By Anthony Petriello
A Ward Melville High School grad recently scored a home run in the world of sports.
A success story in the making, Burton Rocks, 46, has overcome great adversity to make history in Major League Baseball as a sports agent. Having worked a historic six-year, $26 million deal for St. Louis Cardinals’ shortstop Paul DeJong in the spring, Burton has now reached the upper echelon of sports agents. DeJong’s contract may be worth more than $51 million due to an option to earn more money in the last two years of the contract, which makes it the largest ever awarded to a first-year player in MLB history.
To garner the tremendous success he has achieved, Rocks has overcome a debilitating illness — life-threatening asthma — which he has suffered with since he was a young child. As a student at Ward Melville High School, Rocks said he missed many days in class due to his constant battle with the most extreme form of asthma. He had a passion for band — having played the clarinet and the saxophone — but was rarely able to play at concerts due to his illness, which continued throughout his school years.
As a middle school student at R.C. Murphy Junior High School, Rocks said he felt like an outsider due to his absences and had an issue with bullying when he was present.
“I was the outsider kid with the inhaler,” he said. “But you have to accept what God gives you and move on, and I don’t hold any grudges.”
Rocks said his parents, who still live in the Three Village area, sacrificed a lot for him. His father, world-renowned chemist and author Lawrence Rocks, spent much of his time caring for his son, in and out of the hospital, during his childhood. Rocks said his father always made sure he came back home each night, even when he was away on business.
“My dad used to bring me up food from the coffee shop as a treat when he would come visit me late at night after a business trip,” he said. “My dad might’ve been Dr. Rocks to the world, but to me he was Dad. He was there in the morning every day to wake me up, and at night every night to tuck me in.”
“I was the outsider kid with the inhaler. But you have to accept what God gives you and move on, and I don’t hold any grudges.”
— Burton Rocks
Burton Rocks’ mother, Marlene, a former substitute teacher at Ward Melville, spent just as much, if not more time by his bedside. Rocks said his mother quit her job as a Spanish teacher in New York City to spend more time with him.
When Rocks was able to attend school, he did his best to overcome the difficulty of missing so much class time. He had a special connection with his eighth-grade social studies teacher, Dan Comerford, with whom he still keeps in touch. Comerford worked at Ward Melville as a teacher from 1968–2001 and now lives in Jupiter Inlet Colony, Florida, where he is the mayor and the police commissioner. Comerford had fond memories of meeting Rocks in the mid-1980s, when he helped the junior high school student overcome a bullying problem.
“Because he wasn’t there a lot, there was a lot of work to be made up,” Comerford said. “My goal always [with Rocks] was to tell him to relax and take it easy. He was and is a worrier, but that’s what makes him a fantastic agent, he’s a detail man. I made it my mission back then to take care of him and make sure he wasn’t being picked on by anyone.”
Even during high school, Rocks said he frequently visited St. Charles Hospital due to his condition, but was still able to complete multiple Advanced Placement classes including AP Chemistry, AP Calculus and AP Spanish. Rocks graduated in 1990 and attended Stony Book University, where he graduated with a degree in history in 1994. Rocks continued his education at Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University and graduated with a juris doctor degree in 1997.
During law school, Rocks said he had the unique opportunity to go on scouting missions with the late Clyde King, who was a close friend of Rocks’ father and was special adviser to George Steinbrenner, the late owner of the New York Yankees. Rocks was given the chance to read through the original handwritten scouting reports from Steinbrenner, information that was and still is undisclosed to the public. Rocks also had the opportunity to have an informal pitching tryout at King’s home in North Carolina in 1995, but while he was a great pitcher on his own accord, King did not feel he was ready for the major leagues due to his health issues.
The late Norma King, Clyde’s wife, once spoke about Rocks, as recalled by the sports agent: “Clyde always said ‘When one door closes another door opens.’ Burton is living proof of that expression. He threw for Clyde here [in North Carolina] but his health precluded him from playing professionally. When that door closed, he turned to writing.”
After the realization that his option to play professional baseball would not come to fruition, Rocks focused on his writing. He said he worked with King on his memoir “A King’s Legacy: The Clyde King Story” which was released in 1999. Not long after he graduated college, Rocks worked on his second memoir and co-authored the 2003 New York Times best-selling book “Me and My Dad: A Baseball Memoir” with Yankees outfielder Paul O’Neill.
After writing several books, Rocks said he founded the C.L. Rocks Corporation, a sports agency, in 2008. Rocks implemented what he called “the quantified intangibles metric” in his evaluation of MLB players. This metric measured a player’s life experiences and adversities prior to becoming a professional baseball player and took those into account when measuring a player’s value to a team. Rocks looked back at his own adversities as a child and young adult and saw that those life experiences hold value when drafting a player or coach who will be performing in front of millions of people.
“As a kid, you search for answers to feel normal, and this is what I bring to the table,” Rocks said. “That was, for me, a cathartic product of my search. I realized I could apply it to business. I said to myself, ‘Can I find coaches or players that coach or play well because they’ve overcome adversity and know how to channel it into wins?’”