Tempered joy in Metsville

Amed Rosario (arms up) gets a hero’s welcome after his walkoff bomb finishes a doubleheader sweep of the Yankees Friday night. Crowning a pair of surreal days for these surreal Mets.

When hedge fund titan Steve Cohen first emerged as a potential buyer of the New York Mets, I had a little mad fun with that news because we have a couple of things in common. Not financially, of course; Cohen can hand out in tips about a million times what I’ll ever be required to pay in taxes. But we have our mutual grounds regardless.

We’re both Long Island boys who’ve been Met fans since the day they were born. We both made our baseball bones on the original troupe about which it’s fair to say they were baseball’s anticipation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. We both grew up or (in my case) finished growing up (har har) in Long Island towns with pronounced Mob connections.

Cohen grew up in Great Neck, where there lives the opulent wedding/bar-mitzvah factory emporium (Leonard’s) at which Johnny Sack asked Tony Soprano to perform a hit, a request made just before Sack was carted back to prison from his daughter’s wedding. Bronx native though I am, I finished growing up (snort) in Long Beach, also the home of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

Sorry, Mr. Cohen. My mob family’s Oscars can blow up your mob family’s Emmys.

But it looks at last as though Cohen will graduate from an eight percent stake to controlling ownership of the Mets, more or less as the last man standing. So that gives him more than one up, since the only piece of the Mets I own and can afford is a game hat.

Celebrity would-be buyers Alex Rodriguez, a former Yankee who actually grew up loving and hoping to play for the Mets one day (he actually had his chance, which either he or his then-agent blew like a ninth-inning Met lead), and his paramour Jennifer Lopez, pulled out of the bidding Friday. That may have been the first heavy sigh of relief from Met fans on the day.

Apparently, not even J-Rod could come up with quite the money needed to buy the Mets, whose incumbent Wilpon ownership has long enough been a two-man implosion machine. The J-Rod group would also have included one NFL owner (the Florida Panthers’ Vincent Viola), a BodyArmour founder (Michael Repole), and a WalMart e-Commerce U.S. wheel. (Chief executive officer Marc Lore.)

J-Rod said farwell to the bidding by observing they “submitted a fully funded offer at a record price for the team which was supported by binding debt commitments from JP Morgan and equity commitment letters from creditworthy partners.” The Athletic‘s Daniel Kaplan observes red flags:

[N]otable in the statement is a reference to debt and equity commitment letters from creditworthy partners. On the latter, equity commitment letters are different from money in the bank, and adding a lot of debt to a team that loses around $50 million per year, pre-COVID-19, is not a recipe upon which MLB may have looked fondly.

MLB isn’t “too keen on another [Derek] Jeter/Marlins where they had to scrape their last nickel to pay the purchase price,” a source close to MLB told The Athletic earlier this month, referring to the debt-heavy Marlins. “Especially for a major-market club that already has such large operating losses. Cohen’s checkbook is even more valuable in a COVID and post-COVID environment.”

Not that Kaplan missed red flags flying around Cohen himself, of course. Cohen’s former SAC Capital outfit copped to insider-trading charges and coughed up a record fine of $1.8 billion. Cohen himself wasn’t accused of wrongdoing, but in 2016 he had to agree to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s demand that he not manage the monies of outside investors for 24 months.

Just as problematic may be sex discrimination claims filed in Connecticut against Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management, which I noted myself during the week. Those don’t charge Cohen personally, but one filed in 2018 does, Kaplan writes, though he adds that later in 2018 “the parties voluntarily agreed to terminate the case and submit the case to arbitration, according to court filings.”

Buying an eight percent take in a major league franchise won’t place you under the proverbial microscope, but looking to become the controlling partner will. Baseball’s 23 other major league ownerships have to be edgy about welcoming to their often-dubious ranks a man whose history includes battles over financial crime and sex discrimination charges.

