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He is a short, paunchy man who gives, at first sight, an overall impression of grayness. And on this particular grim December afternoon, there is also a look of fatigue, of resignation. He answers the phone in his Manhattan hotel suite with a heavy sigh, "Al's Mortuary," he says. He walks with an old man's shuffle and a poor man's slump. He is neither. This is Albert S. Frohman, the agent. Make that The Agent, for Albert S. Frohman has just negotiated the richest, toughest, meanest contract in the history of U.S. sport for his No. 1 and only client, Dave Winfield.
He doesn't sound rich, tough or mean—mainly just beat. He sighs, he blinks. His eyes are faintly watery. "People think I'm in this with Dave just for the money. Sir, if I were in this only for the money, I'm telling you, I'd have sold out way down the line. If I were doing this only for money, we'd have ended up with a lot less."
He sags onto the couch. He is 54 years old, but with his buttoned-up white sweater, his gray hair, his pallid skin, he appears a decade older. "People think I'm a genius for making this deal for David. A genius? You want to be a genius? I'll tell you how. Get your ideas, get good ideas, get whatever ideas. Then tell the truth." He pauses for a moment of silent tribute to these powerful words, then goes on, obviously gaining nourishment from his own monologue. "Tell the truth, never a lie. I'm a good businessman. Therefore, all my life I've been a great liar. Smooth. I was so smooth at lying that now no one believes me when I tell the truth. The truth antagonizes people, it irritates them. But it protects you. You never have to remember what you said because if it's the truth, you'll know what you said."
He pauses again. The wind seems to be rising nicely in him, though he still sits slack on the couch, a vision of weakness and old age. "I only adopted this idea of telling the truth when I met David Win-field. We're each other's guru. We're like father and son. He's got a mind like a mop, picks up everything around him. David Winfield is more interesting off the field than he is on it. People laugh at how we look together. Mutt and Jeff, they say, what a weird couple. I don't blame them for laughing. But I'm no Svengali with David; David is a brilliant young man. I'm the thought factory. I get the ideas, but he's always an integral part. I would put David against any agent in the country on a negotiation—alone. Mentally, David Winfield isn't 29 years old, he's 50, maybe 55; he's that wise and that well developed. He knows about telling the truth, for years he knows about it."
The partnership between these two unlikely colleagues began something over seven years ago. Al Frohman had moved to the West Coast from Long Island in 1969 after a successful career as a kosher caterer. He was following in the footsteps of his own father, who had led an amazingly diverse life. "My father was a rabbi in Brooklyn and during the 1930s he'd been chaplain to the Dodgers. Also he was a professional musician. He conducted pit bands on the Keith vaudeville circuit. I went to the Juilliard School when I was a kid, but when I got out of the Army in 1946 my father said, 'Music's not for you. No money. You go into business with me.' He was among the first to organize kosher catering in New York and business was very, very good."
Frohman also had dabbled on the periphery of baseball agentry, advising the Mets' Cleon Jones while living on Long Island, then working "more as a friend than a paid agent" for the Dodgers' Joe Ferguson and the Padres' Jerry Turner after he moved to the West Coast. He finally decided to retire from the catering business in 1975. He was well off, the owner of a 12-room house in Encino, in which he still lives with his wife, Barbara, one of his four children and a grandchild. The business of representing ballplayers was, he says, "more friendship than anything formal." His relationships with both Ferguson and Turner apparently soured, and lately he has represented only Winfield, whom he met in 1973. For some reason, mutual admiration blossomed at first sight between the strapping, dashing outfielder and the dumpy little caterer. A remarkable sort of father-son relationship sprang up—so remarkable that Winfield and Frohman now view it with a kind of awe. "I've never known anyone like Al," says Winfield. "We spend thousands of hours together. We've had maybe one disagreement. It's a chemistry beyond understanding."
Of course, Frohman waxes much longer and far more effusively over the relationship. "We've never had a contract, nothing in writing," he says. "It's all in a handshake. David gives me whatever he thinks I've earned, no firm percentage. For this Yankee deal, he'll give me a little something for Christmas. We aren't like other business partners. I spend my energy for David as if he's a son. It's the energy of love. We have such a gentle relationship. We kiss when we say goodby or hello. I've had three major heart attacks. I appreciate the little things, the gentle things. I appreciate David's gentleness. I know that money isn't everything. I know that we've borrowed our bodies to live on this earth for a little while and then, when we leave, we take nothing away except the love we've got ten from others."
Now all of this might make Al Frohman sound more like a born-again flower child than a shrewd and iron-minded negotiator, but no one should be fooled. Frohman is tough, cool, imaginative. A similar cool, tough customer named George Steinbrenner is openly admiring of Frohman's bargaining technique. "Maybe the way Al comes on at first makes you wonder a little about him," the Yankee owner says. "But once he makes his arguments, he's extremely impressive. He made one of the best-organized presentations I've ever seen. Not the best, but one of the best. It was tough and it was excellent."
Buzzie Bavasi, former president of the Padres, who negotiated Winfield's 1977 contract, also has had nice words for Frohman. "I had no trouble with him," he says. "He handled himself like an agent should. He let Dave make up his awn mind. I believe Dave feels Al is a genuine friend, and anything Al does, Dave believes it's in his best interest. He takes to heart what Al says. Their relationship is unique among players and agents."
Not everyone agrees that Frohman's tactics reflect textbook excellence in baseball agentry. The Padres' current president, Ballard Smith, conducted months of increasingly acrimonious negotiations with Frohman over Winfield's services, and about the mildest thing he ever said about Frohman was that he consistently saddled Winfield with "bad advice." One of the more publicized and controversial Frohman-Winfield deals in the San Diego area involved plans for the construction of something called "Superstar Village." This was to be "an optimal health family resort"—a real estate development that was supposed to attract a variety of superstars as residents who would also serve as sort of celebrity-camp counselors to health-hungry families visiting the village. Among other things, Frohman and Winfield tried to persuade a couple of municipal governments to involve themselves with the project. John Fowler, assistant city manager of San Diego, viewed the scheme skeptically. "Superstar Village was an intriguing concept, but it was all bare bones," he says. "There was no body to it. All we ever saw were drawings and outlines as to the number of units. We never saw any financial reports. It sounded great, but when we investigated it, there wasn't Enough there for us to act on."