The roots of David Pepe’s career representing professional baseball players can be traced back to his grade-school years – when he had a front-row seat to spring training sitting beside his father, a longtime New York Yankees beat reporter and columnist for the New York Daily News.
Pepe spent several winters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his father, Phil Pepe. During those years, he forged a friendship with Billy Martin Jr., son of the late Yankee player and manager, with whom he formed a sports agency representing potential major leaguers.
“I was fortunate enough to be raised by someone who truly loved his job and particularly loved baseball,” says Pepe, a Rutgers alumnus and an attorney who teaches "Labor Relations in Sports" in Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations. “How could I not be influenced by that growing up.”
Pepe is an agent for clients including former Rutgers standouts Howie Brey, a pitcher from Middletown whose 84-strikeout season and 92 mile-per-hour fastball convinced the Houston Astros to draft him this past spring, and Pat Kivlehan, an outfielder who became the Big East’s first-ever triple crown winner as a senior in 2012. He represented former Rutgers stars Bill Malloy, Pete Zocolillo, who played for the Milwaukee Brewers, and Adam Neubart, and current clients include Marlins’ pitcher Tom Koehler and 41-year-old Joe Nathan, a standout closing pitcher for the Cubs.
During baseball season Pepe spends most evenings watching live major and minor league games across the country, as many as 15 on a given night. He watches all of his clients perform – especially scrutinzing the younger professionals early in a journey they hope will end in the major leagues.
“After their games, I text a number of them, and if they then want to talk, I can get to bed very, very late, particularly when my players are on the west coast,” says Pepe, a shareholder in the law firm Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer P.A. in Woodbridge.
Pepe’s entry into the world of sports started in middle school. He and his father, who passed way several months ago at 80, were active in New Jersey sports circles after Dave went through middle school as an undefeated wrestler, then became a 129-pound Bergen County champ for Allendale’s Northern Highlands High School. But his passion for baseball continued to grow.
Pepe built his contacts in sports attending minor league games in New Jersey and through his legal work that helped pave the way for a new stadium in Sussex County for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class A affiliate. While attending Seton Hall Law School, where he helped found the Seton Hall Sports Law Journal, he interned in the Yankees’ legal department.
Gradually, Pepe began representing potential major leaguers with Martin. Their company, Pro Agents, Inc., now has 35 major and minor leaguers under contract, with Pepe scouting talent in the east and Martin, based in Texas, evaluating potential new clients in the western half of the country.
He talks excitedly about the players he represents who are on the brink of making it.
Brey, taken by the Astros in the 31st round, is pitching to a 4.50 earned run average for the Astros’ Rookie League affiliate, Greeneville, Tennessee, in the Appalachian League, but Pepe says he has the drive to improve and the ability to excel.
“If he can build off of the experience he had for Rutgers against the Big Ten,” says Pepe, “he has the talent to pitch in the big leagues. He has the pitchability and is unafraid to challenge hitters.”
Kivlehan has just experienced a wonderful major league debut. Called up two days ago by the San Diego Padres from their Triple A team in El Paso, he homered Saturday night and also collected another hit in his first game for the Padres.
Understanding collective bargaining agreements governing major leaguers and workman’s compensation law as it relates to minor league hopefuls aided his success as an agent, Pepe says, but his plaintiff personal injury practice provides his agency with a distinction in a highly competitive business.
“Understanding medicine is so important now because of the prevalence of injuries to players, the surgical procedures they undergo and recovery times,” he says Pepe. “If they are injured, we help them figure out the best way to proceed to protect their health and stay on track within their organization.”
At the start of Rutgers’ fall semester, Monday becomes the one night when Pepe’s game-watching is interrupted. That’s when he teaches labor relations to a capacity 75 undergraduates, many of whom students are considering a career in professional sports. Pepe traces the history of unionization in America and in professional sports, emphasizing the efforts of former players Curt Flood and Dave McNally, among others, to win free agency for major league players.
“If you want to have a career in sports, you should know about what Curt Flood did, what (the late executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association) Marvin Miller did, and understand the business aspect of sports,” he says. “The most important thing I’ve learned is you must be passionate about the sport and dispassionate about everything else.”