplayer,” he said. “I never got there. Now, I’m going to try to be the best agent around.
“I’ll go day and night until I get there.”
The Mercedes Benz that Jacobson says he’ll be driving may be a long way down the road, however.
His three major league clients--the Angels’ Stu Cliburn and Craig Gerber, and the A’s Mick Tettleton--are making the major league minimum salary of $40,000. Warren, his highest salaried player, two weeks ago was sent by the A’s to Triple-A Tacoma after inconsistent outings ballooned his earned-run average to 6.61.
Jacobson says most of his 26 players are on the fast track to big salaries in the big leagues. Certainly, he has been quick to catch on to an essential of the trade: Promote the client at all times.
Jacobson makes better pitches than Warren did on the night of his no-hitter.
“My guys are some of the best young players in the game,” he said. “Some are taking their lumps, but you watch, they’ve got great careers ahead of them.”
Thirteen players Jacobson represents are bubbling just below the big leagues in Triple-A. Occasionally, one surfaces for a spell. Pitcher Tony Mack, a Jacobson client, was called up Thursday by the Angels from Edmonton.
Jacobson knows all about rugged road through the minors. Only 5-feet 9-inches and 160 pounds, he played five years of professional baseball, never advancing beyond Class-A.
Jacobson’s clients say his playing experience has helped him become an effective agent.
“Kevin knows what it’s like to get bounced around the minor leagues,” Cliburn said. “That appealed to me.”
Ralph Nelson, vice president of the San Francisco Giants, says Jacobson is unique among agents with whom he has had contact.
“Everybody and his brother is an agent these days,” Nelson said. “But Kevin is the first ex-player that I know of who is doing reasonably well.
“Five years ago, it was rare for a minor leaguer to have an agent. Now, it seems like every top prospect has representation.”
A successful agent has to be more than a has-been who can relate to playing experiences, however. Negotiations become more difficult as players develop into major leaguers, Jacobson admits.
He doesn’t have a college degree or a law background, but Gerber said he is convinced that Jacobson holds his own in negotiations.
“It didn’t bother me he wasn’t an attorney,” Gerber said. “He has excellent contacts and is really organized. One conversation with him and you can tell he won’t be intimidated. Anyway, I would have been wary of a lawyer type that spoke a different language than I do.”
Tom Reich, a Los Angeles attorney who has represented major league players for 15 years, said the work of an agent is more grueling than glamorous.
“It is a very complex and specialized job,” Reich said. “It’s mighty tough and mighty cold out there.”
Jacobson negotiates salaries for all his clients, but he makes a 6% commission only on those in the big leagues. A portion of his cut is paid to an attorney and an accountant with whom he consults.
Minor leaguers are represented without charge in the hope they’ll someday make the majors. Consider Jacobson’s time an investment. In a couple of years, he says, Triple-A clients such as Dale Sveum of the Brewers, Mike Woodard of the Giants and Steve Kiefer of the A’s should be in the majors making six-figure salaries.
For now, he massages a demoted player’s ego and badgers a team to advance a hot prospect. Jacobson says these are the chores of an agent building a business in the bush leagues.
Jacobson was lauding a client more than usual as he spoke in late June. The player had made it to the majors.
“He’s got awesome stuff,” Jacobson said. “The hardest breaking curve in baseball. Confidence oozes from this guy.”
The agent was praising one Robert Bush Sebra, 23, a right-handed pitcher promoted to the Texas Rangers from the club’s Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City, where he was 5-3 with a 2.39 ERA.
Sebra’s first major league decision came on July 2 against the Angels. It was also his first major league shelling. Reggie Jackson hit run-scoring doubles off the rookie in each of the first two innings. In 1 innings, Sebra allowed the Angels seven earned runs on six hits.
After four outings, he was 0-2 in 15 innings with an 8.79 ERA.
Two weeks ago, Sebra was stripped of his Ranger uniform and sent back to Oklahoma City to earn more stripes. Jacobson’s enthusiasm for the pitcher hasn’t diminished, however.
“He’s going to win 20 games in the majors some day,” Jacobson said. “He’ll be back.”
Sebra says his moral support from his agent is especially important in the early stages of his career.
“I wanted an agent who kept in contact,” Sebra said. “Kevin calls me almost every time I pitch. It’s obvious he cares.”
Jacobson strokes Sebra’s self-esteem the way a trainer strokes a prize thoroughbred after it finishes out of the money.
Mitch Zwolensky is another Texas pitcher who’s needed some TLC from Jacobson. Unlike Sebra, Zwolensky hasn’t had even a little time in the big leagues, and Jacobson believes he has received short shrift.
