Saturday, 17 March 2012

Interview with Bryan Stroh, Vice President and General Counsel of the Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates recently hired Bryan Stroh as Vice President and General Counsel.  It's been a productive month for him.  He played key roles in the team winning its arbitration case against first baseman Garrett Jones and re-signing All Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen to a six-year contract worth $51.5 million with a club option for 2018 worth (the deal buys out at least two years of when the 25-year-old McCutchen could have been a free agent). 

Bryan is a good friend and former law school classmate of mine (University of Virginia School of Law, 2002).  Prior to joining the Pirates, he was a Chicago-based partner of Katten Muchin Rosenman, where his work included representing the Chicago White Sox.  He's also a 1998 graduate of Princeton University, where he was a top pitcher for the baseball team.  Bryan was kind enough to answer a few questions for Sports Law Blog.

SLB: What types of experiences at Katten best prepared you for this job?

STROH: At Katten, I was fortunate enough to work on a number of matters for the Chicago White Sox.  When I was a mid-level associate, I worked with a partner representing a White Sox player in a dispute with a former agent.  That case really opened my eyes to the various ways that the legal world overlaps with baseball.  Then a few years later I worked with the same partner on an internal investigation for the White Sox.  It was a fascinating case and I was lucky enough to be exposed to a number of people in the White Sox front office.  After we got a good resolution on that case, the partner basically kicked me in the butt and told me that I owed it to myself to try to figure out if there was a way for me to that sort of work more often, since he could see how much I enjoyed doing the work.

Beyond the sports cases that I worked on, as a litigator I did a ton of negotiating in a variety of different contexts.  That has been a huge benefit for me in my new role because even though the subject matter is a bit different, there are very few situation and personalities that I have not already come across in one form or another. 

SLB: What are typical situations you might have to handle in your job?  Are you involved with the disciplining of players or visa issues?

STROH: I have only been here about three months, so I am not sure I can really describe what is typical.  In the non-baseball world, the offseason involves a great deal of contract drafting and negotiation for things like sponsorship agreements, suite licenses, and media contracts.  On the baseball side, my primary focus has been contract negotiation for one multi-year contract in particular, but also for arbitration eligible players.  I also spent a great deal of time preparing for and giving the club’s presentation at a salary arbitration hearing. I have also had a variety of issues pop up related to the club’s activities in the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries. One of the things that really attracted me to this job is the variety of work that I get to do, which includes a good deal of overlap with the club's baseball operations. Every club structures things differently, but I am fortunate that Neil Huntington and Frank Coonelly give me opportunities to be involved in more than just those traditionally associated with a general counsel position.

SLB: The new CBA, which limits the amount of money teams can spend on drafted players, has been described as unfair to small market teams like the Pirates, which have used spending on the draft to rebuild in part because free agents are so expensive/over-priced.  What are your views on the impact of the CBA on the Pirates?

STROH: I understand that perspective and selfishly think it is too bad that we cannot continue to exploit what we believed to be a competitive advantage.  But, the reality is that, even though the Pirates spent more money in the draft than most teams in the past 3-4 years, that was not going to last forever.  The bigger market clubs could have changed that at any time, and likely would have once one decided that the money spent in the draft was efficient and money well spent.  If that ever happened, the larger market clubs could have spent significantly greater dollars than even the level the Pirates had been spending, which could have been a huge competitive disadvantage.  Thus, the structure of the new CBA prevents that from happening, even if it takes away the temporary advantage produced by the additional dollars spent by the Pirates in recent drafts.

SLB: Baseball has adopted tougher penalties and testing protocols for steroids and performance-enhancers.  Do you think Baseball will be able to keep up with what are clear market incentives for players and disreputable labs to identify new drugs that evade detection?

STROH: One thing that might surprise some fans is that, for the most part, I think the players, not just the clubs, really want to clean up the game.  You saw that recently with some of the reaction to the Braun case.  The players are aware that there is this perception out there that any accomplishments are somehow tainted by the steroid possibility.  Thus, most of them seem to realize that the perception, even if it is not based on fact, will not go away until there is a testing program that engenders the public’s confidence and trust.  Most players and agents that I have spoken with are very clear about this point, and that is why I believe that the last round of bargaining produced a strong set of penalties and testing protocols that both sides believe in.

SLB: What advice do you have for law students or new attorneys hoping to break into sports law?

STROH: First, they need to ask themselves whether they really have a strong passion for a sport or whether they just think that the idea of working in sports would be fun or cool. 

Second, and only if they have the passion for a particular sport, they need to think about how they will separate themselves from the pack in terms of offering value to whoever might hire them.  Unfortunately, it just is not enough to be somebody who likes sports, went to a good school and got good grades.  There are thousands of people who want to work in sports, and after Theo Epstein and others helped to break the mold, the supply of talented people who want to work in sports has gone through the roof in the last 10 years.  One of the clubs that I represented in private practice used to show me the resumes of people that did not even make the cut to be “finalists” for a few positions.  Those resumes were incredibly impressive and these people did not even make the final cut!  Whereas it used to be people wanted to work in sports but were semi-realistic about their chances, now anybody who goes to college wants to get into the sports world.  While I think that is healthy for sports in general since it means that more and more qualified people are considering working in sports, the reality is that by itself just isn’t enough to get a job.  You have to try to think about how you can provide some sort of unique skill or background that will help you stand out.  And even then, if you are able to do all of those things, you have to get a little lucky and be in the right place at the right time.  If you do your homework on how most people from the outside got their start in baseball, it becomes pretty obvious that timing is everything.

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