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For pro athletes, making millions of dollars a year is the easy part. Avoiding a financial strikeout usually requires an assist.

AARON HILL had every reason to think he was well prepared to play Major League Baseball. A 2003 first-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, for whom he currently is the starting second baseman, Hill had rolled up an impressive résumé while attending Louisiana State University: He’d batted a stellar .335 during his college career, was named an All-American and the Southeastern Conference’s player of the year, and was a member of the 2002 U.S. national team. While he was perfectly ready to step onto the field and play, Hill, by his own admission, was less certain about how to handle the money that comes with signing a pro contract. “I really didn’t know much about any of that stuff. I was just a kid getting drafted, getting some money,” recalls Hill. “I didn’t know what to do.”

For athletes like Hill, there’s no lack of options to choose from when it comes to companies that want to manage their money. Indeed, large brokerage houses like Merrill Lynch and Citigroup’s Smith Barney have hired ex-athletes to be financial advisers in hopes that they’ll be able to attract business from their former teammates and fellow jocks. Large banks, like Atlanta-based Sun- Trust and Minneapolis-headquartered U.S. Bank, are even more formal in their efforts, devoting entire divisions to the sports trade. And, frankly, the fact that this is a crowded and exceedingly competitive field — lawsuits and countersuits have been swapped by firms over the use of allegedly devious tactics to steal clients — is understandable. Athlete salaries are often hefty, even stratospheric: The average Major League Baseball player brought in almost $2.7 million in 2006. In a sports-obsessed country, there’s also considerable cachet for financial advisers who manage to land athlete clients (which can translate into more business from nonathletes).

When it came time for Hill to choose a financial adviser, he passed over the big brand names and signed up with Horizon Wealth Management, a small, independent company located in a place not exactly known as one of the world’s financial centers: Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For Hill, the reasons for choosing Horizon were largely personal; all the founders and partners at Horizon had either played or coached baseball at LSU, and he’d had a chance to get to know them through alumni functions. That affiliation was important to Hill, just as it so often is in the business world, where membership in a fraternity can be the most persuasive piece of information on a job applicant’s résumé. “They’re baseball guys,” says Hill flatly, by way of explanation.

Trust is understandably a big issue for athletes — stories of players being bilked out of enormous sums of money by financial advisers and of players themselves making disastrous investment choices are legion. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Hall of Fame center for the Los Angeles Lakers, was widely reported to have extended his playing career in order to make up for financial setbacks. Tony Dorsett of the Dallas Cowboys and tennis great Björn Borg lost huge amounts of money through poor investments and business dealings. Joe Louis, after earning millions in the boxing ring, ended up working as a “greeter” in a Las Vegas hotel to pay off his debts and taxes.

Obviously, Horizon, whose approximately 180 clients include about 65 pro athletes — NASCAR drivers and pro football players among them — wants to avoid ugly situations like those. In fact, it wants its athlete clients to be financially secure for the remainder of their lives once their playing days are over. Fortunately for Horizon, its pro-baseball ties — which come via company partner Jeff Reboulet, who had a 12-year major-league career — give them access to players and instant credibility. “There’s a huge barrier to entry. We always joke around here that it’s like knowing the secret handshake,” says Pete Bush, a founding partner of Horizon, who played baseball at LSU. “Players have a lot more gatekeepers than, say, a local doctor or business owner. They have a lot of people you have to get through, mostly the agents and tax people, to get a chance to meet with them.”

ONCE A CLIENT IS SIGNED, though, there are often serious challenges involved in effectively managing his or her wealth. In part, some of the difficulty can come from the very personality traits that helped the person succeed as an athlete. “Baseball players and professional athletes are risk takers,” says Reboulet, who spent time with numerous teams during his playing career, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins. “They have a lot of confidence in themselves.” That confidence and aggression can, unfortunately, be misguided, particularly if it is paired with a lack of knowledge about how investments work and what budgeting requires or with the inability to separate the good business propositions from the bad. “You can’t be very good at too many things at one time. If you are a pro athlete, you put everything you have into that. It makes it difficult to then go home and try and figure out your finances,” Reboulet says.

The clubhouse atmosphere isn’t always conducive to sober investing either. In some cases, the person in the locker room who has the least-responsible spending habits — the one who’s shelling out vast sums for a house, a car, or even to support a posse — can end up setting the standard that everyone else aspires to. Also, aggressive, competitive athletes may have a tendency to exaggerate their success as investors. “Some guys are telling you how much money they made on this deal and that deal, and you have to be careful with that, because they don’t tell you how much they lost on other deals,” says Chad Ogea, a Horizon client who won two games as a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 World Series. Additionally, because high-profile players are known to make a lot of money, they can become targets for family members, friends, and strangers who want financing for business ideas and schemes. “People come out of the woodwork,” says Ogea.

It’s understandable that many young athletes aren’t well informed when it comes to their finances. They are, after all, young and have come into wealth quickly, without gaining the experience that comes from gradually accumulating assets over a lifetime. “If you and I work, we start off and earn a small wage, and as we go along, it gets bigger and bigger. And by the time we’re 50 or 60, we are making the most money we’ve made in our lives,” says Bush. “They’re exactly the opposite.” To make up for that lack of knowledge, Horizon puts a big emphasis on educating its clients about how investments work — down to rudimentary things like defining basic terms such as stocks and bonds.

The baseball background Horizon’s advisers have helps them when it comes to making the all too often dry or indecipherable world of finance eminently understandable to their athlete clients. For instance, they know using a concept that a ball player readily grasps, that of batting average, is the perfect way to help him understand the average return on an investment. “Players inherently know that if they’re good, they’re going to bat .300 and get three hits out of 10. If they got six or seven hits in a row, they know that it’s very unlikely they’re going to get six or seven more in a row. They know things fight back to their average,” says Bush. “Obviously, there’s an investment concept there, meaning we go through periods of underperformance and overperformance, but we have to keep our eyes on the ball so that we’re going to hit .300 over the course of the year.”

Bush also counsels players who are high draft choices, those who may receive a hefty $1.5 to $3 million signing bonus, to be remarkably conservative when it comes to investing that windfall. Understanding that the average professional athletic career is just four years — though every player expects to last as long as Michael Jordan — Bush urges players to create a nest egg and stash away as much of that money as possible in the forms of cash and short-term bonds. “The approach we take with that player is: ‘Hey, this might be all the money you ever get playing baseball,’ ” he says.