COVER STORY:Playing hardball

Matt Sosnick shoots a nervous glance at his cell phone — the way an aspiring ex-smoker might eye a pack of Marlboros tossed across the table.

The urge is too much. He grabs the phone and dials one of his clients.

“Hey, Hammer. You get any hits today?” he shoots out.

Sosnick grits his teeth and shrugs at the response. After all, it’s only a spring training game. Baseball’s April opening day is still a couple of weeks off.

“You know something? Nobody’s going to remember it.”

Sosnick exchanges a few more pleasantries and then closes the call with a somewhat jarring, “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” says a rather masculine Southern-accented voice over the cellular static.

Sosnick flips the phone shut and looks up.

“I love my players,” he explains.

He’s not just their agent. He’s the Jewish mother they never had.

He doesn’t just negotiate their contracts and endorsement deals. When players need investment advice, they dial Soz. When they need to ask what color tie to match to their shirts, they dial Soz. When they hit relationship trouble, they dial Soz. (On the flip side, Jon Pridie, a pitcher in the Chicago Cubs’ system, habitually cruises JDate, advises Soz which women to ask out and then calls to check how successful his “scouting report” turned out to be.)

The 35-year-old Peninsula native tends to keep to himself. His new favorite hobby is memorizing the Scrabble dictionary, and he hopes to one day be able to topple his prolix family members. He avoids large crowds, rarely imbibes any liquid more potent than Diet Coke, and describes himself as a “homebody.”

So, unless you’re a Major League ballplayer or executive, you’ve probably never heard of Matt Sosnick. But you will.

The quirky, high-octane Jewish guy from Burlingame is the centerpiece of the forthcoming Rodale book “License to Deal: A Season on the Run with a Maverick Baseball Agent.”

Penned by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, the book will hit the stands in late spring, backed by a double-barreled PR assault from the sports network. Coupled with advance rave reviews, the tome figures to be huge, perhaps even bigger than last year’s runaway bestseller “Moneyball,” and Sosnick could become a better-known figure than many of his big-league clients.

So, why would a shy guy who doesn’t even like cocktail parties give Crasnick carte blanche access to his life and the chance to make him into a household name?

Sosnick pauses for a moment.

“Well, [Crasnick] is Jewish,” he notes.

He figured the writer would give him a fair shake. And he was right.

Crasnick uses Sosnick and his business partner, Paul Cobbe, as a warts-and-all entrée into the little-known and even less charitable world of big-time sports agents, a realm where Sosnick and Cobbe have built themselves up from sardines to, say, dolphins swimming in shark-infested waters.

Think of them as Indiana Jones. And think of the mega-agents as the unscrupulous, white-suited French archaeologist Belloq. After Indy braves chasms, poison darts, tarantulas and, of course, a giant boulder to bag the golden idol, Belloq steps in at the last minute, pockets it and rubs it in with the snide comment, “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.”

It’s Sosnick and Cobbe who ink deals from their Walnut Creek office with high school ballers in Reno or Omaha, help them land bat or mitt deals, and talk the kids through it when they go 0-for-27 during some godforsaken stretch during the first few rocky years. Then, when the players get their first whiff of stardom, tenacious mega-agents swoop in, cast doubts about a minor agent’s bargaining power and make off with the young stars.

The agent business is virtually unregulated. No agent’s contract with any player is guaranteed for more than a day, and agents go after each other’s clients with the ruthlessness of a cad at a swingers’ party.

Every day, Sosnick wakes up dreading he’ll be dropped like a used Kleenex.

“The first thing I do in the morning is look through my mail. If there’s no return address, there’s a good chance I’ve been fired by somebody,” he says of what is known in the business as a “fire letter.”

“I’ve had players where I was a groomsman at their weddings and gone the next month. The guys I lost in my first five years could fill up an All-Star team now.”

Sosnick at first shrugs off that getting dumped “only hurt the first 10 times,” but it obviously goes far, far deeper than that. He later lets on that his malevolent joy upon filching another agent’s player is far less than the pain of losing one of his own. And it hurts Sosnick more than most.

In 1997, when Sosnick decided to up and quit his job as the CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company and become a baseball agent, everyone told him he was a lunatic. But Sosnick, who’d banked literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash buying and selling sports and concert tickets à la Mike Damone in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” before he even went to college, is not a risk-averse individual.

Still, he wasn’t a lawyer or a former ballplayer, and he’d never worked in the field. He’d have to wow potential clients with something else: A fanatical work ethic, honesty and friendship. So losing a player is especially painful — not unlike a stealth divorce.

In Crasnick’s pocket psychoanalysis, the energy that drove Sosnick into exhaustive buying and selling as a young man and compulsive gambling as a college student has now been funneled into an almost obsessive devotion to his players’ well-being. And, when things go well, the money’s good, too. This is the first year that Sosnick-Cobbe is in the black, but the possibilities are almost endless: the agents can make roughly three to five percent commissions on players’ salaries, bonuses and endorsement deals.