Fred Wilpon and his son, Jeff, haven’t been anywhere near such suspicions so far as anyone knows. They’ve been seen mostly as having been more dumb than dishonest regarding the Bernie Madoff scandal, in which they invested and took an extremely expensive bath. The same could be said for most of Madoff’s investors. But the fallout eventually amplified the Wilpons’ wounding flaws.

Their naivete about Madoff helped them leverage to make the notorious Bobby Bonilla deferred-compensation contract, compel them to pay a reported $29 million into the fund marked for compensating other Madoff victims, and force them “to borrow hundreds of millions more to cover debts they had made against their Madoff assets, [having] almost a major-league payroll’s worth of money due every year just in interest on those debts.”

In baseball terms, the Wilpons weren’t exactly geniuses, either. Before they bought out their original co-owner Nelson Doubleday, they tried to thwart a deal Doubleday wanted to make in the worst way possible. Lucky for them that wiser minds prevailed. That’s two wild cards, one pennant, and one World Series appearance—not to mention the post-9/11 shot heard ’round the world and a Mets hat atop his head—underwriting Mike Piazza’s Cooperstown plaque.

For every Piazza, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana, and Billy Wagner deal, the Wilpons blocked exponential other solid signings and tradings their baseball brain trusts recommended or signed off on deals and trades about which “dubious” could be considered a compliment.

When Cohen first stepped into the Mets’ controlling partnership picture last winter, I remembered the Wilpons also doing once what some thought could never be done. They made George Steinbrenner himself, the man who threw out the first manager of the year during the 1980s, resemble the epitome of benevolence, with their despicable 2008 execution of manager Willie Randolph, his pitching coach Rick Peterson, and his first base coach Tom Nieto.

The guillotines dropped on the trio after the struggling Mets traveled all the way west from New York to play the Los Angeles Angels in an interleague set and won the first of the set. At three in the morning. It must have been enough to make Randolph, a longtime Yankee fixture at second base, nostalgic for The Boss’s Malice in Wonderland fun house.

Red flags or no red flags, the news that J-Rod dropped out of the Mets’ bidding does indicate the Mets dodging at least one bullet, if what I noted during the week is true and Rodriguez was taking informal counsel from disgraced former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Taking baseball administration counsel from Luhnow is like seeking family counseling from Ma Barker.

The news may also have had an effect on the Mets otherwise.

On Thursday, the night before J-Rod pulled out of the Mets’ running, the Mets’ front office botched almost completely a stirring protest gesture against rogue police and racism, when the Mets and the Marlins observed a moment of silence on field before walking off the field postponing their game.

But come Friday, as MLB commemorated its pandemic-delayed Jackie Robinson Day, and—tragically—the actor (Chadwick Boseman) who played Robinson so powerfully in 42 lost his battle against colon cancer the same day, the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Yankees in the Bronx.

The sweep finished when Amed Rosario, pinch hitting for starting Mets shortstop Luis Guillorme, caught hold of a hanging slider from Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman with pinch-runner Billy Hamilton aboard and sent it into the left field seats. A Mets team who entered the twin bill as the Show’s worst for hitting with men in scoring position (.199) went 5-for-12 in that situation Friday.

Come Monday is the reported deadline for new Mets ownership bids. Joy in Metsville about the end of the Wilpon era is probably tempered by their wish that a saviour with cleaner hands might enter at the eleventh hour. Such a saviour will need five king’s ransoms to out-bid the Long Island boy who once paid for a single painting what the Mets will have paid stud pitcher Jacob deGrom for the entire length of his current contract.

The Mets have been many things in their 58-year life. Dull isn’t necessarily one of them.

Be careful what you wish for, Mess fans

Earlier this week, the worst you could say about the New York Mess (er, Mets) was a piece of doggerel I sketched to Prince’s “1999,” after a Miami Marlins baserunner stumbled, bumbled, and fumbled down the third base line—and still stole home:

Two thousand, 2020, party over—oops! Shame on you!
Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1962.

