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Sports agent takes long road to become heavy hitter

The kid from Rochester was throwing serious, double-check-the-radar-gun heat. And Tom O'Connell wanted him.

No. He needed him.

In the spring of 1998, O'Connell was breaking into the sports agent business. He had the backing of Orlando personal injury attorney John Morgan, but he was starting from scratch. To make ends meet, he managed a bar on weekends.

O'Connell had signed a few minor league players, but he needed that first big client, his ticket to the show.

That same spring, Tim Redding was just starting out with the Houston Astros. Assigned to the Auburn (N.Y.) Doubledays of the Class A New York-Penn League, Redding had pitched brilliantly one night when O'Connell approached him about signing.

Redding was willing to listen. But he had to catch the team bus for the two-hour trip home. Like any good agent, O'Connell jumped in his Ford Explorer and followed the bus. That night, over chicken wings and beer, they talked contracts. "Just give me a year," O'Connell said.

On the way to Redding's apartment, at the base of a wall that surrounds the Auburn Correctional Facility, Redding told O'Connell to pull over.

There are about 1,200 baseball players in the major Leagues, and about 400 registered agents.

That should mean money for everybody. The average player's salary last year was $2.8-million. The minimum a player can make is $290,000. Agents typically take 1 to 4 percent for contract work and 10 to 20 percent for marketing deals. O'Connell's standard take is 4 and 10 percent, respectively.

But this is not a level playing field.

Sports agencies and super agents such as Scott Boras have cornered much of the market. A recent survey of registered agents by ESPN.com found that fewer than 5 percent of all agents net more than $100,000 a year.

Money's in the majors

Unless they're a top draft pick, many of the newer players sign with lower-tier agents. And that's where the players often stay, bouncing around the minors making $30,000 a year.

But occasionally, one of those players makes it to the major leagues. Where the major money is.

The key, O'Connell said, is to recognize talent and separate yourself from everyone else. But in many ways, he fits the mold.

He's usually armed with at least two cell phones, a BlackBerry and a laptop. Divorced and 40, he calls everyone by their first name and tosses out phrases like, "You build relationships like a house. From the bottom up."

O'Connell's biggest catch so far is Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Manny Corpas. Although Corpas has just over a year of big-league experience, last month O'Connell negotiated a four-year, $8-million deal with the Rockies. The contract includes two option years that could make the total package worth more than $22-million. It was the longest contract the Rockies had ever given a relief pitcher.

"He's open and honest and puts his position out there," said Bill Geivett, assistant general manager and vice president of baseball operations for the Rockies. "I appreciate that, because it helps me do my job.

"The guys who stand the test of time are guys with integrity. This industry would weed them out very quickly if they weren't. Word travels fast among the players."

And if the word isn't good, an agent can pay dearly.

Good word of mouth

Before he retired from baseball last month, pitcher Dan Miceli played 14 seasons in the major leagues, the last six with O'Connell as his agent.

"The players don't really trust the agents," said Miceli, who played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006. "And one player talking bad about an agent can ruin the agent for years. A lot of agents I've dealt with only want to make a buck. You sign a multiyear deal, and you don't hear from them again for months."

Miceli credits O'Connell for caring. "He's a fan of the game. He'll drive hundreds of miles to watch a minor-league game, or he'll help a guy who just got released find a job doing something else."

That nearly happened with O'Connell's first big find: Tim Redding. The kid from Rochester.

Redding signed the contract outside the prison wall, and he made it to the big leagues in 2001. But in 2005, he found himself back in the minors. Toward the end of last season, the Washington Nationals picked him up.

Sticking together

At 30, Redding was running out of places to play. But this spring, Redding has been reborn. He's one of Washington's most consistent pitchers.

"I had Scott Boras, the best agent in all of sports, come after me four or five times," Redding said. "But I was very comfortable about turning him down. And (his representatives) always asked me why.

"I asked each one, 'Are you Scott Boras?' They weren't. But when I want to talk to Tom O'Connell, he'll be there. The story of Jerry Maguire is me and Tom. He's always been by my side, even when I couldn't get anybody out."

Those kinds of stories, Miceli and others said, are how careers are built. And no one knows that better than O'Connell.

"For the first time in my life, people know I have serious ammo," he said. "I had a BB gun before. Now I have a bazooka."

Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8247.

Fast facts

Survive and thrive

In a highly competitive business that is largely self-regulated, Tom O'Connell has managed to survive. And grow. After several years of working the minor league circuit from Florida to New York, he founded Tampa-based Legends Management Group in 2000. He and his staff of four now represent more than 20 players on major-league rosters, plus more than 40 minor leaguers. Among his clients are pitchers Redding of the Washington Nationals, Corpas of the Colorado Rockies, Yankees pitcher Carl Pavano, Braves infielder Chris Woodward and Yankees infielder Nick Green.

Sports agent takes long road to become heavy hitter 03/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 12:43pm]
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