Since the end of his own playing days, Close understood that if he was ever going to make it in a cut-throat, high-stakes management world where some agents strive to become bigger than the athletes they represent, he couldn’t stray far from his roots.
His philosophy of fair-dealing has and allowing his work – not his name – to do the talking has been paying off ever since.
“That’s just the way I’ve always wanted to live my life,” Close said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “You’re always going to have people that fall on the good side of the fence and people that are going to fall in the not-so-good side.
“There’s been some great people out there in the business and there were guys to emulate, but I always wanted to do it my way. If you’re going to have any amount of success, you ultimately need to choose your own path that fits in your personality and what you’re all about.”
It’s a trait Close brought with him to Michigan, where on Saturday, he will join the school’s Hall of Honor in a ceremony during the Wolverines’ home men’s basketball game against Minnesota.
Close, 47, is part of an induction class that also includes former Michigan basketball coach Johnny Orr, longtime tennis coach Brian Eisner, softball player Sara Griffin, swimmer Alecia Humphrey and cross country and track star Molly McClimon.
But as humbling as the honor is, the fact Close even wound up in Ann Arbor in the first place is all part of his story.
A native of suburban Columbus, Ohio, Close was never considered a serious college baseball prospect by nearby Ohio State. So he traveled to Michigan, joining a Wolverines’ roster that included future major leaguers Barry Larkin, Hal Morris and Chris Sabo.
In his final year at Michigan, Close batted .440 with 19 home runs and 72 RBI, earning first-team All-America honors as well as being recognized as the country’s top collegiate player. He remains Michigan’s all-time career leader in home runs (46) and runs scored (190).
Close helped lead Michigan to a collection of Big Ten championships after being spurned by his hometown Buckeyes.
“I think that always chaffed him,” Larkin said in a profile of Close that appeared in The New York Times last year.
Following his stellar senior year, Close figured Major League Baseball couldn’t be far off. Drafted in the seventh round by the New York Yankees, Close spent five years toiling in the minors, never getting beyond Triple A.
After requesting a release from the Yankees, Close spent two years with the Seattle Mariners’ top minor league team in Calgary, Alberta, hitting .330 and .270, again hoping to reach the majors.
By the spring of 1991, Close knew the window of opportunity to become an everyday player in the major leagues was closing. The decision to move on wasn’t easy.
“When you put so much of your life into the practice and preparation of being the best thing you can be, you kind of expect to reach the pinnacle of that and you expect all of your hard work to come into fruition,” Close said. “When it doesn’t, obviously, there is a level of disappointment.”
Close was determined to build on his experiences. He had always been fascinated with numbers and negotiations. After five years in professional baseball, Close had become well-acquainted with the business side of the game.
He began working with a small sports marketing firm in Ohio, where his penchant for an honest day’s work was met with a few lucky breaks and some good fortune.
By 1993, Close was working as an agent at the powerful IMG firm when Jeter – then a rookie with the Yankees’ single-A affiliate in Greensboro, N.C. – decided to change agents.
At the time, Close saw a shortstop with star potential who had, like himself, been raised with Midwestern values. The two connected immediately, beginning a relationship that has seen both the player’s and agent’s stock skyrocket. In 1999, Close won a arbitration case against Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman that yielded Jeter a $5 million salary. Two years later Close – who joined Creative Artists Agency in 2006 – negotiated a 10-year, $189 million contract that expired in 2010.
While dealing with perhaps the most powerful organization in professional sports, Close never abandoned his core mission of doing things right. And although Close was named one of the country’s 20 most influential agents by the Sports Business Journal in 2008, he never made his success about him.
Working in a baseball universe long-dominated by high-powered agent Scott Boras, who was once referred to as “The Extortionist” in a magazine profile, Close never considered following a similar path.
“When you are the player, you are the star and those are the people who should have their name pushed out in front,” Close said. “I never felt, as an individual agent and whose job it is to promote the welfare and benefits of the person you’re representing, I never felt (becoming a commodity) was my job.
“I’ve always been more comfortable letting your work or your talent speak for themselves.”
It’s an attitude that brings the story back to Ann Arbor, where Close says many of his values were shaped. At Michigan, Close roomed with Larkin, who he would eventually represent during a Major League career that lasted nearly two decades.
While playing for the Wolverines, Close was groomed to put the team ahead of himself, never allowing individual achievement to get in the way of group success. Somehow, along the way, Close has become a star in his own right.
Last month, he negotiated a 3-year, $51 million deal for Jeter, whom he referred to as the Yankees’ modern-day Babe Ruth during a sometimes contentious negotiation with the Yankees.
He remains content to fly under the radar while dealing with major leaguers playing at a level he always hoped to. Twenty years later, Close has no qualms about how things turned out.
“Life has given me so many things to be proud of and to be fortunate to have – including my family,” said Close, who is married to Fox News Channel morning host Gretchen Calrson. “It’s a great privilege to work with the people I do and to have the job I do and to have the energy and passion each day to pursue not only the opportunities you already have, but new opportunities.
“That’s a great thing to be able to have.”