A Met fan since the day they were born can tell you that, compared to loving the Mets, it was easier for Mad Men‘s Don Draper (who kept a souvenir Mets pennant in his office) to be loved by his first and second wives, neither of whom found it simple and both of whom, their own flaws to one side, often felt like singing “19th Nervous Breakdown.

Draper was haunted by having been born and raised in abject hell, if “raised” is the proper word to describe a child treated like a home invader and handed an accidental chance to remake/remodel himself in a wartime accident that killed his field commander. The Mets weren’t quite born in hell, but they’ve been haunted by managements that often treated them like home invaders.

The Mets have been built, un-built, re-built, un-built, re-built again, and un-built again, more often than Orpheus rolled the stone up the mountain to be rolled back down. Today the Mets are on the sales floor. And the Wilpons, who have never been quite the same since they walked into Bernie Madoff’s pyramid trap and walked out fortunate that their heads weren’t removed from their shoulders, simply can’t go gently into that good gray night.

Thursday’s Twitterverse exploded with the news from ESPN’s Jeff Passan that Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, a man seen in over his head when speaking politely of him, zapped commissioner Rob Manfred for the thought that the Mets and the Marlins might walk off the field tonight in protest, over the police shooting of African-American Jacob Blake, only to return to play an hour later.

Until he didn’t. Within less time than it once took for Mike (The Human Rain Delay) Hargrove to complete a plate appearance, Van Wagenen hustled a statement forth saying, whoops! The idea was really Jeff Wilpon’s, not Manfred’s, after Wilpon was informed the Mets’ players voted not to play tonight, a decision with which the Marlins apparently concurred. Van Wagenen concurrently apologised for the original Manfred remark.

What the Mets actually did was take the field, led by Dominic Smith and Billy Hamilton, two African-American Mets. The Marlins did likewise. Both teams observed 42 seconds of silence (the 42 refers, of course, to Jackie Robinson’s uniform number), then walked off the field. The idea was that of the Marlins’ Miguel Rojas. The game was postponed, just as three were on the same grounds Wednesday.

This after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw stood with his teammates standing together when Mookie Betts opted not to play Wednesday. Observing the negative backlash, Kershaw said, “Yes, I have seen those comments and that’s okay because I feel we’re doing the right thing.” Among other things were those backlashers accusing the Dodgers of standing up for a convicted child molester.

The now-paralyzed Blake isn’t a sterling citizen, of course, and he dealt with Kenosha, Wisconsin police last weekend in the first place over an arrest warrant involving a domestic dispute with his estranged girlfriend, with whom he has three children. The child molestation/child sex assault charges have been debunked. (Yes, you can look it up.)

A criminal suspect’s right not to be shot seven times in the back isn’t contingent on the crime he’s accused of committing. Jack Ruby wasn’t a cop but prying through a small crowd to shoot presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to death didn’t make him any less a murderer.

And those police officers who succeed in performing their jobs without becoming the criminals they’re consecrated to apprehend must be grotesquely appalled whenever one of their breed commits if not succeeds at such attempted murder, knowing as they’re trained to know that absent a bona fide life-and-death moment they’re not sworn in to exercise absolute power of life and death.

Today’s clumsiness is just the latest in a bill of particulars a Met fan and others can lodge against the Wilpon ownership and its administrative subordinates while agreeing the sooner their ownership ends, the better. However, Met fans may well be advised to be very careful what they wish for.

Steve Cohen, who now has a small ownership stake in the Mets but would like to buy the team outright, seemed at first like the ideal choice having grown up a Met fan himself. But reports earlier this month imply that sexual discrimination charges filed recently against his Point72 Asset Management hedge fund firm would compromise him as the next Mets owner.

A team in the middle of a surrealistic enough truncated season in which the game’s players now speak and act on behalf of battling racism, discrimination, and the criminal element within law enforcement can’t afford to become the property of a man whose own company may have issues with discrimination.

But Alex Rodriguez (former Mariners/Rangers/Yankees star (however tainted) turned broadcaster) also aspires to own as big a stake in the Mets as he and his paramour Jennifer Lopez can buy. And Rodriguez is said “in touch” with suspended former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, whose results uber alles mentality did too much to reduce the Astros from champions to pariahs.

