Every time I ever stepped into a batter’s box, I wanted to destroy whoever was on the mound. In my mind, that guy was trying to take food off my table and I would bite them if it meant me getting a hit.
I started playing baseball because it was what I was born to do. Some people probably didn’t agree with the way I approached the game, but they also probably didn’t play in the majors for 22 years. I get if you don’t understand my point of view. How could you? Just know that everything I am today is the result of where I’m from and how I was raised.
We’re all products of our environment. I think that’s especially true for baseball players. Where you grow up playing the game is a part of every ballplayer’s identity. That’s because becoming great at this sport requires a lifetime commitment. Baseball is not something you just pick up if you’re a good athlete. To become a standout player, it takes discipline, passion, instincts and, in my case, a few bruised ribs.
That was my reward if I ever got a hit off my mom’s little brother. You probably know him better as Doc Gooden.
In Belmont Heights, the only place we were ever safe was on our block. You only trusted the people you knew. If you wandered a few streets in the wrong direction, then you’d better be ready to fight.
Doc’s four years older than me, and we shared a room growing up in Belmont Heights, a neighborhood in East Tampa. I was in one corner, and he slept by the window (which I saw him sneak out of more times than I can remember). We used to duel in front of the house every single day. That was how I learned how to hit — really hit. For the longest time, just like pretty much every other guy who’s ever faced him, I could never touch any of Doc’s pitches. He threw too fast and the ball moved too much. It made me so angry. A lot of times, I’d end up in tears when we competed, whether it was out of frustration, anger or pain. But when I finally started getting hits, Doc would get angry and throw the ball right at me in retaliation. We might have been kids, but he didn’t throw like a damn kid.
Honestly, catching Doc might have been worse than hitting against him. Nobody else could catch him, so it became my job. No facemask or equipment, I just had a glove and a ton of bruises. We used to practice with those hard rubber balls that look like baseballs but have a little more bounce to them. They would ricochet all over the place and smack me in the head and the chest. But I couldn’t let the ball past me. There was no backstop and if I let a ball go by, Doc would beat me up. So basically my options were either to develop really good hand-eye coordination or to get my ass kicked.
At the time I didn’t know who he was going to become, and he didn’t know who I was going to become. But competing with Doc ignited a fire in me that would never go out. We were like brothers, and all I wanted in the world was to just be better than him. We each needed the other to grow into the athletes we became. We brought out the best in one another — and it was because we approached the game with anger and passion. We based our self-worth on how we performed on any given day. When you grow up hitting against a guy like Doc, there’s no other pitcher who will ever intimidate you. In our front yard, we were mortal enemies. But beyond it, we pretty much only had each other.
In Belmont Heights, the only place we were ever safe was on our block. You only trusted the people you knew. If you wandered a few streets in the wrong direction, then you’d better be ready to fight. Usually the only time we’d go to another neighborhood would be to play a sport. It was always a tense atmosphere. A bunch of people would show up to watch. They’d surround us and scream all sorts of shit. In that environment, we weren’t kids out there trying to have fun. There were no ribbons or trophies. It was about pride and respect. We were all out there trying to destroy each other. And after we’d win, everyone from the other neighborhood would chase us home. If we got trapped, we’d have to fight our way out. We never had guns, but we had our fists and we learned to use them. The games we played almost always ended with blood.
You might think that’s harsh or brutal, but I disagree. The world is harsh and brutal. This was just training for that.
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Now it’s one thing to play with anger, but I didn’t always know how to control it. The best example of that is probably from when I was 12 years old, when I was suspended for an entire baseball season for chasing after my coach with a bat.
Let me explain.
I had skipped practice the previous day to go watch Doc pitch. I always watched him pitch. He was a sophomore in high school at that point, and he had all sorts of buzz around him. I loved watching him play not only because he was so dominant, but also because it would inspire me to try to outdo him. My coach called my parents about me missing practice, and they were upset with me. But I thought it was worth it. I got to see Doc pitch a great game.
You know, it’s funny. I ended up being honored by the league that suspended me. That field where I chased after my coach with a bat? Years later, it was dedicated in my name.
