Pending end of the Mets’ reign of error

Citi Field at dusk last week. Met fans hope Steve Cohen’s ownership means no more nightmares.

“In truth,” writes The Athletic‘s Marc Carig this morning, “there’s no way to know what kind of steward [Steve] Cohen will be. There’s no guarantee that his love for [the New York Mets] translates into success. There’s no promise that he uses his billions to boost payroll to a level appropriate for a team that plays its home games in New York.

“Of course, the bar he must clear to be an improvement over his predecessors isn’t very high.”

Indeed. Carig himself isolates the bar right after that observation. Promptly enough, he reminds Met fans who need no reminder, and fans elsewhere who think the Mets remain figments of someone’s warped tragicomic imagination, that the legacy of Fred Wilpon and his son Jeff since taking full ownership in 2003 has been reduced to the hash tag #LOLMets.

On Monday, there came the news that Cohen and the Wilpons finally came to a deal allowing Cohen to buy the Mets for $2.4 billion. The last doorway through which Cohen must pass is the approval of 23 of the remaining 29 major league owners. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have smaller chances of winning the coming presidential election than Cohen has of losing approval as the Mets’ new owner.

Cohen resembles more the genial neighbour ready to throw a few steaks on the grill for the whole block than a filthy rich financier. All he has to do to clear the Wilpons’ bar, really, is take even one baby step off the ground.

Since Nelson Doubleday sold his share of the Mets to the Wilpons in 2002, the Wilpons  have accomplished what many in New York once thought impossible. They made the worst of George Steinbrenner’s Yankee reign resemble Camelot. (The Arthurian, not the Kennedy.) “A one-man error machine,” George F. Will called Steinbrenner when the 1980s ended. With extremely few exceptions, the Wilpons have been a two-man forfeit.

“The GMs change. The managers change. The players change. But until now, what has remained the same are the owners, and their aversion to accountability, and their refusal to level with their fans,” Carig writes. Those very words could describe the 1980s Steinbrenner, except that even The Boss found ways to hold himself accountable, however long after the facts.

The stories from those who have lived through it sound the same. They describe a cover-your-ass culture, in which getting the job done often took a back seat to simply avoiding the wrath of Jeff Wilpon. They recount looking over their shoulders and trying to manage up — with varying degrees of success. It’s a dance that requires bandwidth that should be devoted to making the team better. After a while, it’s too exhausting. So many through the years have simply lost their ability to stomach that reality.

Carig knows not every last Mets problem since 2003 can be laid at the Wilpons’ feet, but it has seemed often enough as though every positive met ten negatives. “Upon buying out nemesis Nelson Doubleday,” the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman wrote after the buyout, “Fred Wilpon made bringing a sense of ‘family’ to the organization a priority. Little did we know he meant the Corleone family.”

Doubleday himself tried to warn anyone who’d listen, right after he sold out and when Jeff Wilpon was made the Mets’ chief operating officer: “Jeff Wilpon said he’s going to learn how to run a baseball team and take over at the end of the year. Run for the hills, boys. I think probably all those baseball people will bail.” Some learning.

A few years later, there came a move not even Steinbrenner thought of when he spent much of the 1980s throwing out the first manager of the season for reasons running the gamut from specious to capricious. Even Steinbrenner’s execution of Yogi Berra sixteen games into 1985 didn’t quite equal the Second Mets Midnight Massacre for disgrace because, as the New York Daily News‘s Bill Madden observed, at least Yogi got the guillotine in broad daylight.

Officially, then-Mets general manager Omar Minaya fired manager Willie Randolph—after he and the Mets flew from New York to southern California to open a series with the Angels, after the Mets won the series opener, and about three hours after midnight. All Minaya was was the caporegime carrying out the orders of underboss Jeff Wilpon and his father’s co-consigliere Tony Bernazard. (Beware, Mr. Cohen. That’s Bernazard now manning the first base coaching line for your Mets.)

Minaya and, really, all his successors holding the GM title found themselves, most of the time, doing just that, holding the title while Wilpon fils held and exercised the power while leaving them on (pardon the expression) the firing line. Cohen will do well and right to engage real baseball people with hearts and minds, the wills to exercise both, and no requirement for rear-view mirrors attached to their sunglasses.

Just promise Met fans, Mr. Cohen, that you’ll resist the temptation to mortgage the Mets’ future on behalf of the old Steinbrennerian tack, exercised too liberally too often by the Wilpons, of bringing in “name guys who can put fannies in the seats,” even if the name guys are on the threshold of the end of the line.

Or, demeaning the guys who still have miles to go before they sleep but discover the hard way that they could hit for the home run cycle (solo, two-run, three-run, salami) at the plate or throw a 27-pitch perfect game and still get a Wilpon boot heel in the backside, while wearing Met uniforms or when leaving for other, less capricious pastures. The trashing of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey upon his almost immediate departure was only the lowest of such lows.

