THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Batting 1.000 : Even with millions of dollars at stake, sports agent Jeff Moorad has no use for written contracts. All it takes for him to sign some of baseball’s top talent is a low-key approach and a handshake.
Another baseball strike looms, and you’re ticked, right? The average player salary is $1.2 million, and that’s not enough? Gimme a break, you say?
OK, calm down. Let Jeff Moorad explain it to you. Moorad has been explaining the players’ side for 12 years, using his friendly, reassuring baritone to negotiate contracts that have made jillionaires out of jocks. Have a seat on the sofa in his Newport Beach office. He’ll be with you as soon as he’s off the phone.
Then he’ll amuse you with an anecdote. He’ll small talk about the people who have called that day, dropping familiar names like acorns. He’ll confide in you about this deal that’s about to close. He’ll flatter you by telling his assistant to take a message when the league office calls. He’ll chuckle at something you say and join in the kidding.
And then, rather suddenly, he will slide into business. The Caring Voice of Reason (which has become the Moorad service mark around the leagues) will help it all make sense.
It’s ironic, he says, that society has an easy time accepting that a sports franchise owner gets millions “yet a very difficult time understanding why an athlete, who after all is the chief entertainment component of that owner’s profit-making, (is) making millions of dollars himself.”
No one complains about what Clint Eastwood makes, because he’s an entertainer. “I think it’s important to remember that big-time sports today have become pure entertainment. The games survive as competitions, but the business surrounding those games are billion-dollar industries.”
Players received about half of baseball’s $1.8-billion gross revenues last season, he says. “Who (better) to receive those dollars than the people who are bringing the fans through the turnstiles, to the TV to watch the broadcast--the players themselves?”
He’ll show you the 1914 portrait of his grandfather, Frank Shaw, in a Modesto Reds uniform, bat in hand, pretending to await a pitch. “He was a professional baseball player, and he was invited up to the big leagues once. But he didn’t go--because he had to support his family.”
Moorad chuckles at the irony. So do you.
Ten minutes of this and you may not be converted, but you don’t feel like fighting anymore. Certainly not with a nice, friendly guy like Jeff. You are confident that if you call back in a year, in five years, he will remember you and invite you over to the house on Balboa Island.
And that, say the people whom he works for and against, is the difference and the secret of Jeffrey S. Moorad, 39, the quiet although not silent partner of Steinberg & Moorad, home of some of the biggest bucks in the sports-agent business.
“He is as good at the schmooze as anyone, although that’s a belittling term that doesn’t really apply here,” says Larry Baer, executive vice president of the San Francisco Giants.
“He uses sugar instead of vinegar,” says another team’s general manager, who asked not to be identified. Make that molasses, he says, since it moves so slowly.
“I mean this literally: All a negotiation needs to take is 10 minutes. But this year, most of Jeff’s guys were the last to sign. In my opinion, he wanted his deals to look better than the other deals, so he strung them out.”
Bob Quinn, general manager of the Giants, agrees. “Jeff does not like to strike a quick deal because it would give the appearance to the (player’s) family that they could have done it themselves. It’s all posturing--needless posturing, I might add.”
Still, concedes Tom Grieve, general manager of the Texas Rangers, “He’s a very good negotiator. He gets solid deals for his clients. His goal is the same as any other agent, but he’s pleasant to deal with. His style is very low-key.”
Moorad joined the firm in 1985 and became a partner four years later. But while his partner, Leigh Steinberg, has repeatedly been profiled in print and on TV, Moorad seldom appears except to explain the terms of a just-sealed deal. While Steinberg basks in the description “super agent,” a term he helped inspire, Moorad prefers the title “sports attorney.”
And while Steinberg is known for guiding NFL quarterbacks, it was Moorad’s success in baseball that made him the jigsaw fit in the partnership. He now handles football and broadcast negotiations as well, but at Steinberg & Moorad, he is still Mr. Baseball. When the Dodgers play the Giants, eight of the players and broadcasters are Moorad’s.
