Around the time a movie with a passionate sports agent as its central character -- "Jerry Maguire" -- was becoming the highest-grossing sports film ever, Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson faced a life-changing decision.
Wilson wasn't planning to hire an agent going into the 1998 draft.
"I wasn't going to be one of those take-the-money guys," Wilson said. "I was just going to take whatever the team offered."
Fortunately for the soon-to-be-married infielder, agent Page Odle asked to represent him.
"He tells me he'll take care of all the little things, like getting my gloves and all that stuff," Wilson said. "I said 'OK,' and that's how it started."
Even after signing a three-year, $20.1-million contract extension over the winter, Wilson still can't explain why he felt comfortable with Odle.
"He's been my best friend ever since," Wilson said. "I have no idea why, but we clicked right away."
Although they live in the lucrative world of professional sports, many local athletes say money wasn't the main issue when they hired their agent.
In fact, Odle was putting food on Wilson's table early in their relationship.
"Early on, I was broke," Wilson said. "I had a $40,000 bonus. I bought a car and paid for my wedding and honeymoon. My wife and I were living off peanuts. He would take care of us, send us money and whatnot. He was literally helping us eat.
"Page bought my bats when I was in the lower-level minors so that I wouldn't have to use the composite bats. He just did it. I never asked."
Small wonder Wilson trusts Odle with every aspect of his career.
"He's in charge of everything in my life," Wilson said. "He's pretty special. If I didn't have him, I don't know what I would do. I talk to him, like, four to five times each week, all the time.
"When I retire, I'm going to be part of his company -- that's how close we are."
Why does a sports agent click with one athlete, while the next player hangs up the phone with a loud click?
Is it a gut feeling• First-impression• A whim?
"If I could give you that answer, I'd be a zillionaire," Pittsburgh sports agent Eddie Edwards said. "That's the million-dollar question for any agent."
"You're always looking for new business."
Some of the fiercest competition in professional sports unfolds not on the field or in the arena, but in the hotel lobby and family living room.
Before they can earn thousands of dollars in commissions, sports agents must first outmaneuver their competition for new clients. Before agents can wield power over a pro team, a young athlete has to hire them.
"You learn pretty early that if you wait for the phone to ring, you're not going to be in this business very long," said Joe Urbon, agent for Pirates outfielder Jason Bay.
Urbon oversees the baseball division for Octagon, a worldwide agency which provides services to about 800 athletes.
"You're always looking for new business," he said.
In this race, there's no official starting time when the wheeling and dealing begins.
The chase for hockey's next superstar began when Penguins forward Sidney Crosby was only 13.
"In hockey, it's the one team sport where players pick advisors and agents at a ridiculously young age," said Dee Rizzo, IMG's director of player development from Pittsburgh, who was the talk of the league when he landed Crosby.
In addition to the rising Penguins star, IMG now manages the careers of about 60 hockey players including Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar and top Russian draft pick Evgeni Malkin.
"You knew Crosby was going to be the next one, the phenom," Rizzo said. "But we never go to the players. We deal directly with the parents when they're that young. You sleep better."
Rizzo said it's crazy trying to project hockey talent when kids are 14- and 15-years-old.
"But that's what our business has come to," he said. "It's the nature of the business. Do we agree• Absolutely not. But it's the business."
Competiton among agents for big-ticket NFL talent can go from competitive, to unscrupulous, to corrupt.
NCAA rules prohibit any agreements, spoken or written, with agents before athletes complete their college career.
But there's no state law, or NCAA rule, against underclassmen having a chat with an agent. That leaves the door open for some agents and agencies to use their marketing clout to hire "runners" to visit campuses seeking prospective NFL players.
While agents work relentlessly to get close to high-profile players, university officials work to keep them apart.
Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia require all football players to attend seminars to educate them on the rules, and penalties, of accepting any benefit from an agent. Even accepting a ride to McDonalds or a hamburger from an agent is a violation, never mind cell phones, pagers and money.
"We encourage our athletes to spend time subsequent to using up their eligibility to use our resources before signing with an agent," said John Bove, Penn State's compliance coordinator. "Everybody is knocking at the door, trying to make a buck. But the kid already has marketed himself through his play. There's no rush. There's no reason to hire an agent right away."
It frustrates Penn State officials, but it's not uncommon to see agents already waiting in the hotel lobby when Nittany Lions' seniors get off the bus in the early morning hours following their final bowl game.