The next day, I showed up for my game and I was really excited. I was going to be pitching against Derek Bell, who was one of my main rivals growing up. The competition level was extremely high. We were the best Little League team in the country. This wasn’t about playing a game. I was using this to train myself to become a professional ballplayer. I remember putting my equipment down and then scanning through the lineup card. I wasn’t there. I figured, Wait, I must have missed something. I scanned it again. Nope, I wasn’t there. I had been benched. And that’s when I snapped. I yelled at my coach, “I’m pitching this game!” He told me to go sit on the bench. And that’s when I pretty much lost control. I grabbed a bat and went after him. My teammates all ended up having to hold me back. I think I completely lost it because I couldn’t deal with the idea of another person taking baseball away from me. That team felt like everything I had. The only thing I could think to do was to fight for it.
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The league suspended me for a year. I even got blacklisted by other leagues nearby. That summer, I sat at home and watched the team I was supposed to be on go back to the Little League World Series without me. The incident gave me a terrible reputation where I’m from. Everybody said that I wasn’t going to be anything. Everybody thought with my attitude that I’d just end up as another guy with talent who becomes a bum on the street.
In the long run, that time in my life might have actually helped me a lot. I never got better by listening to compliments. I don’t think anybody does. But I remember every single insult and slight. I’m a Scorpio. I remember everything. I read every single negative thing ever written about me. I internalized it. I took it personally. And when the time came, I used it to my advantage on the field.
You know, it’s funny. I ended up being honored by the league that suspended me. That field where I chased after my coach with a bat? Years later, it was dedicated in my name. I remember the day of the ceremony. It was beautiful outside, my whole family showed up and there were kids everywhere playing catch. After the ceremony, I saw the coach who had kicked me off the team. It all seemed kind of perfect.
I went up to him and said, “I’ve been holding this in for 25 years, but I forgive you.”
He looked at me confused and said, “Whatchu talking about?”
I was kind of taken aback. I said, “When you kicked me off the team, I hated you. I wanted to be the best player ever just to prove to you that I was going to be something one day.”
He was looking at me kind of shocked.
I said, “I’ve been holding that in for 25 years, and you didn’t even flinch or have no feelings toward it?”
He looked down and said, “Man, I didn’t know you was carrying that still. I had no idea it did that kind of damage to you.”
I told him that it had. It had truly damaged me. And it made me think twice about ever trusting anybody when it came to baseball.
Even though it was almost 20 years ago, I still remember pretty clearly one of the most ridiculous requests I heard during my career. It was in 1998, back when I was a member of the Marlins — the World Series champion Marlins. I was sitting in a hotel room across from Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland, and they were asking for a favor:
“Gary, can you just do it for us?”
As soon as I heard those words, I almost couldn’t believe it.
“Do it for us?” Can you believe that shit?
I knew better than that. Favors imply trust. And this was business. I learned that way back in 1991, when I was just 22 years old and playing for the Brewers. I had a three-year contract extension on the table when I made a hard slide into third base and tore up my shoulder. It was my fourth year in the majors and up to that point I’d been okay, but not spectacular. I felt a lot of pressure to prove myself, and as a result I was scared to make mistakes. It had spread in the media that I would make errors on purpose when I was upset.
If you want to put your trust in people who want something from you, go ahead. But don’t act shocked when you get bullshit in return.
I’ve never gotten along with the media because I say what I believe. So while they might have pretended not to like me, the truth is they loved me because if I got upset they’d get a juicy quote. Then I’d read that shit, get angry and give them another quote. If more guys spoke their minds, baseball would probably be an even more high-profile sport. The game needs personalities. It would have been easier if I just always said the same canned b.s., but that’s not me. Every time I swung a bat, I did it with purpose. That’s how I speak, as well.
But also, you think I’m going to let the other guys win by making errors? Come on, now.
After I had surgery on my shoulder, I found out that the Brewers were no longer offering a contract extension. I was extremely hurt by that. And from that point on, I knew for certain that this was a business, and I had to look out for myself, regardless of what uniform I was wearing. It gave me a new perspective on things. To any team — any organization in any business really — you’re only as good as your production. You can be loyal to a logo as much as you want, but you’re just going to be another number when they decide to dump your ass. And because of that, you should never lose sight of what that organization is giving you in return.
Shortly after the extension got pulled, the Brewers traded me to the Padres and I started playing some of the best baseball of my career — because I finally understood the game within the game. I played on eight teams in my Major League career because eight teams gave me the best deal available at the time. If you want to put your trust in people who want something from you, go ahead. But don’t act shocked when you get bullshit in return.
