Bonanza, indeed. "Dennis makes more money in life insurance than in baseball," says Rick Licht, a Beverly Hills attorney who has worked with Gilbert. "It's not even close."
An entire wall of Gilbert's Beverly Hills office is filled with autographed publicity shots of his Hollywood clients. Two other walls offer views of Rodeo Drive. The fourth is filled with signed pictures of his baseball clients.
(A man named Sam, who stocks Gilbert's aquariums at work and at home, pops into Gilbert's office and shakes his head. "He has $500 fish and doesn't even know it," Sam says. "He's a killer. Doesn't feed 'em. Five-hundred-dollar fish!")
In 1980 there were no baseball stars on Gilbert's wall. He eased into the business of representing ballplayers through a friendship with Bobby Brett, George's brother. "With Bobby came George, and with George came respectability," Gilbert says. In 1984, Gilbert added Saberhagen, one of Brett's Kansas City teammates at the time. Three years later Gilbert landed Canseco, who had been named American League Rookie of the Year in '86. "He had about 15 people after him, and he chose us," Gilbert says.
What makes Gilbert so alluring? "You know what it is?" he says. "It's the insurance business. It's the personal touch. That's the difference."
Gilbert stunned the baseball world in 1990 by negotiating a five-year, $23.5 million deal for Canseco with the Oakland A's. Thus began a streak in which a Gilbert client set a major league salary record for three years running (box, above): A deal between Bonilla and the Mets (five years, $29 million) was struck in 1991, and a monstrous contract between Bonds and the San Francisco Giants (six years, $43.75 million) was signed last December. Gilbert also persuaded the New York Yankees in January 1992 to sign Tartabull to a five-year, $25.5 million contract, though Tartabull had been a free agent for two months without any other team showing an inclination to make that kind of investment in a productive but injury-prone player. With Gilbert's 5% cut, Beverly Hills Sports Council, will take in more than $6 million from those four deals alone.
"The Tartabull deal was the deal of the decade," Reinsdorf says. "Dennis created the fallacy that there was a market for the guy. Amazing. He can make people believe there's interest from other teams without lying. There's a fine line between lying and, well, let's call it 'puffing.' Certain guys—and Dennis is one of them—never cross that line."
California Angel general manager Whitey Herzog, though, blew up at Gilbert at the 1991 winter meetings over Gilbert's "puffing" of Bonilla. Herzog thought he was close to a deal with Gilbert, only to see him shop that offer to the Philadelphia Phillies and then to the Mets. Gilbert says he merely followed Bonilla's orders.
Nonetheless, the Bonilla deal—a $29 million package for an athlete who was not, in the minds of many baseball people, a franchise player—galvanized Gilbert's reputation as a smooth negotiator. Eight months later Bonds, then represented by Rod Wright and only four months away from free agency himself, walked up to Gilbert at an All-Star Game function and said, "If you want a new client, you can have me tomorrow."
"He gets results, man," says Bonds. "Beverly Hills Sports Council has done more for me in less than a year than Rod did my entire life."