Pittsburgh super agent Ralph Cindrich, a former Pitt and NFL player, has seen it all during 25 years of representing athletes, including 27 Pro Bowl clients and 20 first-round NFL draft picks.
"It's getting better," he said, in response to a question about whether agent certification by the National Football League Player's Association is working. "There was a time during the 1980's when it was wide open."
The football player's association recently started a new program to certify financial advisors, who can't double as contract negotiators for the same player. In the last three years, 78 NFL players have been defrauded of over $42 million, according to the player's association.
"Certain players are looking for certain things."
Once an agent hits his mark, there may be no end to the number of curious services that may be required to keep the client satisfied.
Negotiating the first contract might be the main course on an agent's plate, but the menu goes from helping an athlete buy an engagement ring to shipping his new SUV to Arizona.
"At the end of the day, this is a service-based industry," Edwards said.
Edwards, who represents Kansas City Chiefs and former Pitt punter Andy Lee, takes advantage of his television background to produce dvds of his players during their pro workouts. He is the son of Eddie Edwards Sr., former owner of WPTT in Pittsburgh along with seven other television stations.
Golfer John Daly's agent, Bud Martin of Wexford, handles everything from endorsements to organizing charity golf tournaments on behalf of his famous client.
"Certain players are looking for certain things, what you might call concierge service," Urbon said. "That includes tickets to Hollywood premiers and access to events that average people don't have. We take care of everything off the field, so they can take care of things on the field."
Jerome Tierney of North Huntington was a trial lawyer for 20 years before delving into the sports agent business last year. A former Mansfield State football player, Tierney will train clients to cut their time in the 40-yard dash, then provide a video of the top workout in real time so NFL and CFL personnel people can put their own stopwatch on his athlete.
"I don't have runners," Tierney said. "I'm my runner. You get me, not some third party, to advise you both as an athlete and a client. We start from day one to see what we can do to enhance a player's standing."
Bill Parise and John Nubani of Pittsburgh-based Sports Management & Marketing Inc. have been representing athletes since 1984, including clients like hurdler Roger Kingdom and former Steelers linebacker Robin Cole.
Parise said he offers a more personal approach over a super-sized agency.
"This year I only took on three new players, because that's all I can do a good job for," Parise said. "I want to make sure I can take care of the needs of my players and not build a stable of players I can't take care of.
"Some agents take players and sign them to a contract and forget about them," he said. "They develop amnesia. That's not the way it's supposed to be."
"They treated me right."
Steelers second-year linebacker Rian Wallace wasn't sure what he wanted in an agent, but he knew what he didn't want.
"I didn't want a cell-phone guy, someone who was always talking to someone else when he was with me," Wallace said.
He signed with Easton Athletic Services of Baltimore.
Penguins defensemen Colby Armstrong said he took the advice of other NHL players before signing Toronto agent Don Meehan, considered the most powerful agent in hockey.
Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney selected the Bobby Orr hockey group and agent Paul Krepelka.
"They treated me right -- I felt they'd do an honest job for me," Whitney said. "I just felt more comfortable with them. They help you with whatever you need, equipment, whatever."
Penguins former center and current owner Mario Lemieux turned to Pittsburgh native and baseball super agent Tom Reich when he needed a complex contract negotiated in 1988. Reich's famous client list included Pirates Doc Ellis, Dave Parker and John Candelaria, and superstars from Sammy Sosa to Ken Griffey Jr.
Steve Reich, of Reich Publishing & Marketing, of Mt. Lebanon, now serves as Lemieux's agent on licensing, marketing and endorsement matters.
"Why a player hires a certain agent is not an easy question to answer," Steve Reich said. "It's different for every player.
"I think Mario initially hired Tom based on his reputation as a tough negotiator and someone who could do complex and significant deals. Not every agent can provide that."
Bay said he hired Urbon based on references from other players. Their business relationship was cemented in a four-year, $18.25 million deal last November which Bay earned by hitting .306 with 32 home runs and 101 RBI last season.
"Joe isn't just my agent, he's a good friend," Bay said. "We hang around, go out and have drinks, do dinner. I prefer it that way, actually. I want my agent to know me, that way he knows what's best for me."
Bay said the best player-agent relationships come down to one thing.
"My best interests are in his best interest," Bay said. Additional Information:
Playing the agent gameFootball
National Football League Player's Association, Washington, D.C.
Major League Baseball Player's Association, New York
National Hockey League Player's Association, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
National Basketball Player's Association, New York