At the time of that meeting with Leyland and Dombrowski, I was probably as happy as I’d ever been during my career. I was born and raised in Florida, so getting to play for the Marlins was perfect for me — it was home. In fact, I was so happy that I had made my agent put a blanket no-trade clause in the contract extension I’d signed after we won the Series. I told him to specifically put the word blanket in there because I wanted to make sure that it was unbreakable.
Not long after we won the World Series, Marlins management started cleaning house. Ownership wanted a new stadium, so they began shedding salary any way they could. But I wasn’t worried. I had my blanket. I wasn’t going nowhere.
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We were playing in Atlanta, and I was in the clubhouse when a news alert popped up on ESPN. Apparently, I had just been traded to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza. Bunch of players involved. The anchors said it was a done deal.They were calling it a blockbuster. So I’m there looking at the TV like, Pffft! The hell I was traded. This shit ain’t done.
Right around then, I got a call from Dave Dombrowski. He wanted me to meet him and Jim Leyland to talk things over. I’m like, “Uh, yeah. We gotta talk.” So we’re all sitting in a hotel room, and I’m glaring at them with my arms folded. I was straight pissed.
They had thought it was a done deal when I got on the plane, but that’s not where I was at. I told them that I wasn’t signing shit.
Dombrowski tells me, “I’m sure you’ve heard by now that you’re being traded to the Dodgers.”
I don’t flinch.
“Nah. No I’m not.”
He looks at me sort of sideways.
I said, “First of all, the fact that you all allowed this to get out to the media is bullshit, because now I have to answer questions about it. But beyond that, you know I have a no-trade clause. I’m not going anywhere.”
They tried to calm me down. They said, “Gary, we know how you feel.”
That one made me laugh. Like hell you do. You ain’t gotta pack up and leave your family to move across the country.
Then they told me that I should entertain the trade because the team was rebuilding.
I said, “I don’t give a shit.” We had just won a World Series, I didn’t have to prove nothing else. I got a contract, and I was going to honor it.
That’s when Jim Leyland laid it on me. I still shake my head when I think about it.
“Gary, can you just do it for us?”
Now here’s the thing, I really like Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland. Two of my favorite guys in baseball. In fact, we’d reunite about 10 years later in Detroit. But none of that mattered at that moment.
When I heard Leyland say, “Gary, do it for us?” I didn’t hesitate.
I just responded, “Well fuck, what’s in it for me?”
Honestly, if it had just been me that was involved, that would have been the last time I entertained the idea of being traded.
But it wasn’t just me. Charles Johnson was also traded, and he came to me and said that his agent told him that the Dodgers were going to give him a big contract. Now it wasn’t just about me. This was also about Charles’s family. That’s a life-changing contract. So that put some more pressure on me. And then the person who made me really give it a chance was Jim Eisenreich. He sat me down, and said, “Gary, they’re tearing this team apart. Let’s just go to L.A. and have a chance to win again.”
That’s what got me on the plane to L.A., but there was still a lot of stuff to be worked out. At this point, I was getting completely trashed in the media. You know, the classic, tired spoiled-rich-athlete bullshit from people who had never actually met me. I was still pissed, so during the flight, I turned to my agent and said the thing that any angry employee is thinking: “They gotta pay me more.”
He looked at me confused. “Gary, you already got a contract.”
I told him, “I had a contract with the Marlins. No way I would have signed that same contract to play in L.A. If I’m going to accept this trade, they’ll have to pay me more.”
He said, “I don’t think I can do that.”
So I was like, “Guess I’m staying a Marlin.”
We landed in L.A. around noon. The Dodgers had a game that evening against the Montreal Expos. They sent me to the stadium, and when I got there I met up with the team’s ownership.
They had thought it was a done deal when I got on the plane, but that’s not where I was at. I remember sitting in the room with the Dodgers’ guys and they said, “All we need is for you to sign this to rescind your no-trade clause, and you’ll be a member of the Dodgers.”
I told them that I wasn’t signing shit.
They said, “What do you mean? We thought you came up here to sign this.”
I said, “No. I came to hear what you guys are trying to do with this franchise before I join it.” They give me the usual, Well, we’re gonna get some players around you and some bullshit. I said, “Nah, that’s not good enough.”
Then I listed my demands.
