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Even Agents Taking a Hit During Baseball Strike

October 08, 1994|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The producer of "Saturday Night Live" is holding on Line 1. . . . Better pick up Line 2, Bret Saberhagen is calling from an airplane. . . . Did you call back the people at Fox? . . . Is everything set with Michael Bolton? . . . When does "Seinfeld" need Danny Tartabull again?

Dennis Gilbert, perhaps the most prominent agent in baseball, works in a fancy office building in Beverly Hills, complete with a panoramic view of the city from his penthouse suite. He wears Armani suits, drives a Rolls-Royce and lives in a 14,000-square-foot mansion.

He also is absolutely miserable these days, feeling no different than the thousands who have been affected by the baseball strike.

One difference is that he keeps working, putting in longer hours on baseball than ever before.

These days, Gilbert, along with hundreds of other baseball agents, continues to work without getting paid. When the players walked Aug. 12, the checks stopped. If the players don't get paid, neither do their agents.

The Beverly Hills Sports Council's client list includes a Who's Who of Baseball. Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, Saberhagen, Tartabull, Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Bobby Bonilla, Kevin Appier and John Franco are among his 75 major league clients. Gilbert and his partners represent 12 players who each earned base salaries in excess of $2 million in 1994, and five players with salaries of at least $4 million.

Considering that the Beverly Hills Sports Council receives 5% commission, the company lost $653,861 in wages from the dozen players earning at least $2 million, and close to $1 million from their entire clientele.

"Don't feel sorry for me," Gilbert said. "We may have lost the most money, but that's because we have negotiated the biggest contracts.

"What this office misses most, though, is the game. That's the fun part about being an agent. I mean, we got the penthouse floor just so we could rent out space on the roof for satellite dishes. We normally would have games on all day.

"Now, instead of watching baseball games on TV, I'm watching Bob Shapiro perform on TV. It feels weird."

Said Jeff Borris, who along with Rick Thurman is a partner with Gilbert: "It's a tremendously empty feeling. This is the time of year we'd be scattering across the country to see our guys in playoff games. Now, we sit around and talk about labor issues.

"It's a tremendous void in all of our lives."

Gilbert, 46, a former minor league outfielder who became a millionaire by the age of 30 by selling life insurance, says he won't suffer any financial hardship because of the strike.

Sure, he has immense overhead, with phone bills that run nearly $10,000 month, but business will be conducted as usual. There will be no layoffs on his staff, and he rejected the invitation from his employees to take a pay cut.

"I know times are tough," Gilbert said. "I had an agent call me the other day and asked if he could come work for me. It's going to be tough on a lot of guys.

"But we can't change. We can't cut back. We've got to ride this out, just like everyone else."

*

It's a cutthroat business, so perhaps it's only natural that no one is reaching out to provide financial or even emotional assistance to hundreds of agents.

If agents sense that one of their brethren is in trouble, some will swoop down and try to woo clients away. The less competition, the better. One man's anguish is another man's joy.

"I'm sure not too many people are feeling sorry for us," said San Diego-based agent Barry Axelrod. "People forget that we're humans too. Not many, but there are some."

Axelrod, a veteran of 18 years in the business, has 10 players in the major leagues, including Jeff Bagwell, a shoo-in for the National League's most valuable player award.

Bagwell, who earned a base salary of $2.4 million in 1994, normally would be able to parlay his season into a five-year contract for about $5 million a year. If nothing else, he'd be eligible for arbitration, which would guarantee that his salary would at least be doubled.

Now, who knows what will happen?

"I feel like an idiot," Axelrod said. "The reason my clients retain me is that I'm supposed to be able to assess the situation.

"Well, I'm clueless. I don't have any idea what will happen. I don't have any idea where he stands now. He could eventually be in a situation with no rights.

"I feel bad for Jeff, too. Assuming he is the MVP, I think it will always be tainted. I think any of us associated with this season will always have that feeling.

"It'll be like (client) Rick Sutcliffe's 1981 World Series ring. He keeps it in a drawer because it wasn't a true season.

"It's just so hard to get excited about anything associated with baseball anymore."

Axelrod, whose only staff member is a secretary, says that he, too, will survive the baseball strike. He also represents a handful of actors and actresses, and that has helped offset the baseball business.

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