Back in the early 1980s, Jeff Berry was a pre-teen who had woven his young life into the fabric of Owensboro.
He had friends and relatives galore here, was a standout in Little League Baseball at Owensboro Eastern, lived in the heart of the city at 24th and Daviess streets, was in the Catholic school system and was a member of Blessed Mother Church.
In the fall of 1984, however, he moved with his family to Massachusetts when his father David, who worked for W.R. Grace & Co., was transferred to the northeast. So, whatever became of Jeff Berry?
Now 50, Berry is one of the most prominent agents in Major League Baseball as co-head of Baseball at CAA Sports, with clients such as Buster Posey, Jacob deGrom, Trea Turner and a host of others.
But if you think that Berry long ago put Owensboro in his rearview mirror and never looked back, your thinking is wrong.
“I loved living in Owensboro,” said Berry, who makes his home in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, near Tampa. “I had many, many relatives there at the time, and no matter where we go, where we disperse to, we have Owensboro as a common bond. In so many ways, it still feels like home to me.”
He recalls his formative years in Owensboro with relish.
“Those were great days,” Berry said. “Little League and Babe Ruth baseball, I was a paperboy for the Messenger-Inquirer, and my picture was in the paper from a Babe Ruth tournament game later on. Owensboro was a great place to grow up.
“I played baseball with and against guys like Brandy Wilson, Paul Corum and Neil Corley, who’s been like my best friend since fourth grade.”
Berry was also a huge Kentucky Wesleyan College hoops fan.
“I was really big into KWC basketball,” Berry said. “I was friends with Marty Pollio (son of then-KWC coach Mike Pollio), so I was into it pretty heavily, always at the games. Those were great teams with guys like Dwight Higgs, Rod Drake, Ray Harper. In those days, the Sportscenter was the place to be.”
Berry ultimately played baseball at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and was good enough to sign professionally as a catcher, spending one season in the Boston Red Sox organization.
The next year, he entered law school at Oklahoma City University, where he simultaneously served as a graduate assistant for the baseball team.
“That turned out to be a blessing because I was still able to stay in the game while I was working toward my law degree,” Berry recalled. “It was at that point that I met some people who led me in the direction of representation.
“It was like divine intervention, because this is the job I would have always wanted to have.”
And he’s made the most of it.
Over the past two decades and change, Berry has evolved into one of MLB’s most powerful agents, according to Forbes, which stated, “For every tiny step the competition takes, CAA seems to take a giant leap.”
Berry has negotiated a host of landmark contracts, including deals for deGrom (five years, $137.5 million with the New York Mets, most ever for a pitcher with less than five years in the majors); Posey (nine years, $167 million with the San Francisco Giants, the longest contract ever for a catcher and richest ever for a player with fewer than four years’ service time); Wil Myers, (six years, $83 million with the San Diego Padres, a franchise record for a contract); Ian Desmond (the largest free-agent deal for a position player in Colorado Rockies history); and Matt Cain (six years, $127.5 million deal with the Giants, a record guarantee for a right-handed pitcher).
Berry is renowned in the business as a fierce advocate for players rights.
“I’m a players guy,” Berry said. “The reason I have a job, the reason all the people associated with baseball have jobs, are because of the players — period.
“The value of the players on the field is what it’s all about, and we’ve lost sight of a lot of that. The great players of every generation are the beauty and essence of the game. They are what moves the game, and they are who the people come to see.”
Consequently, Berry has been involved with multiple rule changes in baseball.
Following Posey’s season-ending leg injury in May 2011, Berry lobbied MLB and the players’ union to limit home-plate collisions, telling ESPN.com, “You leave players way too vulnerable. ... I don’t know if this ends up leading to a rule change, but it should. The guy [at the plate] is too exposed. ... I’m going to call Major League Baseball and put this on the radar. Because it’s just wrong.” Subsequently, MLB added Rule 7.13 to protect catchers.
“Jeff is someone who obviously has had a very positive influence on my career,” said Posey, a three-time world champion, six-time All-Star and the 2012 National League Most Valuable Player. “I can call and talk with him about what’s happening on or off the field.
“He’s generally positive, but he tells it like it is. He’s like, ‘How can we fix the problem?’ Jeff is a very opinionated person, but he’s thoughtful in his opinions. He’s not afraid to rub people the wrong way.
“He caught a lot of flak and was sticking his neck out on that rule change. There was pushback because everyone had been used to that being part of the game for so long, but once there was more analyzation it became clear that the excitement of a collision at home plate didn’t outweigh the safety of players.”
In 2014, word leaked that shortstop prospect Turner was the player to be named in a trade between San Diego and Washington but could not actually be traded, by rule, for six months. Berry told foxsports.com, “Given the circumstances and the undoubtedly negative impact on Trea Turner, for the teams involved and Major League Baseball to endorse and approve this trade is not only unethical, but also goes against the very spirit of the Minor League Uniform Player Contract that players sign when they first enter professional baseball.” In May 2015, MLB revised its rules and allowed players to be traded in the fall after they were drafted.
Through it all, CAA Sports has continued to flourish, and Berry has no intentions of pumping the brakes anytime soon.
“I envision doing this in 25 years,” Berry said. “As long as players want me, as long as I can make a difference, this is what I’ll do.
“The best athletes in the world play baseball, and I’m blessed to be a part of this great game. I’m doing what I was meant to do.”