I said, “First, you gotta write me a check for $6 million. Then, you gotta buy me a home worth $3 million. Then, you gotta pay my California taxes, up to $1 million. And then … I’ll sign that sheet of paper.”
That changed the mood in the room. They said, “Whoa, we never saw that coming.” And I said, “Well, I never saw this trade coming.”
They told me that this kind of thing had never been done before, that they didn’t even think they were allowed to do that. I didn’t budge. I said, “Whatever you gotta do to structure my contract, that’s what’s gonna have to happen or I get my black ass back on the plane and go right back to where I was.”
I demanded to be paid what I was worth because I approached the game as a professional. I was as competitive when it came to negotiating my compensation as I was whenever I went up to bat.
They left the room and were gone for about 30 minutes. Now it’s two o’clock, the game is inching closer. The Dodgers called the Marlins to tell them about what had happened, and now the Marlins were pissed. They were about to start a series against the Cardinals.
I got on the phone with Marlins management and said, “Fuck you guys. I’m catching the next flight out and I’ll see you in St. Louis.” They said, “Oh no, no. We got this trade approved.” And I said, “No, no. You don’t have shit. I have a no-trade clause, and I’m using it.” They were like, “Wait. Whoa, whoa. Let’s figure this out.”
A little more time passed and now the players were starting to trickle in. The pressure was starting to heat up. This big trade just got announced in the media, and none of the players were in the lineup for either team. And they wouldn’t be until I signed that sheet of paper. At that point, I said that I was hungry, so they brought me a hamburger. It was decent. And I remember I was eating that burger when they came back in the room.
They said, “Do you care how you get paid?” Now that I had some food in me, I was feeling pretty good. I said, “Yeah, I do. I want a big fucking check that says $6 MILLION DOLLARS.”
My agent and I had come up with that number on the plane. The check, plus the $3 million house, plus the taxes — which would come out to about $1 million (it was actually more, but I was feeling charitable so I gave them a discount) — added up to about $10 million over the base of my contract.
So I said, “Now, either you guys do that, or I’m getting back on the plane.” By this point, it was around 7 p.m. and the game had started.
By the time the game finished, they had agreed to all my demands. They wrote me that check, and I became a Dodger.
And you know what? I played my ass off for Los Angeles, and I really loved it there and had some of the best years of my career. Batted over .300 and hit at least 34 home runs every year I wore Dodger blue. I demanded to be paid what I was worth because I approached the game as a professional. I was as competitive when it came to negotiating my compensation as I was whenever I went up to bat.
When I was playing, being a $100 million player meant something. Now you can make that much and still suck.
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From that point on, I became much more active in my contract negotiations. When other players saw saw that, and how I had leveraged my no-trade clause to get paid, they started asking me questions about their own contracts.
A lot of guys fear becoming a worse player, and that’s exactly when you do become a worse player. So what I look for in a potential client first and foremost is a certain attitude.
So in a way, it probably makes sense that I eventually became an agent after I retired. Truthfully, it wasn’t the money that drew me to becoming a sports agent. I have money. But I get a certain satisfaction out of making sure good players get what they deserve. Athletes are often intimidated by the idea of sitting at the negotiating table, but I realized during my career that just because a guy sits across from you with a suit on it doesn’t mean he knows more than you. That’s the truth. Beyond that, I also enjoy being an agent because I can usually tell what a guy might need to get to the next level. Oftentimes, it’s just about pushing players in the right direction and telling them they’re good enough.
What people don’t realize about baseball players is that 97% of them have low self-esteem. They aren’t really as confident as you think. That’s because they pride themselves on their ability to play ball more than anything, and even if they are great, they experience failure almost constantly. A pitcher can throw 100 pitches, but if seven of them are hit, he’s had a bad game. It can be really discouraging. So what separates good and great is entirely between the ears. A lot of guys fear becoming a worse player, and that’s exactly when you do become a worse player. So what I look for in a potential client first and foremost is a certain attitude.
That’s what initially drew me to my first client, Jason Grilli.
He caught my attention while he was struggling middle reliever in Detroit. I could see that he had nasty stuff, but his mentality was entirely wrong. When he’d come in the game, his strategy was to throw a sinker and try to get a double-play ball. I told him straight up, “Grilli, that’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever seen. How you gonna tell me where to hit the fucking ball? Your job when you come into the game is to strike people out. Pitch inside, throw your slider — which is nasty — and then throw your fastball. That’s how you get people out.”