Among his clients: the Giants’ Matt Williams ($30.75 million over five years), the Rangers’ Will Clark ($30 million over five years) and the Dodgers’ Eric Karros ($6.15 million over three years) and Cory Snyder ($3 million over two years). Also Greg Olson (Atlanta Braves), Ray Lankford (St. Louis Cardinals), Mike Macfarlane (Kansas City Royals) and Kirt Manwaring (Giants). Moorad has also enlisted a flock of minor-league hatchlings for whose potential big-league teams have paid high-end six- and even seven-figure sums. (A baseball agent typically receives 4% to 5% of a player’s major-league salary.)
The relationship is all-consuming for Moorad, longtime clients say. One associate said he doubts that Moorad has any close friends outside baseball. When his first child, a son, was born last month, his first call after family went to Clark. Moorad’s wedding photograph shows 10 ushers standing behind him--a partner, five clients and four relatives.
“He doesn’t venture out of that circle too much,” says Clark, a first baseman who has been a Moorad client for nine years. “And when he does, it’s out of necessity, out of stress and burnout. When he’s working, that’s where his focus is.”
And Moorad is working virtually all the time. Modern communications allow him a telephone always at his side, and he is on it from daybreak (there are two lines into the bathroom) to late into the night, negotiating, arranging, counseling, gossiping, just saying hi. Even his partner is amazed.
“Jeff has probably the most phone volume I’ve ever seen in a lawyer,” Steinberg says. “One of Jeff’s new hobbies is calling from planes, which is probably $1.75 a minute. He can do a tremendous amount of damage from L.A. to New York.” The firm’s monthly phone bill averages $7,500.
The result is a tie that binds more tightly than a contract, Moorad says. As hokey as it sounds, he says, clients become family--literally. He married the sister-in-law of a client--Olson, a relief pitcher.
Moorad says, and his clients confirm, that their agreement is based on a handshake, not a written contract.
“Over the years, we’ve become friends, almost like he’s not my agent anymore,” says Snyder, who has been a client for 10 years. “We’ve both been at each other’s weddings. It’s a very close relationship. . . .
“It’s pretty much up to me when to write him his check. He has clients to where they know when to do it. He never has to tell you. He knows his clients are responsible enough.”
That approach is probably unusual, the Giants’ Quinn says, “but I think that’s a great way to do business. If you’re entrusting that kind of money to your agent, you better have a special relationship. It may go beyond a husband-wife relationship. You’re talking a hell of a lot of money.”
“That’s how they obtain their clients; they become their friends,” says Gary Hughes, the Florida Marlins’ director of scouting. “Their first sell job is to get the client. That’s where all the competition is.”
And the competition is keen because there are plenty of agents. “All you got to do to be an agent is say, ‘I’m an agent,’ ” says Tom Grieve, general manager of the Rangers. Legions of wanna-bes troll the minor leagues for clients, and the players union certifies about 200 to represent the more than 1,000 major leaguers. Still, by union estimates, 15 or 20 top agents handle about half of those players.
Moorad is within that elite group, but for his first two years, he says, “I lived in fear of the question, ‘So who are your clients?’ ”
That was 1983, after Moorad had gotten his degrees in political science (UCLA) and law (Villanova) and spent a year as a litigation attorney in Newport Beach. Then, he turned to sports law.
Everything about it seemed to fit his temperament, he recalls.
His father, whose Assyrian parents had fled Persia, was a chief buyer for the Gallo wineries in Modesto. He had impressed his son with his negotiating abilities. “I learned that the sticker price never really means what it says, and there is always a better deal to be had,” Moorad says.
A lawyer uncle became a role model as well. And sports were omnipresent, from his grandfather’s baseball, to his father’s collegiate football and management of the respected California (now Modesto) Relays, to his own basketball at Modesto’s Downey High.
