Alumni Q&A: Plummer '94, Agent for Top Baseball Prospects From Dominican Republic, on How He Got in the Game
Baseball player agent Rob Plummer, has carved out a niche representing some of the most promising young players from the Dominican Republic.
A 1994 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, Plummer is featured in a new documentary about Major League Baseball's recruitment of young Dominican players that focuses on two young prospects, including Plummer's client Miguel Sano. The film, "Ballplayer: Pelotero," which opens Friday in limited release and will be available via iTunes and video on demand, raises questions about the moral and ethical boundaries of professional sports recruiting.
Plummer spoke with UVA Law about the new documentary, his career as a sports agent and his time at the Law School.
How did you become an agent specializing in representing young baseball players from the Dominican Republic?
Initially my goal was just to represent baseball players in the United States. I started recruiting players for the draft who I thought would be in the first three rounds on the East Coast. I kept on finishing second or third out of 20 to 30 agents. It was because the players liked me that I would finish in their top four. Then they would always go with an agent with more experience. It was frustrating because I knew that I would be a good negotiator.
I then signed this player named Willie Martinez while he was playing for the Burlington Indians, in Burlington, N.C. He was only 17 at the time, but had a great arm. I had taken five years of Spanish in high school and college, but I couldn't really speak the language. I would say "como se dice" instead of getting someone to translate. I eventually became fluent.
Then I met Adrian Beltre, who was 17 and with the Dodgers, and Cristian Guzman, who was also 17 and with the Yankees. I was the second agent to have ever contacted them. It was early in spring training. They said that Scott Boras had signed them the previous fall by having a representative fly down to the Dominican Republic. This really changed my strategy. I felt like I needed to be one step ahead of everyone if I was going to get the best players. Guzman and Beltre had both played in the Dominican Summer League the year before (the lowest rung on the minor league ladder), so I decided to fly down and scout the Dominican Summer League. My best friend, Evan Fraser, who went to Darden, helped me finance the trip. I also worked part-time for US Airways, so the flights were very cheap.
The next two summers I signed four players in the Dominican Summer League who would go on to play in the Major Leagues. Miguel Olivo is still playing. The second summer I wound up signing Ricardo Aramboles, who was with the Florida Marlins at the time. I found out that he was only 15 when he was signed, which is illegal. Any player outside of the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada has to be 16 years old in order to sign with a Major League club. It took me 11 months [of fighting] with MLB, but I worked hard and got him declared a free agent. I had a showcase in Tampa where almost all 30 teams showed up and more than 120 scouts. Tracy Ringolsby (then a baseball columnist in Denver) called it a "dog and pony" show. I wound up getting Ricardo a bonus of $1.52 million to sign with the New York Yankees, up from his initial bonus with the Marlins of $5,500. After that, representing Dominican players became my niche.
What first drew you to this career?
I always wanted a career in sports. When I was 13 I would tell people that I wanted to be a general manager of a baseball team when I grew up. I had my mind set on being an agent my senior year at Haverford College. I mainly went to UVA because I wanted a graduate degree. My end goal while at UVA was always being an agent.
Apart from being a sports agent, what has your career path entailed?
I actually took a year off prior to enrolling at UVA and after graduating from Haverford. I did two things simultaneously. I promoted rap music to radio stations in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia. I also tutored [basketball player] Rasheed Wallace once a week for the SATs for over a year. I am still friends with him and his family to this day. My highlight promoting rap music would have to be taking Tupac around Philadelphia twice, including being there when he got his nose pierced on South Street and going to a movie with him. I actually was offered national promotion jobs by numerous music labels, but decided to go to UVA instead. I am glad I made that decision.
The documentary follows Miguel Sano, a 19-year-old player you represent who ultimately signed with the Twins in 2009. Why is his story important?
I am not sure that I would classify his story as important. I think that it is just interesting in that it shows how the amateur free-agent signing system in the Dominican Republic can be manipulated by external forces. It was very fortunate that Miguel had someone defending him, otherwise the outcome could have been very different. [The documentary shows how Sano overcame extreme poverty and managed to navigate the often-corrupt practices that can be associated with professional baseball's recruitment of top ballplayers in the Dominican Republic. Sano, like many young prospects in his country, also faced questions about whether he was older than he claimed (and thus had less potential to develop as a player), but he ultimately landed a contract and is currently playing in the minor leagues.]
The documentary points to a number of challenges related to recruiting players from the Dominican Republic, including forging players' ages and identities. As an agent, how do you try to navigate these challenges?
I have had two players that lied about their ages before they signed. I found out about both before they signed and questioned them about my suspicions. I told Adriano Rosario, who is now Tony Pena (a relief pitcher), that I would not represent to teams that he was a player of 16 years of age. I told him that he would need to come clean and let people know that he was really 19. He said he would not do it and then proceeded to sign as a 16 year old. It came out later that he was 19. I didn't want to be involved in a situation where it would tarnish my name. UVA and Haverford College's honor codes have been woven into my inner fabric.
I am fortunate enough to have been to the Dominican Republic 85 times. I have learned from a lot of scouting legends how to see the age of certain players. If a 16-year-old throws 94 miles per hour, then he's not 16. Paul Snyder of the Atlanta Braves taught me that. Dayton Moore, the general manager of the Kansas City Royals, taught me that if a kid's ankles were thick that he would not remain at shortstop.
Using what I have learned and having a lawyer work for me who I trust in the Dominican has helped me limit my pitfalls. The main thing that has helped is using my past experiences not to make the same mistakes twice. The Dominican Republic is a very hard place to work and there are a lot of people who try to take advantage of unwitting "gringos."
In what ways did your time at Virginia Law help prepare you for your career?
Besides giving me the opportunity to play on six softball teams each semester, my UVA Law degree has given me respect around baseball. There is a clique among front office people who went to small liberal arts and Ivy League schools and my Haverford and UVA education allows me to fit in easier. They also have respect for how I do work and negotiate based partly on where I went to school. My UVA Law degree unfortunately means nothing in the Dominican Republic.
My education taught me how to think better, write better and negotiate better. It just made me smarter.
Apart from Sano, who are some players that you represent who you're particularly excited about?
Miguel Sano is the best player that I have ever represented. Carlos Martinez, a right-handed pitcher with the Cardinals, is also a phenomenal talent, as is second baseman Eddie Rosario of the Twins. I am very lucky to have these three guys. One scout with the Toronto Blue Jays told me this spring training that when I am driving on the highway and a rock breaks my windshield that I must still have a smile on my face. I have worked very hard and against the odds, yet I am still not where I want to be yet. Hopefully in eight years this will be a Q&A about me signing Miguel to one of the largest Major League contracts ever.