I remember I was watching him one game, and he was sent in with bases loaded and no outs. All three of the runners scored, but he got the three outs. Regardless, the fans were booing him as he went back to the dugout, like it was his fault he got put in the game with the bases loaded. But here’s when I knew for certain that Grilli could be great: The next day, I see him, and he’s all smiles. I was like, How is this guy happy? He just got booed off the mound yesterday? I didn’t get it. But what I did know from that was that this was a great guy and a great teammate. Even though he might have been feeling down inside, he didn’t show it. I’ll fight for a guy like that any day.
What Jason didn’t realize is that I had put something in his contract that dictated that if he wasn’t called up to the majors by July of that season, he’d become a free agent.
At the time, he had only a few years in the big leagues. So I sat him down to talk about a game plan for the rest of his career. I told him that if he went out and pitched like I told him, I could get him 10 years in the majors. I know that’s an important number to guys because that’s when the pension kicks in. I promised him those 10 years and $30 million in earnings so he and his family would be set.
He looked at me like, Shit, I don’t believe that. But told him to just do his job, and I’d do mine.
He eventually signed a minor league deal with the Phillies after struggling with some knee problems. When spring training rolled around, I asked the team to just give him an honest shot. I knew he’d been working hard during the off-season and he would be back to form. He came back like I expected and was lights out. But at the end of spring training the Phillies called up 12 players, but not Jason. I was fine with that because what he didn’t realize is that I had put something in his contract that dictated that if he wasn’t called up to the majors by July of that season, he’d become a free agent.
The team didn’t realize what they had in him, so when the date passed I called up the Pirates. I had it all lined up. I said, “Jason, we’re gonna accept this clause to make you a free agent, and you’ll be in the big leagues tomorrow.” He said, “How did you do that?”
I pulled out his contract and said, “Read this line.”
He looked down and read it, then looked up at me: “Holy shit.”
I said, “I got your back.”
The next day, he was in Pittsburgh as a setup man.
From there, Jason did his job. He loved it in Pittsburgh. He put up a monster year, and then re-signed with the team for a contract that would give him his 10 years in the majors and $30 million in career earnings. All of a sudden, Jason Grilli became an All-Star closer, just like I knew he could. And he deserved all of it.
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Now that I’m a few years removed from my playing days, I think more and more about the early years that shaped me. And I realize that players in today’s game aren’t developed the same way I was. They might have access to different trainers or private coaches, but you don’t see the same kind of fire and passion that was instilled in me in Belmont Heights. While we’ve seen other sports in America grow a lot in the past 20 years, it seems like baseball isn’t connecting the same way it used to with most youth, particularly young black kids.
I want to change that.
Right now, I’m looking to build a state of the art baseball complex in Tampa Bay so that I can get young kids who aren’t so different from myself back in the game. It’s a project based on passion, and I think it would make where I was raised the premier location for youth baseball in America. I’m talking more than a dozen fields, top-notch facilities — a place to compete. It’s difficult to know how I would have ended up if I hadn’t had baseball. I want this to be a place where kids can learn the game the right way. Where they can stoke that fire that I tapped into when I was competing against Doc as a kid.
I miss the time when the game was simpler. Baseball always made sense to me. It was always the stuff away from the game that caused me problems. I realize now that when you have a strained relationship with the people who cover you and the people who pay you, your reputation will suffer. My issue was probably that I never concerned myself with false modesty just for the sake of it. I never pretended like I was just happy to be there. I remember after I became a Yankee, the first thing the media did was challenge me. They came at me saying that I’d played well in other places, but how was I going to do on the big stage? Would I be nervous about playing on the same field as Ruth and DiMaggio?
I remember saying that I didn’t care if they moved the fence back across the country, I was still gonna put up the same numbers. It’s still a baseball field. I told them I was going to hit 30 home runs, drive in 100 and hit .300. I remember they were flown by that. They said I was arrogant. Conceited. But I wasn’t. That’s exactly what I did.
For one reason or another, a lot of people are scared of showing that they’re confident. But I’ve always figured that if you love something — if it truly drives you — you should never apologize for it. And if anybody ever tries to make you compromise, well, they better be ready to either fight you or pay you.
Like I said, we’re all products of our environment. Thank God for that.