By the time he reached UCLA, Moorad was interested enough to begin a research paper on sports representation. J.D. Morgan, then the school’s athletics director, referred him to Sam Gilbert, a Los Angeles contractor whose maneuverings led to NCAA sanctions against UCLA and a racketeering indictment in Florida years later. During Moorad’s time at the school, Gilbert handled negotiations for some UCLA players’ first professional contracts. Watching Gilbert, talking to him between phone calls, was the student’s introduction to the real world of sports negotiation.
Working from his Newport Beach apartment and contacting every person he knew with even the slightest connection to baseball, Moorad struggled to establish a stable of clients. After a year, “I’d pieced together some of the finest minor league talent you’ve never heard of.”
But he had also deduced that high schools and colleges were the better hunting grounds. And in 1984, some of the best amateurs had gathered in Los Angeles to form the U.S. Olympic team.
Snyder was getting a flurry of calls from 30 to 40 agents and attorneys, and Clark was being courted by perhaps 125. Each had taken steps to insulate themselves from the rush, but Moorad simply walked up to them.
His was a very casual, low-key approach, Clark recalls. “It was, ‘Hi, I’m Jeff. How are you doin’? How’s everything going? Mind if I get in touch with you and we talk sometime?’ He didn’t really blow his own horn a lot, and a lot of guys were doing that.”
“He just seemed more down-to-earth,” Snyder remembers. “The other ones were just by-the-book: ‘This is the way it’s gonna be done.’ Also, I wanted someone with a sense of humor who would laugh and joke and play with you. He was just starting out back them. For some reason, we just hit it off.”
The alliance with Snyder, then Clark a year later, put Moorad on baseball’s mainline. His approach has not changed much over the years, Moorad says. It is rooted in the realization that baseball players, or at least those Moorad wants as clients, need more from an agent than negotiation skills.
“A lot of them are young and naive,” the Rangers’ Grieve says. “They need a lot of help. Sometimes they need a sports psychologist, a marriage counselor. To me, an agent who devotes himself just to the contract is not much of an agent.”
Moorad puts it more tersely: You lose clients through “lack of attention.” Some agents even shunt players to an underling, he says.
Which is why Moorad was meeting with the Dodgers’ Raul Mondesi, one of baseball’s hottest rookies. Mondesi was looking for an agent, had heard about Moorad in the clubhouse and had expressed interest.
Moorad was doing little favors, such as researching Mondesi’s shoe-endorsement contract so he could explain the details.
“In many cases, a player is more focused on the shift of $2,500 in his shoe contract than he is in the shift of $250,000 in his playing contract, because there’s more real-life significance to that. The concept of having $3,000 of free merchandise from Nike versus $5,000 of free merchandise is the difference between covering your family at Christmas time with shoes and sweat suits and not being able to.
“Obviously, they can afford to pay for those things, but the concept of free merchandise is a magnetic phenomenon. I’ve always put as much emphasis on, shall we say, the lower-level things as I do on the major, because it’s all a part of maintaining that client relationship.”
So on the Friday before the All-Star game, while negotiations for drafted rookies are hanging, most of Moorad’s phone calls are for the “little” things.
* The uncle of a client is getting into a business deal and might want an endorsement from a Moorad client. They’ll talk later.
* A player wants an extra hotel room for relatives at the All-Star game. Moorad sends his assistant to call the league office.
* A young pitcher shows up for a visit, and they share hamburgers in the office. If a couple of close games had turned around, you would have been in the All-Star game, Moorad says. By the way, have you voted yet for the strike? Very important.
* A quarterback calls, and Moorad invites him to the All-Star party.
* A minor league player calls, and Moorad says he’ll arrange for the usual supply of shoes and bats.
* Reporters call to check on contract negotiations. Moorad asks as many questions as he answers. Why is the team balking? Who has the power to say “yes”?
