Lose a pitcher, gain an owner? As it looked as though the Phillies would sign Zack Wheeler for five years and $118 million, less than he was offered by the White Sox, his now-former Mets looked as though they were about to sell an 80 percent stake in the team to a Long Island boy who, like me, has been a Met fan since the day they were born.
Steve Cohen has in common with me having seen our first Mets games courtesy of the original troupe who played in the ancient Polo Grounds while awaiting Shea Stadium’s completion. That’s almost the full extent of our common ground. For openers, at present he owns a four percent stake in the team, while I own nothing of the team but an alternate game hat and several books.
Cohen played baseball as a boy until a shoulder injury put paid, apparently, to any thoughts he had of growing up to pitch professionally, presumably in a Met uniform. His career ended with slightly more honour than mine did: I discovered 1) I couldn’t hit a fair ball unless the foul lines were moved to a single line crossing the rear point of home plate; and, 2) I couldn’t throw a strike unless the strike zone sat on the batter’s derriere.
So each of us ended our baseball careers and settled for pursuits less likely to provide even that one in a billion shot at immortality.
Mine was becoming an Air Force intelligence analyst and, following, a professional journalist at the regional level with a career described as fitful at best. Cohen’s was going to Wall Street and building a fortune that would, if he intends to buy that 80 percent stake in the Mets, make him baseball’s wealthiest owner almost overnight.
I say “almost” because the reporting holds that the incumbent Wilpons will stay in command for five more years. But the transition of power could happen sooner, as often it does. “According to my sources, Cohen, who is currently a minority owner of the Mets, would immediately own at least a tad over 50% should the deal be approved,” writes Mike Ozanian in Forbes. “Why would anybody buying a majority stake in a dysfunctional business allow the folks who ran it dysfunctionally for years keep running it? Time is of the essence.”
To see the reaction of Met fans who’ve despaired over what The Athletic calls the Wilpons’ “tight fisted and ham handed stewardship of the Mets” is to think the Messiah has come at long enough last. Met fans salivate over the prospect of the tight fists turning into open hands.
Cohen is known for a previous bid to buy the Dodgers (he lost out) and as an art lover and collector who once paid for one sculpture (Pointing Man, by Alberto Giocametti) $3.8 million more than the Mets agreed to pay their back-to-back Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Jacob deGrom for five years beginning in 2020.
The Wilpons’ fists tightened when they turned up among the wounded (victims and partial culprits alike) in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Cohen’s SAC Capital Investors, which he built, copped to five counts of insider trading in 2013 and ponied up a $1.2 billion fine. Though Cohen himself wasn’t accused of wrongdoing, SAC Capital was barred from outside investments from there forward.
Cohen merely picked himself up, dusted off, and created Point72 Ventures three years ago and Cohen Private Ventures, which he says will manage his majority Mets stake if the deal is done. The Wilpons are still trying to get out from under the Madoff mess, which only began for them when they thought investing with Madoff would help them with things like the botched Bobby Bonilla deal. (Which the Mets must pay through 2035 at $1 million a year, for a player who’s been retired almost two decades.)
“Madoff ‘made’ them boatloads of money that never existed and they invested it in places they’re still trying to pay back (like their team *cough Bonilla* and television station),” writes Sarah Valenzuela of the New York Daily News. “By 2015, they were paying off about $100M/year to get to the principal amount of their debts, plus the cost of the recently built Citi Field.”
Fred and son Jeff Wilpon have been known as Steinbrennerian meddlers (George, not Hal) without much of anything resembling Steinbrennerian results after they wrested the team’s full ownership from co-owner Nelson Doubleday in 2002. And as often as not the meddlings were destructive enough to be considered human neglect.
The elder Wilpon once forced Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez to pitch a meaningless game for the box office in 2006 despite a toe injury; it may have aggravated shoulder issues, invited 2007 season-losing surgery, and limited Martinez in 2008, to the point where he returned to the Red Sox after his deal expired to retire as a Red Sox.
When Doubleday wanted in the worst way possible to bring Hall of Famer Mike Piazza to the Mets in 1998, Wilpon actually tried to thwart the deal. Today Piazza’s Hall of Fame plaque shows his head under a Mets cap. Way to call ’em, Fred. Meanwhile, for every Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and Johan Santana acquisition there were Bonilla’s second Mets deal and acquisitions of aging, past-prime, or completely lost players almost too numerous to mention.
Wilpon pere and Wilpon fils have also been renowned for blocking signings and deals their baseball brain trusts have recommended strongly enough to them while signing off on signings and deals described as dubious most charitably.
And no managerial firing in the Steinbrenner Yankees’ history was half as despicable as the manner in which Wilpon ordered the executions of Willie Randolph, his pitching coach Rick Peterson, and his first base coach Tom Nieto in 2008—after the team traveled to Anaheim and won the first game of the road trip. And after midnight while they were at it.
But before my fellow Met fans drink too deep in celebrating the advent of the Cohen era, they may do wise to ponder the Wednesday evening caution from MLB Trade Rumours‘s Steve Adams:
Any ownership-level shakeup, of course, can have payroll implications for a team, but there’s no immediate indication that the Mets will increase spending in the near future. To the contrary, multiple reports this week have indicated that the Mets may need to move some undesirable contracts before spending further this winter — a reality that has long since been apparent to any who’ve closely examined the team’s payroll outlook. As for what would happen with regard to team payroll down the line, that can’t be known at this time, but it’s worth highlighting that the Bloomberg Billionaire Index lists Cohen’s net worth at a staggering $9.2 billion.
Today’s announcement seemingly puts a finite window on the Wilpons’ rein atop the organization and, as ESPN’s Buster Olney points out (Twitter link), perhaps explains why the club has been so focused on winning as soon as possible and making splashy moves toward that end.
That’s a somewhat extensive way of reminding Met fans—since the day they were born and otherwise—how wise it is to cut the cards no matter how deep you trust Mom.
Cohen grew up on Long Island in Great Neck, a well-to-do place in Nassau County familiar to me mostly as the home of a classic opulent wedding-and-bar-mitzvah semi-factory. Leonard’s of Great Neck, now Leonard’s Palazzo, is known to television fans as the joint where Johnny Sack asked Tony Soprano to perform a hit before Sack was hauled from his daughter’s wedding back to prison, in season six, episode five.
Take that, Mr. Cohen: After my parents moved us from the north Bronx, I finished growing up (har, har) in Long Beach, an island strip across a channel in southern Nassau which had a little bit of every economic strata, a lot of beach and boardwalk, and a home for Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, from which son and heir Michael plotted and delivered the execution of the heads of the Five Families.
My mob’s better than your mob. #LFGM.