The Wilpons’ monkey business management even impacted the Mets’ number one farm team. Why on earth did the Tidewater/Norfolk Tides move clean across the country to Las Vegas, to play in pleasant-stands/rickety field/hotter than hell Cashman Field? (They’ve since moved to Syracuse.) Wilpon fils soured the relationship with Norfolk, according to a Tides executive who spoke to Wall Street Journal reporter Brian Costa in 2013:

[C]ommunication with team officials became ‘virtually nonexistent’ . . . When he became involved in everything was when things changed. I dealt with him on some things and somebody always had to go to him if you wanted to do anything. He had his nose and hands in everything.

Don’t get anyone started on the Mets’ medical disasters of the past several years, either. The Wilpons, Jeff in particular, were seen micromanaging those, too, particularly the clumsy public relations side of them. You’d have been very tempted to think that Wilpon pere and fils alike believed to their souls that numerous avoidable Met injury complications, usually when players were back on the field sooner than reasonable, were either God’s will or the players’ faults.

Anyone else taking over a storied if troubled franchise would merely have his work cut out for him. Cohen may have to reach into a miracle bag right away. This year’s Mets—with a more solid core of younger talent than credited—might be in better postseason position if they hadn’t had a hiccuping bullpen much of the way or catchers who don’t seem allergic to hitting or to pitch calling and framing when working with arms not belonging to Jacob deGrom.

Small wonder that when the social media universe exploded with glee at the finality of Cohen meeting the Wilpons’ price the glee was mixed with a considerable majority of opinion that Cohen’s first order of Met business ought to be targeting and signing J.T. Realmuto, currently the Phillies’ catcher who becomes a free agent after the postseason.

(Codicil: If you must, get him for no more than three years. At 30, Realmuto isn’t likely to be serviceable behind the plate for too much longer, and the Mets already have a few DH types aboard. The starting pitching not named deGrom, Seth Lugo, or pending return Noah Syndergaard needs work. And keep an eye out for available young competent catching.)

How about a front office overhaul? Met fans drooling over Cohen’s advent probably have wet dreams about incumbent GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s departure. The team’s medical staff may or may not need yet another frame-up overhaul. If the Show repairs its relationship with the minor leagues, assuming the minors have a 2021 season to play at all, it wouldn’t hurt Cohen to deliver some badly needed damage control.

Like yours truly, Cohen is a Met fan since the day they were born. On such behalf could he also use his formidable resources as Carig suggests powerfully enough, “spend[ing] on areas not seen by fans. That goes beyond a heavier investment in analytics. It extends to scouting and player development. The Yankees and others have poured resources into those areas. There’s no reason for the Mets to lag behind. Cohen could make that change relatively easily, and almost instantly.”

The new owner doesn’t lack for his own baggage, of course. He’s tangled with the Feds over insider trading, though his old company SAC Capital was forced to yield $1.8 billion to pay a record fine while Cohen himself wasn’t accused of wrongdoing. All he had to do was not involve himself in managing outside investors’ money for two years, and he obeyed the order dutifully enough.

The Wilpons did dodge a howitzer shell by preferring Cohen over a group led by former All-Star Alex Rodriguez and his paramour Jennifer Lopez, who didn’t have enough to out-bid Cohen as it was, after all. A-Rod probably cooked their chances when it became known he sought the unofficial counsel of disgraced former Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow. Taking sound baseball counsel from Luhnow compares to studying human relations with Kim Jong-un.

But selling to J-Rod would also have meant not being rid of Wilpon fils entirely. From Daily News writer Deesha Thosar: “Jeff Wilpon desperately wanted the group led by [J-Rod] to take over because the couple, unlike Cohen, would have let him have an active role in the team. Right up until Monday evening, when Sterling Partners announced Cohen would purchase the Mets, Jeff Wilpon was the one propping up A-Rod in exchange for keeping a hand in operations.”

Perhaps in spite of themselves, the Wilpons leave that solid young Met core to Cohen’s stewardship. They also leave a crown jewel in Citi Field, which they built, but which they had to remake after discovering their original little palace played (and looked) more like Ebbets Field surrounding the Grand Canyon. The remake/remodel has done wonders, for the team on the field and the fans in the stands who love the current ambience and the culinary offerings alike, and can’t wait to come back when pandemic relief allows.

“[W]ith how the Mets are currently constructed,” writes Daily News reporter Bradford William Davis, “all the team needs to be turbocharged into a contender is above-replacement level ownership.”

Cohen merely has to do what the Wilpons mostly couldn’t, wouldn’t, or both: Fortify, deliver, and sustain a team as digestible as its ballpark without causing organisational or fan base indigestion. A man whose from-boyhood passion was merely born with Who the Hell’s on First, What the Hell’s on Second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want To Think About It’s at shortstop can’t do any worse. Can he?

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