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SPORTS AGENTS: RAISING ETHICAL QUESTIONS THAT RUN FROM A ( ARMAS) TO Z (ZADORA)
As Ron Fimrite notes in his state-of-the-game overview (page 40), many of baseball's player agents operate in an ethical no-man's-land. A case in point is Tino Barzie, a Las Vegas promoter who has managed Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra Jr. and who currently manages inflate-a-celebrity Pia Zadora. Not content with having turned Zadora into "the talk of the industry," as he puts it, Barzie, 54, has emerged in the past 18 months as the agent for more than 80 players in the major and minor leagues, including the A's Venezuelan-born slugger Tony Armas and other Latin-American players, as well as several athletes in other sports.
Barzie is a garrulous sort who flashes a thick roll of $100 bills. In 1970 he was convicted of felony charges involving the use of stolen credit cards to buy airline tickets and received a suspended sentence. Before becoming a player agent in late 1980, he had a hand in baseball as vice-president of the Bristol (Conn.) Red Sox and, he says, as 50% owner of both that team and the Reading (Pa.) Phillies. With surprising candor, Barzie told SI's Franz Lidz that he retained his position with Bristol for seven months after he became a sports agent, although that meant he was working both sides of the player-management street. He also said he still has a financial stake in the two clubs, never mind that he is now the agent for players on both. But then, conflicts of interest are the fashion where the Reading and Bristol teams are concerned. Both are more or less openly run by a Barzie associate, Joe Buzas, even though they are rivals in the Class AA Eastern League; Buzas is president of the Reading team and has put Bristol under the nominal control of a daughter, a move that apparently satisfies the overseers of organized baseball.
Another seeming conflict involves Barzie's friendship with A's Manager Billy Martin, who is also Oakland's general manager. Barzie's big coup as a sports agent occurred in early '81, when he took over a stable of players, including Armas and other A's players, represented by Ben Martin, a Scottsdale, Ariz. lawyer. Ben Martin and Billy Martin didn't get along, which helped persuade Ben, by his own account, to join forces with Barzie. But the two men feuded, and Ben Martin lost the job he'd taken with Barzie. He's now suing Barzie for breach of contract. Meanwhile, he complains that Billy Martin's dislike of him and friendship with Barzie influenced A's players when it came to choosing agents, something Barzie also implies when he says of the Oakland skipper, "I get certain liberties no other agent gets. I sit around his office and talk to him. Pretty soon word gets around." Such special treatment, of course, could make an agent feel beholden; in fact, critics say that Barzie has been soft in negotiations with the A's, a charge Barzie denies.
Barzie breezily describes himself as a "pioneer" in the sports-agent business. While most agents take a fee of no more than 5% of a client's baseball-only income, Barzie usually gets 10% of all gross income. Barzie generally signs players to four-year contracts; most other agents work under "authorizations" that can be broken at will. His standard contract includes other novel features, including bestowal on himself of the right to assign clients to other agents. Barzie describes these wrinkles as "spin-offs from entertainment contracts," but Bob Woolf, the agent for, among others, Larry Bird and Carl Yastrzemski, says that theatrical agents may deserve more generous terms because as a rule "they're looking for a job for clients, while in sports the client already has one." In fact, longterm agent tie-ins aren't always standard in show biz, either; to protect its members, the Screen Actors Guild requires that initial contracts with agents be limited to one year.
Barzie's detractors include two Puerto Rican-born players in the Seattle Mariner organization, Catcher Orlando Mercado, 20, and Pitcher Edwin Nunez, 18. It's part of Barzie's modus operandi to dispatch emissaries, most notably former A's Shortstop Mario Guerrero, to comb the minors and sign young Latin-American players to complex contracts written in English, not Spanish, a practice Barzie defends by saying; "Mario sits down with them and explains the fine points." Mercado and Nunez are both under contract to Barzie but now want to switch to Ben Martin, whom they say they thought they were dealing with when they signed with Barzie. Both players call Barzie's contract terms overly restrictive and complain about the-language barrier. "I had no idea what I was signing," says Mercado. "Mario just said it was a good deal."
Both Marvin Miller and Bowie Kuhn bear some responsibility for the power wielded by today's agents. Miller, the Players Association boss, helped his members win the freedom to employ, for better or worse, agents of their own choosing while the commissioner hasn't always been as vigilant as he might have been in policing improprieties. In Barzie's case Kuhn could, for starters, take a dimmer view of the cozy relationship between Barzie and Billy Martin. On the other hand, Kuhn might invite lawsuits if he tried to ban certain agents just because he deemed them unsavory. The situation is sadly ironic: In seeking protection from exploitation by their owners, some ballplayers may have opened themselves to similar treatment by their supposed protectors.
A CASE OF ART SURPASSING LIFE
It shouldn't diminish any moviegoer's' enjoyment of Chariots of Fire, which last week became the surprise—and deserving—winner of the Academy Award for best picture of 1981, to learn that the uplifting, visually stunning film isn't always faithful to the historical record in its portrayal of two British runners, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who themselves were upset winners in the 1924 Olympics. Contrary to what happens on the screen, the real-life Liddell, a stern Presbyterian who refused to compete on the Sabbath, didn't agonize during the trip to the Games in Paris about whether to run the 100 meters; he knew far in advance that the heats in that event would take place on a Sunday and had long since decided to enter only the 200 and 400. His inner turmoil during the Channel crossing was one of Chariots of Fire's dramatic focal points.
Also, Liddell's sister Jennie was depicted as having her heart set against his running career; in fact, she posed no such obstacle. Nor did she appear at the Olympic stadium with a red rose for her brother. Lord Andrew Lindsay, the hurdler who supposedly yielded his spot in the 400-meter run to Liddell, didn't exist. The U.S. runner Jackson Scholz didn't send Liddell a good-luck note before the latter's victory in the 400. And Abrahams, the gold medalist in the 100, couldn't possibly have been disconsolate before that event over his disappointing finish in the 200—because the 200 was run after the 100.