“After great years in Double-A and Triple-A, Mitch made the 40-man roster this spring,” Jacobson said. “I thought he’d get a shot at sticking with the Rangers.”
As spring wore on, Zwolensky’s patience wore thin. He didn’t pitch a single spring inning, and then-Manager Doug Rader didn’t say a single word to him, according to Jacobson.
“On the last day of spring, Rader walked up to Mitch and spoke his first words to him,” Jacobson said. “He said, ‘Here’s your ticket to Oklahoma City.’ ”
That’s where Zwolensky had spent 1984. The 24-year-old figured he was in a rut with the Rangers and he asked Jacobson to arrange a trade.
“Tom Grieve, the director of minor league operations, said, ‘Yeah, no problem,’ when I asked about a trade,” Jacobson said. “He said it might take some time.”
Before Jacobson could get Zwolensky out of the rut, however, the pitcher stepped in a hole.
“Two days after my conversation with Grieve,” Jacobson said, “Mitch called and said he broke his arm by stepping in a pot hole in the dark and falling at Holiday Inn. He was out a month.”
The injury put the trade on hold, but Jacobson has asked Zwolensky to hang on because the Ranger rotation is in shambles and he may soon get a chance.
If Zwolensky believes he has been treated unfairly, he shouldn’t feel like the Lone Ranger, according to Jacobson.
Steve Kiefer is another client poised to advance to the majors. He, too, called upon the agent to make it through a period of disappointment.
Touted by the A’s as their shortstop of the future after hitting 20 home runs at Tacoma in 1984, Kiefer played well after being brought up last September.
“The front office told him, ‘You’re the shortstop next year,’ ” Jacobson said. “Then they went out and acquired Alfredo Griffin from Toronto during the off-season.
“I was at Kiefer’s house when (A’s Manager) Jackie Moore called. ‘Kief,’ he said, ‘Alfredo is the shortstop, but there’s a place for you on the roster.’ ”
Despite the assurance, Kiefer was cut during spring training after getting only three at-bats. He was moved to third base when the A’s returned him to Tacoma.
“Not many shortstops hit 20 home runs,” Jacobson said. “Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell and Kief. I could see it.
“Just about every third baseman hits 20 homers. Moving Kief to third robs him of what makes him special.
“I told him, ‘This is the year we make a decision. There are 25 other major league teams.’ ”
Said Kiefer: “I felt like one of (Oakland’s) puppets when they sent me back, but Kevin helped pick up my spirits. He’s good that way.”
At Tacoma, Kiefer leads the team with 11 home runs and 47 runs batted in.
“A shortstop who can hit the long ball is going to make real money for someone,” Jacobson said.
Making money--and lots of it--was the practical end of Jacobson’s decision to become an agent. A deeper reason, he says, is his love of baseball.
Kevin Randal Jacobson will do anything to remain close to the game. First, of course, he tried to make it as a player.
“Everyone was going by me during my fifth year in the minors,” he said. “I didn’t feel I was in control of my own destiny. I made the (Class-A) all-star team three years in a row and I was the only guy they wouldn’t promote.
“Everybody I played with was getting letters from agents. I was MVP of my team twice and I never got one letter.”
Jacobson was told he was too slow to make the majors, that he was kept around only because he was a hard worker and a good example for new players. He said he declined coaching positions with the Oakland and Baltimore organizations because he didn’t want to ride buses in the minors for 10 years.
Even a determined guy like Jacobson had reached his limit--he quit.
“I visited my friends on the Angels at their hotel about two months later (in 1982),” he said. “Dick Schofield, Craig Gerber, Ron Romanick--I had played with these guys.
“An agent walked in, suit and tie, talking about fiduciary clauses and using all this legal jargon. The players rolled their eyes.”
During the drive home, Jacobson decided he would become an agent. He knew his playing experience would be a plus. “Look at the first-hand garbage I’ve been through,” he thought.
Attorney John Kohlbrand and accountant John Foster, both of Thousand Oaks, agreed to work as consultants.
All Jacobson needed were customers.
He wrote 65 letters to minor leaguers he wanted to sign.
“I hand wrote each one,” he said.
Only Dave Meier, now an infielder with the Minnesota Twins, replied, and that was to say thanks, but no thanks.
“It discouraged me enough to motivate me,” Jacobson said. “As a player, I went against the odds my whole life. I was used to being discouraged.”
Rather than take any player who would take him, the fledgling agent said he established standards.
“I want guys who are exactly like me,” Jacobson said. “Guys who breathe baseball.
“The only difference is, they’ve got to have major league talent.”