* Another player calls and wants to change brands of batting glove. Sure, and do you want to try a new brand of sunglasses?
* A player’s relative calls, and Moorad says he’s heard the player is drinking very heavily. “Not abusive or anything, but just bombed. It’s just when you’re a high-profile athlete, people talk. I thought I might just touch base and flag the issue.”
Such things are important at Steinberg & Moorad. Clients are expected to establish charity and scholarship funds, to act as role models, and to avoid the sort of things that bruise and wither playing careers--like throwing firecrackers at fans or turning up in detox units. Yes, it’s good PR, and yes, it prevents a lot of headaches for an agent, but mostly it’s just the right thing to do, Moorad says. The kind of clients willing to do it are the kind good for the long run, he says.
“He knows what he wants,” Snyder says. “He wants a respectable player, one who knows what he’s doing, not a partyer type. Lots of agents will sign 50, 60 guys in the minors and just hope one or two get to the big leagues.”
“The thing about it is, Jeff’s got a very good practice but not a huge practice,” Clark says. “I didn’t want to be one of 500 clients. There’s only one or two guys a year that he picks up. He’s big enough, but he’s not really, really big, so he can still see you on a personal level.”
Even the enemy camp has praise for Moorad, although something of the damning kind.
“Yeah, Jeff’s for real, you’re darn right,” says Quinn of the Giants. “And I like Jeff, despite what I feel about agents in general. My underlying feeling is, right on the table, they make a hell of a lot of money off players with a hell of a lot of talent and can make their entire salary in 12 weeks out of the year. And more power to ‘em. Sure, they do other things for their players, but the good, hard negotiations are 12 weeks. That’s it.
“I can truthfully say I’m jealous.”
On a Saturday in July, Moorad is entertaining a client, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, at home on Balboa Island. The living room is ornately comfortable, but everyone is upstairs in the small, cluttered “apartment” where Jan Moorad has been virtually bedridden for weeks because of a difficult pregnancy.
The remains of a pizza and a pie are on the counter. On a night stand is a medical monitor that transmits the unborn baby’s vital signs to the hospital. How are you doing? Fine, she says, answering the question for perhaps the 20th time that day.
Hammonds and his girlfriend give hugs and goodbys. The phone rings often, and Moorad takes some of the calls. He will be off to Miami that night, Pittsburgh the next day and back on Wednesday, all the time calling his wife, clients, teams, reporters, assistants.
He takes time out in the living room to explain the reason for it all: “It’s just a great high to close a deal. I live for those moments of closing a deal I’m convinced is pushed to the limit.”
A few days later, Jan Moorad delivers 5-pound, 1-ounce Justin William a month prematurely, but he’s strong and home with Mother within a few days. Asked whether the boy is right- or left-handed, Moorad chuckles.
“I think I’ll keep him on my side of the table,” he says. “You last longer.”
Jeffrey S. Moorad
Native?: Yes, born and raised in Modesto; lives on Balboa Island in Orange County.
Family: Married to Jan Johnson Moorad; 17-day-old son, Justin William.
Passions: Basketball, baseball, football and the moment of closing the deal.
On the pending baseball strike: “Remember that each time a basic agreement is negotiated, you have a group of new owners who are convinced that they can break the union: ‘Hey, why can’t we get rid of arbitration, why can’t we curb free agency?’ In reality, they can’t, nor should they be able to, and as soon as the owners recognize that once again, I think we’ll have a basic agreement in short order.”
On what’s special about sports negotiation: “The difference is you’re talking about human beings--players, who many owners and general managers think of as commodities when they’re not. They’re real people. And there are issues that apply to the negotiation that are completely distinct from buying or selling a car. How a player feels after negotiations is as important as the bottom line.”
On the odds of success: “In baseball, the system flushes away 90% of the players. Less than 10% of the players who sign professional contracts make it to the major leagues. And think of the kids who give up college, give up an opportunity to have an education. You have such mixed feelings.”