Shifting his shoulders inside his linen sports jacket, Tellem, his wavy hair thinning, looks both boyish and elderly. He bears a slight resemblance to fictional agent Arli$$ Michaels, which is not surprising since the protagonist of the HBO sitcom Arli$$ is partly based on him. Tellem suggested several early story lines used on the show. In one, Michaels advises Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal (a Tellem client) that refusing to play on Rosh Hashanah will get him endorsement offers from Manischewitz and Hebrew National.
For all the Arn in Arli$$, there's not a lot of Arliss in Arn. "Arli$$ doesn't give a rat's ass about his players," says agent Martin lesak. "Arn does." Tellem doesn't sound like a sports agent, either. He makes none of the small talk that most agents indulge in, prattling on about all the money they've extracted from team owners and about how deeply wonderful such and such a client is. He's a still, focused presence with a perpetual look of concentration.
Well, maybe still isn't the right word. Even while seated in a Clearwater, Fla., deli, Tellem's fidgeting verges on torment. "Arn is forever leaping up, pacing, tapping his feet like he's got to pee," says Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf, one of 20 major leaguers Tellem represents. (He also handles 25 minor leaguers.) "His stress level is at 11. He's incapable of relaxing."
On this morning he's placidly—better make that semiplacidly—mulling the menu. He's in the Sunshine State to see his ballplayers in spring training; Nancy and the boys are along for the ride. Of the 12 diners at the table, Tellem is the 12th to order. "He always has to be last," Nancy says, arching her brows. "He wants to be presented with every menu option and make sure his is the best meal possible." After carefully considering what everybody else will be eating, Tellem makes his move.
"First, I want a grapefruit in a bowl," he tells the waitress, like an attorney summing up to a jury. "I want an omelet with mushrooms and onions, and I want it made with egg whites, no yolks, and I want the whites well-done. I want you to use Pam spray on the grill, not butter. And I want two pieces of dry wheat toast. No butter on them, either. And instead of potatoes, can I have a side of cottage cheese?"
Nancy listens to all this wearily. "Arn," she says, "I'm not waiting for your grapefruit to get here before I start eating."
"Nancy," he replies, rocking forward in his chair, "we're not talking about me asking them to cook something. I ordered grapefruit! They just have to pull it out of the refrigerator and cut it in half."
"Arn, we're done talking about this," Nancy says sternly. She's mistaken, of course. Tellem spends the rest of the meal lamenting his choice of omelet.
"Every time I've eaten with Arn, he has second-guessed his order," reports Donnie Walsh, president of the Pacers. "It's always, 'Why'd you order that? You think it might be better? I should have gotten what you got.' Then he picks off my plate. Which is about what he does when he negotiates."