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He'd just finished lunch and was headed north up Route 101 near Palo Alto, Calif., when he heard a bang coming from the right rear of his Ford Mustang. About a half-mile south of the Stanford University exit, Dontrelle felt his car drifting toward the right lane and instinctively yanked the steering wheel to the left to avoid a collision. But the fleeting instant for adjustment had already passed. The Mustang skidded northbound while facing west, then toppled on its side and flipped counterclockwise once, twice, three times before coming to rest beside the center divider, facing the oncoming traffic.As a minor-league pitcher with the Florida Marlins, Dontrelle was accustomed to setting events in motion. Now, a random and inexplicable occurrence was hurling him down the highway at 65 mph. Buckled in his seat, he felt a sense of horror: His fate was out of his hands. He kept his eyes open through each flip, watched the front windshield shatter, and raised his arms and braced them against the roof of the car. I don't want to die like this, he told himself. He felt a wet sensation on the back of his neck and later surmised that the radiator had sprung a leak. The scene unfolded with a sickening, slow-motion feel, yet it happened so quickly that there was barely time to pray. The accident photographs are both grotesque and surreal. They show a green mass of metal propped on its side, so mangled you can barely discern that it's a car, much less a Ford Mustang. As Dontrelle shimmied out the busted back window onto the asphalt, he looked at his vehicle. The hood was gone and the windshield was but a memory. Traffic was passing by so quickly on Route 101 that another car nearly struck him on the highway's shoulder. His blue-and-white polo shirt was stained with some sort of fluid. He later chose to keep the shirt as a memento, to remind him of how lucky he had been. Dontrelle took a quick inventory, thanked God that he was in one piece, then pulled out his cellular phone. Who to call? His mother was at work, and she'd freak, he knew. So he dialed his agent's number.
"Dude, I've been in a bad accident," he said to Matt Sosnick. "Come get me."Matt knew it was bad when he called the dispatcher and she told him that several motorists had already reported the accident. He jumped in his Jaguar and reached the scene in 20 minutes, only to find the off-ramp closed. So he drove down the embankment through the bushes, into a place no Jaguar XJ8 had gone before. Then he crossed several lanes onto the shoulder and wedged his way behind a parked police car. Matt glanced at the traffic and saw passers-by making the sign of the cross. A California Highway Patrol officer later described the accident as "gnarly." Dontrelle was 100 percent, Grade A fine. But he emerged from his car in an almost trancelike state. He approached Matt with tears on his face, and they hugged each other so hard it hurt. The baseball agent exists to negotiate contracts and provide round-the-clock babysitting services for millionaire big leaguers in need. He frets over your salary arbitration case and talks the hotel manager back to Earth after you've skipped out on the bill. The agent exudes an air of mystery: His profession is a marriage of romance and sleaze, and he's either a detail man, an opportunist, or both, depending on your vantage point. He works ridiculously long hours looking out for the best interests of his clients, or risks sleep deprivation hatching schemes to screw management out of every buck. Who knows what motivations race through his head behind that gelled hair and those designer shades? The agent is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, cloaked in a tailored Italian suit. Matt Sosnick, who runs a growing baseball agency in suburban San Francisco, bats about .500 on stereotypes. "There are four things you need to know about me right away," he'll say, once he opens the passenger door to his Jaguar and you're ensconced in leather. "I live for the Dave Matthews Band. I've taped every Simpsons episode ever made. I don't have a crumb of food in my house. And I only sleep on sheets with a really high thread count."
Matt also owns several top-of-the-line suits that he buys from the Hong Kong tailors who pass through town every few weeks for private fittings. The suits are worth $3,000 apiece, but he purchases them for $800 to $900 each. He's proud of the price and quick to reveal the inner lining, where his name is stitched in fancy script. The suits help him look sharp on frequent trips to the heartland, where he sweeps in like a Texas twister to romance prospects who have 95-mph fastballs and personal relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ.
|Agent Matt Sosnick, center, tries to stay close to clients like Dontrelle Willis, left, and pitching prospect Mike Hinckley.|
|“||Even in the minor leagues, you have to keep in mind that everybody promises something. ... I've been with (agent) Matt (Sosnick) since I signed out of high school, so I don't want to feel like I'm switching now just because I'm having success. We've had the same relationship since I was in Rookie Ball. That goes a long way. ”|
|— Dontrelle Willis|
Dontrelle looked unassuming in his baggy jeans and throwback jerseys, but he was making an impression with the Florida brass. In his first three professional seasons, he posted a 23-5 record and was anointed an up-and-comer. Baseball America's Prospect Handbook, the Kelley Blue Book of minor-league talent, rated him the fourth best player in the Marlins' farm system. His progress was particularly distressing to the Chicago Cubs, who had been prescient enough to select him in the eighth round of the 2000 amateur draft, only to send him to the Marlins in a six-player trade two years later."Willis creates excellent deception with an unorthodox delivery he says he learned from his mother as a child," read the scouting report on Dontrelle. "After opening eyes throughout his new organization, Willis figures to return to high Class A to start 2003." Maybe so, but Dontrelle had already received the prize in the Cracker Jack box: a letter from the Marlins telling him he'd been invited to big-league camp. It meant he was no longer relegated to the back fields at spring training, where he'd be forced to practice mundane chores like covering first base on bunt plays with other young hopefuls. Through this latest stroke of good fortune, Dontrelle would tackle the mundane, mind-numbing chores of pitchers' fielding practice on the main fields with A. J. Burnett, Brad Penny and other established Marlins. Dontrelle was at his mother's house playing PlayStation 2 when his invitation arrived in the mail. He spent most of that night lying in bed staring at this little sheet of paper, reluctant to sleep because it might force him to relinquish the sweet sense of accomplishment for only a few hours. "Dude, I'm going to be the kid that changes the game," he told Matt, out of a can-do spirit rather than a sense of boastfulness. The winter was an emotional ordeal for Sosnick in many respects. He'd been banging away at this agent business for more than five years always in the red only to discover that each step forward was accompanied by two steps back. Matt and Paul had hustled up an impressive stable of players through the annual June draft. But as the kids progressed through the minors and got close enough to glimpse life in The Show, they began leaving for more established agencies, often suddenly or with little explanation. Sometimes players would break the news by phone, and other times with a failure to return calls. Sometimes, notification would come in the mailbox, in a missive known among agents as a "fire letter." A fire letter makes the knot in your gut twist exponentially as you open the envelope. Nothing personal, the letter would say. It's just business. "The dark side of the business was something Matt and I didn't know about," says Paul, the calmer, analytical half of Sosnick-Cobbe Sports, Inc. "The stealing and paying and that sort of stuff. We haven't made any mistakes on the business side. Our mistake and it's an evolving thing is understanding what it really means to maintain relationships with guys. To this day, we tend to take stuff way too personally. It's been a big problem for us."