Jacobson’s first collared Warren and Tettleton. Although Warren has fallen on hard times since pitching his no-hitter, Tettleton worked his way through the minors and is having a good season at Oakland.
The brawny catcher is hitting .279 and recently was promoted to starting catcher. Last Saturday on the NBC Game of the Week, Tettleton had two hits off Toronto ace Dave Stieb. Broadcaster Bob Costas said Tettleton was “a pleasant surprise,” for Oakland. Tony Kubek said Tettleton had “great potential.”
Jacobson, at home with his wife, Lisa, and infant son, Robert, was buoyant as he watched the game.
“Mick Tettleton--what a name for a major leaguer,” he said. “He’s only scraped the surface of his ability. He’s going to be a great one.”
Jacobson doesn’t stop pumping when a client is slumping. He reminds anyone within earshot of the player’s potential. When a client is going well, the agent sounds like a snow cone salesman at a sweltering county fair.
Try mentioning Cliburn’s name in Jacobson’s presence.
“Cli’s going to be a star,” Jacobson said. “Here’s a guy who was in the minors for nine years. He gets a shot and he’s in the top 10 in ERA.
“The Angels are in first place and Cli’s a big part of the reason. Luis Sanchez wasn’t doing the job, they gave Cli the ball and he gets everybody out. He’s awesome.
Cliburn chuckled when told of Jacobson’s hyperbole.
“He can judge talent, I’ll say that,” Cliburn said. “Kevin is a guy I can be personable with. That’s a big reason I went with him.
“He might not have the law degree, but he consults with good people on taxes and investments. Most of all, I trust him.”
In fact, Jacobson has no college degree. He attended Moorpark College for a year and Pepperdine University for two, but admits he went to class only to eligible for baseball.
Reich, the veteran agent, represents--among others--eight major leaguers who played in this season’s All-Star Game. He spoke of the job’s increased complexity as players climb into copious cash country.
“Obviously, the stakes get higher,” he said. “Judgments you make affect a player’s whole career. Negotiations are multi-dimensional and painstaking.”
Jacobson said dealing with front offices has been surprisingly easy.
“When I call, I have something to say,” Jacobson said. “I don’t want them thinking, ‘That pest Jacobson is on the line again.’
“Front office people aren’t stupid. They know what their players are doing.”
Said Nelson, the Giants’ vice president: “I think Kevin and I wrapped up our first negotiation in about 15 minutes. He knows that the minor league salary structure is based more on years of service and position within the organization than stats.
“Down the road, Kevin’s lack of training may hinder him. Negotiations get more complex as a player establishes himself in the major leagues. Don’t underestimate him, though. Kevin seems like he knows where he’s headed.”
Chuck Hensley, a pitcher at Shreveport, a Double-A team in the Giants’ organization, believes he is headed in the right direction. He was released by Milwaukee last winter and thanks Jacobson for getting him back in baseball.
“I had another agent and he couldn’t get me invited to spring training,” Hensley said. “I dropped the guy and went with Kevin. He made one phone call and I was with the Giants.
“It was amazing. You could say Kevin’s pretty high on my list right now.”
At this point, Jacobson has to be content with pulling off small miracles. His clients aren’t able to command high salaries and six-figure signing bonuses. The average major league salary is $363,000, but the total salaries of Jacobson’s 26 players isn’t much more than that.
When the major league rosters expand from 25 players to 40 on Sept. 1, Jacobson said he expects 12 of his players to be called up. Their salaries will be prorated at the major league minimum for the duration of their stay in the majors. Jacobson will be cashing in on most of them for the first time.
Within three years, he hopes to have at least 10 players making close to the major league average.
“By that time, the work I’m doing now will be well worth it,” he said.
In addition to negotiating salaries, Jacobson has arranged contracts worth up $10,000 with shoe and bat companies (he gets 6%) for major and minor league clients. On occasion, a player will turn down a deal.
Sometimes, superstition supersedes silver.
“Cliburn turned down a deal to wear Mizuno shoes,” Jacobson said. “He’s going good, and didn’t want to take a chance of changing shoes and getting rocked.”
Placing players on winter league teams in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic is also Jacobson’s job.
“They can make more than the presidents of those countries,” he said.
Jacobson also allows players to call him collect--to a point.
“The only player I’ve dropped is Rick Moore, a pitcher at Phoenix,” he said. “He charged $700 in phone bills to me. I told him, ‘Keep the money.’ It was a symptom of what would happen down the line.”
The tangible benefits Jacobson offers a player--especially a minor leaguer--doesn’t add up to much yet. Jacobson shares the promise and boosts the aspirations of his youthful players, hoping someday to share in their glory days.