Baseball has been in Balelo’s blood from the start. A star athlete (and, as of 2000, Hall of Fame inductee) at University High School in San Diego and an All-West Coast Conference player at Pepperdine University, Balelo signed a pro contract in 1985. He was on track for the sports career he’d long imagined. Two years later, just weeks away from competing for the starting shortstop position with the Seattle Mariners, a horrific accident at a construction job altered the trajectory of his life.
Balelo fell almost 40 feet down an elevator shaft onto a concrete slab, shattering his body from head to toe. It changed his and his newlywed wife, Lisa’s, lives, but they committed themselves to getting through that challenging time and getting back on their feet.
The major leagues, however, were no longer an option.
Balelo recovered and, still considered “the property of ” the Seattle Mariners, spent two years in the minors and another two playing pro ball overseas. He came home to launch a string of successful baseball facilities, working with hundreds of young, inspired ballplayers and helping them to advance their dream careers. Through that experience, Balelo acquired the skill set he needed to become a player agent.
In 2006, he joined the entertainment powerhouse Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and helped to build its sports business, now known as CAA Sports. As part of a three-man leadership team in the baseball division, Balelo played a key role in propelling the group to the top of its industry. He and his team have negotiated more than $2.2 billion in Major League Baseball (MLB) contracts through player representation. To date, CAA’s MLB clients have notched more than 100 All-Star nods, 15 Gold Glove honors, eight Rookie of the Year awards, three Cy Young awards and five Most Valuable Player awards.
We talked with the agent extraordinaire about sports, career and hangouts, including The Resort at Pelican Hill.®
What led you to become a sports agent?
NB: After I was done playing professionally, I got into development and had baseball facilities throughout Southern California. I started establishing relationships with young talent and placing them in universities on athletic and academic scholarships. I continued to help them with their careers, and eventually ended up representing them [as an agent]. Sixteen years later, a lot of the players I met during that period are still clients.
What’s the daily routine of an agent?
NB: It’s different every day. It gets you out of bed in the morning, not knowing what the day has in store for you. The biggest part is being a mentor, and guiding the players through their careers. I want to make an impact on their lives. That’s the most gratifying part of my job.
How do you evaluate and choose the players you want to represent?
NB: They have to be good people, with a good pedigree. Obviously, they have to have talent and a strong vision to succeed. We try to determine that before we move forward. These are criteria that go back to my days in player development. We had hundreds of clients coming through our programs. You could see the ones that were driven and the ones that were not.
And it’s not always the players with the most talent [who make it.] I remember a young student coming to me who had limited talent but was extremely bright and dedicated to succeeding. When I asked him whether he was committed to doing this, the answer was clear. Even though he was behind the eight ball in high school in terms of his skills, he went on to earn a scholarship to a Division 1 university, got an opportunity to play pro ball and ultimately moved into a management position.
How have players changed since you began your career?
NB: The players haven’t changed, but the industry has. There are new rules on the field that the players have to adapt to. [For example,] there’s a new pace-ofgame rule that applies to a pitcher on the mound and a hitter in the batter’s box. There’s also instant replay. The players have to adapt to that and there are still more changes coming down the pipe.
Recently, you’ve taken on representation of mixed martial arts fighters. How did that come about?
NB: I always wanted to share my talent for mentoring in other sports, and I got the opportunity when [MMA superstar] George St. Pierre asked me to work on his behalf. That led to my helping other young fighters with their contracts and subsequently to representing them.
Nez Balelo has been instrumental in helping these superstars, among others, to achieve success (pictured, from left to right): Phil Hughes, Minnesota Twins; Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers; Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers. Others include: David Freese, Pittsburgh Pirates; Trevor Plouffe, Tampa Bay Rays; Tyler Skaggs, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Jason Vargas, Kansas City Royals.
The Resort at Pelican Hill has become a special place for you and Lisa. What is it about the Resort that drew you in?
NB: From the time I started full rehab following the accident, I was committed to doing whatever it took to get back onto the field. I knew that my chances of playing every day at shortstop were slim, and I was advised to get used to the idea of being at best a utility player. I was sent to [training] camp to start over again. After two years, my team gave me the green light to move to Italy and play for the Italian Baseball League.
While living and playing in the small northern Italian village of Novara, I rebuilt my physical and mental strength, and my confidence and drive to succeed were rekindled. At the end of my second year with the team, I led the league in hitting and was named MVP. Suddenly I believed in myself again.
Italy turned out to be the opportunity that changed my life, and Lisa and I fell in love with the country. The first time that we stayed in a Villa at Pelican Hill,® it reminded us of our village. There was so much similarity and it gave us so much comfort. We celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary at Pelican Hill.
You recently put down roots in Orange County, even though your office is in Los Angeles.
NB: After we began coming to Pelican Hill, we started to explore more of the area. We realized that we really enjoy being down there. We like the people and the area is beautiful. So we bought a historic beach cottage on Balboa Island that we’re restoring as a vacation home.
Have you brought any clients down for a round of golf? Why does golf draw so many athletes from other sports?
NB: Golf is a way to get away from the pressures of the job and still be competitive. It’s a very challenging game and it acts as an escape. When you’re out on a golf course, it’s tranquil. Over the years we’ve had clients down at Pelican Hill. We’ve even had them stay the entire off-season. And they continue to come back.
Looking back now, how did that construction accident change your story?
NB: It made me what I am today. The accident grounded me and made me realize there’s a big picture in life. It put a huge perspective on my life and the way I go about my business every day.