|Dontrelle Willis' green Ford Mustang flipped three times at 65 mph before coming to rest as a heap of mangled metal.|
Matt laughed. "When?" he said."Right now." Should Matt, a good dozen years older than these kids, have snipped the insanity before the momentum built? Probably. But the boys were already too far gone. They approached the stunt with the sense of exhilaration that comes with hatching a plan to steal your college rival's mascot and knowing that if you wait, someone's better judgment will take hold and you'll reconsider. The biggest challenge was finding a tattoo parlor open on Sundays. Matt leafed through the Yellow Pages, made several calls, and finally found an establishment just a short drive up El Camino in the town of San Bruno. Wayne's Tattoo Studio is located amidst a mind-numbingly endless string of nail parlors and shares a 100-foot patch of suburban turf with a dentist's office, a dry cleaner, a tuxedo rental place, a Karate Kung Fu establishment, and Madame Dora's Psychic Readings where palmistry is a specialty. Appointment made, Sosnick and his players piled into two cars for a field trip of the bizarre. Dontrelle and Jason were resolute in their conviction. Matt and four other minor leaguers Zach Hammes, Brandon Weeden, Blair Johnson, and Adam Donachie showed up for moral support. The tattoo joint was run by a Chinese man and woman, apparently husband and wife, whose politeness was surpassed only by their dexterity. It was comfortingly clean, with a wall full of samples and a fuchsia couch where patrons could relax and flip through books filled with colors and assorted patterns. The proprietors studied the logo on a Sosnick-Cobbe business card, duplicated it on a piece of paper, then got down to business. Dontrelle settled into one chair and Jason, who wanted his in color, plopped down in the other. "It doesn't really hurt," Jason says. "After 5 to 10 minutes, your arm goes numb." And after an hour, you rise from the chair, watch your agent pay the artists $200 for each tattoo, and realize you have a serpentlike S on your biceps for eternity. When Dontrelle went home to Alameda and showed his mother his new adornment, she rolled her eyes in displeasure. Joyce Guy-Harris had made it clear that tattoos with women's names weren't permissible, but her son sure had a flair for inventiveness. He came home one year with a tattoo that said "Proven Point," then another with the inscription "Mr. Willis," as if he might forget his own name. But pledging allegiance to your agent? How can anyone be so sure of a relationship in a world where money speaks volumes and so many actions are based on mutual convenience? "The Sosnick-Cobbe sports logo, I think that was a bit much," Joyce says, "because you never know. . . ." Or maybe you do. In the spring of 2003, Jason Pridie's brother Jon, a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins chain, became the third Sosnick-Cobbe player to get emblazoned. He remembers the event vividly because of the timing. Just as Jon was settling into the chair, someone rushed into the tattoo parlor with news that U.S. troops had bombed Iraq. As word of the tattoo escapade traversed the agent grapevine, Matt Sosnick became something of a curiosity in an insular, backbiting world. In December 2000, agent Jeff Moorad achieved a special brand of notoriety by inviting an ESPN camera to tag along for outfielder Manny Ramirez's negotiations with Boston and the New York Yankees. Scott Boras, the Bill Gates of baseball agents, guaranteed his place in baseball history that same year by forging a record 10-year, $252-million deal for Alex Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers, then charming Lesley Stahl into submission in a 60 Minutes interview. Matt Sosnick, who hopes to attain their level of prominence one day while staying true to his principles as a self-proclaimed "peace and love" guy, is known as the weird, reclusive Californian who's fighting to keep his lunch money in a schoolyard filled with bullies. The players who stay with him care about him enough to turn themselves into human billboards. "It's a loyalty thing," says Jason Pridie. "I'll stick with Soz even if I'm his last guy. If he dies, I'll go down with him." Dontrelle Willis, on the verge of much bigger things, concurs. "Even in the minor leagues, you have to keep in mind that everybody promises something," Dontrelle says. "And you have to keep in mind the people back home. This guy has done a good job for me thus far. I've been with Matt since I signed out of high school, so I don't want to feel like I'm switching now just because I'm having success. We've had the same relationship since I was in Rookie Ball. That goes a long way."
|Longtime friends Matt Sosnick, left, and Paul Cobbe run an agency near San Francisco.|
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.