SBJ/June 9 - 15, 2003/Labor Agents

Babby brings billable hours to baseball

When basketball agent Lon Babby decided late last year to expand his practice to include baseball, the sport in which he cut his teeth as a contract negotiator, he found that his hoops life had taken an eraser to all that came before it.

"I spent 15 years in baseball, but now it seems I'm known as a basketball guy," said Babby, a Williams & Connolly partner who served as general counsel of the Baltimore Orioles before hanging out his shingle as a basketball agent in 1994. "When I moved to the players' side of the negotiating table, I felt there had to be a period of time where I was not involved in baseball. There's a new collective-bargaining agreement in place now. The time is right."

Babby client Rickie Weeks, the No. 2 pick

So, Babby says, is the player.

The Milwaukee Brewers selected Babby's first baseball client, Southern University second baseman Rickie Weeks, with the second pick in Major League Baseball's amateur player draft, held last week. Based on history, the No. 2 pick can expect a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $4 million.

For many agents — or, in the case of baseball, "legal advisers" — a bonus like that could mean a big payday. Major agents typically collect a commission of about 5 percent on a first contract.

Babby won't collect any.

Instead, he will bill Weeks for the work he does at an hourly rate, a practice that he used to distinguish himself in basketball, where the philosophy attracted Grant Hill, who became the foundation for a practice that has grown to include Tim Duncan and about a dozen other NBA players.

Some athletes are turned off by the idea of billable hours, fearing that a ticking meter will yank thousands from their accounts each time they pick up the phone. Sports lawyers estimate the hourly fee of a D.C.-based lawyer at about $500 per hour.

Babby counters that his fees are capped at a certain level, regardless of the time he spends, so that players end up with a better deal than they'd get if they paid a standard commission.

"It's been great for the players in basketball and it should be great for the players in baseball," Babby said. "We'll keep track of the time that we're advising the player, and if he signs and gets paid, we'll get paid for the time that we worked. If not, we won't."

Babby concedes that billing by the hour isn't comfortable for all clients. That's why he said it was important that he chose carefully when deciding which players to recruit this year.

Babby and the associate who is helping him build his baseball practice, Damon Jones, identified Weeks as one of two players in this year's draft that they'd go after. After contacting Weeks' coaches and parents, Babby arranged a meeting between Weeks' family and Hill's mother.

Soon after, Weeks committed to Babby.

"I told Rickie Weeks that he'd be our Grant Hill of baseball," Babby said. "It's like lightning striking twice. I think he's the right guy to build this practice around."

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