Perhaps ironically, the Jewish city boy often sets his sights on born-again Christian and Mormon country ballplayers.

Not only does Sosnick figure religious guys — of any stripe — are more likely to be loyal clients unsusceptible to sweet-talking rival agents, but “guys who have God at the center of their lives” are just more pleasant to work with, he says.

And if a player is a free-swinger — both on and off the field — Sosnick will likely take a pass.

“If a guy can’t be loyal to his wife, why would he be loyal to us? Having one bad guy takes up the energy having 20 good guys uses.”

Sosnick’s sole Jewish client, Matt Ford, pitched for Milwaukee in 2003 and is “such a source of pride. I enjoy when Jewish guys do well.” But Sosnick is realistic about the minuscule number of Jews in the Big Leagues, where only Arizona’s Shawn Green is a household name.

Quoting agent Arn Tellem, Sosnick notes that by the time he had his bar mitzvah, he realized it was more likely he’d own a team than play for one.

Writer Crasnick spent hundreds of hours with Sosnick, no doubt delving into his Jewishness within minutes.

While a Jewish agent is no rarity (there’s Leigh Steinberg and Tellem, to name two of the most prominent), Sosnick’s C.V. reads like that of an aspiring Jewish community professional.

He was on the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Young Adults Division board five or six times. He’s gone to at least 15 national gatherings of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby or to the United Jewish Appeal. He’s on the New Israel Fund’s board, graduated AIPAC’s leadership program and led or attended at least three missions to Israel. He even has a baseball signed by Yitzhak Rabin.

“My life, pretty much, is business, Judaism and dating. And the Judaism and dating are sort of a crossover,” says Sosnick with a laugh. But his workaholic tendencies are often not a laughing matter.

“The last woman I lived with, she deserved better than she got because of the baseball business. I didn’t have my priorities straight.”

Sometimes, though, the agent manages to mix business and pleasure and bring his players along to Jewish singles events. His marquee client, Florida Marlins star pitcher Dontrelle Willis, had a blast at a Halloween party in which the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder dressed as the world’s unlikeliest bar mitzvah boy, complete with a yarmulke and tallit, while Sosnick, for his part, dressed as the world’s unlikeliest gangsta rapper.

Willis is one of Sosnick’s “good guys.” The Oakland-born, Alameda-raised pitcher burst onto the national scene in 2003, going 14-6 with a 3.30 earned-run average for the World Champion Florida Marlins, winning the National League Rookie of the Year and a berth in the All-Star Game and, perhaps most of all, impressing even non-fans with his unbridled joy for the game.

And he’s signed a “lifetime contract” with Sosnick — in a manner of speaking. On a whim, Willis and Pridie decided to show their loyalty to their agent by having the Sosnick-Cobbe logo tattooed on their non-pitching arms.

“It’s hard to find good people and surround yourself with good people. He’s a good guy. That’s what it boils down to,” says the 23-year-old lefty hurler of his devotion to Sosnick.

But what if Soz was a good guy but a bad agent? Willis responds almost immediately.

“Oh, we’d still be boys” — they’d still be buddies — says Willis with a laugh. “And if I don’t pan out to be the ballplayer I want to be, we’d still have that relationship.”

Locally, Sosnick and Cobbe represent A’s and Giants prospects Mike Rouse, an infielder, and pitcher Luke Anderson as well as several lower-level minor leaguers in both organizations.

Meanwhile, it’s been 15 minutes and Sosnick hasn’t placed or received a call on his cell phone (the agent is on his cell more than most people are in the office). He breaks this Ripken-like streak with a call to Josh Willingham, a reserve catcher for the Florida Marlins.

Willingham considers Sosnick not just his agent but a close friend — but if, as he is prone to do with Willis, Sosnick ever plants a kiss on Willingham’s cheek, the Alabama-born 26-year-old good-naturedly promises to knock his agent on his ass.

And Sosnick is OK with that.

He’s also OK with the fact that Crasnick’s book may make him more of a public figure than he’d like. But he predicts that it can’t hurt business, and his reputation for honesty and straightforward dealings will appeal to the right players.

He’d like to make his friends Willingham, Willis and others into insanely wealthy men. He’d like to travel less, settle down and maybe start raising a family — if one of the women Pridie picks out on JDate turns out to be the one.

But, perhaps most of all, he’d like to beat his mom at Scrabble.

“I was really proud of myself today. I ‘Scrabbled out’ with ‘hexanes.’ It’s one of the first times I’ve Scrabbled out with a word I haven’t memorized,” he says, laughing.

“Today, ‘hexanes’ was like having a 10th-rounder [in the baseball draft] commit to me seven years ago.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.