Baseball evokes a particular scene for most fans—summer days at the ballpark, hot dogs and peanuts, the crack of the bat, and the excited hum of a crowd. Jon Fetterolf, ’99, partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP and certified agent with the Major League Baseball Players Association, sees a different side of America’s national pastime.
Fetterolf recently returned to Michigan Law for a panel discussion about how he built a sports practice specializing in baseball, where he represents athletes and agencies in contract negotiations, salary arbitrations, and litigation. The panel was organized by the Sports Law Society, a Michigan Law student organization, and Fetterolf was joined by friends Josh Byrnes, senior vice president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and A.J. Hinch, manager of the Detroit Tigers. The trio elaborated on what it takes to have a career in baseball, gave insight about what goes on behind the scenes, and discussed ways to make the game more inclusive and more appealing to younger audiences.
Fetterolf played baseball during his undergraduate years at Haverford College, which is where he met Byrnes, who he credits with introducing him to the business side of the sport. While attending Michigan Law, Fetterolf would drive to Cleveland and visit Byrnes, who was scouting for the Cleveland Indians at the time. “The job he had, building a team and running the business of baseball, was far more interesting to me than I expected. I always thought it was simply a matter of finding the 25 best players and getting them on the field—but that’s not all of it. Running a team seemed far more intellectual than I ever thought it was, and baseball management became something I kept my mind open to and started reading a lot about,” he said.
After graduating law school, Fetterolf joined Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington, D.C., where he practiced white collar criminal defense and also had the opportunity to help write the firm’s business plan to create a baseball practice. During his early years at the firm, his work related to baseball focused on representing players who had legal issues, including a stint representing Curt Schilling during a Congressional hearing on steroid use. When one of his colleagues left to work for the Washington Nationals, Fetterolf took over the baseball practice, became certified as an agent, and found many opportunities to put his law degree to work on behalf of baseball clients. He built a practice that dealt in contract negotiation and salary arbitration, and continued to represent athletes on all kinds of legal issues on and off the field. Eventually, the Major League Baseball Players Association asked him to get involved in helping agents in salary arbitration proceedings, owing to his legal background, which was a unique arrangement that helped the firm expand its services and bring in new clients. He stayed with Williams & Connolly for 13 years, becoming a partner in 2008, before leaving to further expand his sports practice at Zuckerman Spaeder.
In discussing how to pursue a career in sports, Fetterolf asserted that for him it was “luck with some preparation,” but that Michigan Law gave him a great foundation. “Coming here and being at this school was where I found myself,” he said. “I learned more from J.J. White’s contract negotiation seminar than any other negotiation experience I’ve had, and it’s helped me tremendously.”
Byrnes, who has nearly 30 years of experience in baseball, including two stints as a general manager, spoke about the changes he’s seen during his time in the sport, and recent efforts to shake up the rules of the game. “It’s been a really good ride. I’ve been known as the ‘new-school type guy,’ but now I’m sort of the old-school guy,” he said. “Personally, I’ve always felt I’m in the middle. There’s a lot about the game’s traditional methods that matter, but embracing both sides is important.”
“We can’t just go old school anymore with napkin trades over a cocktail—the best teams combine old and new school ideas,” agreed Hinch, who was given his first managerial job by Byrnes. “So often the right decision is doing what you believe in even if it’s not what everyone thinks is right.”
Hinch, a Stanford graduate as well as World Series winning manager, closed out the panel by addressing students: “I wish all of you the courage to take something head on when you’re presented with something you’ve never handled before—you can always learn, you can always grow, you can always be better, but don’t ever lower your standard of courage.”