Luhnow’s administration was exposed plausibly as lacking human decency to match its cold analytical inclinations, while fostering concurrently conditions that made possible the Astrogate illegal electronic sign-stealing scandal that stained the kings of the American League West (and 2017 world champions) until, possibly, the entire roster and organisation are turned over in due course.

The good news is that Rodriguez isn’t said to be thinking of Luhnow as his GM should he win his stake in the Mets, and Luhnow can’t be employed in baseball again until 2021, assuming anyone in baseball wants him. The bad news is that, if that’s who A-Rod leans upon for even informal counsel, be afraid, Mess fans. Be very afraid.

Alex Rodriguez, prodigal owner?

2020-07-17 JenniferLopezAlexRodriguez

Alex Rodriguez with Jennifer Lopez, watching a game. J-Rod, as a few tabloid papers refer to the couple, are in play to buy the New York Mets.

It’s one thing for Alex Rodriguez to have rehabilitated his public image somewhat, during his final major league playing season and in his life since then as a broadcaster who’s owned up to his baseball sins. Including those that made him persona non grata for 2015 and finished the reputation wreckage from which a comeback then seemed only slightly less likely than Richard Nixon’s was once upon a time.

But it’s something else entirely that A-Rod and his paramour Jennifer Lopez now seek to become baseball owners. They can well afford to be, of course, but red flags hoist. The couple is in play to buy the New York Mets. Wherein lies a tale I’ve told before, elsewhere. It’s worth revisiting, because had he gotten what was once believed his career wish he might (underline that) have resisted the temptations to which he became prone in due course.

When Alex Rodriguez the player arrived at his first major league free agency, in 2000, he let it be known that the team he wanted to play for more than any on the planet—if his now-former Seattle Mariners were disinclined to re-sign him for the dollars he was sure to command as baseball’s greatest all-around shortstop—was the Mets. He grew up a Met fan (his idol was said to be first baseman Keith Hernandez) and, as I wrote once upon a time, there wouldn’t have been a structure big enough to contain his happiness if he could suit up for them beginning in 2001.

The dollars in play weren’t disclosed, but know this: the Mets then could have had A-Rod for a decade, and for two-thirds or a little less of the money for which he’d sign in due course. Coming off a 2000 World Series loss to the Yankees that was closer than the five-game Series looked on the surface, the Mets would have loved nothing more than to dress baseball’s best shortstop cross town from the Yankees’ Derek Jeter—who just so happened to be A-Rod’s best friend in the game at the time.

The Mets’ then-general manager Steve Phillips went to the December 2000 winter meetings to meet Rodriguez’s then-agent, Scott Boras, believing he was going in with A-Rod on the hook over very succulent bait. Phillips came out of that meeting without his stomach. It went AWOL. A decade later, ESPN’s Ian O’Connor ran it down:

A-Rod’s agent was telling the team’s general manager his client needed perks that would have made the world’s greatest divas blush . . . The list included a Shea Stadium office, a marketing staff, a merchandise tent at spring training, a luxury box, use of a private jet, and more billboards than Jeter could count.

The agent said some of the perks, not all, were absolutely required in any deal worth A-Rod’s signature. Boras never mentioned a dollar figure in the meeting, and he didn’t need to. The Mets wouldn’t even be offering Rodriguez cab fare home.

Nobody knew for dead last certain whether Boras’s laundry list was composed in any part by Rodriguez himself, and Rodriguez wasn’t known to have spoken of it publicly. “I remember Steve coming back to our suite and telling everyone, ‘You’re not going to believe it, but this is what Boras wants for Alex Rodriguez’,” another former Met executive, Jim Duquette, told O’Connor. “All of our jaws just dropped. We kept hearing how this was the place Alex wanted to play, but we knew then it wasn’t going to happen.”

Phillips then made a grave mistake. He spoke publicly about the Mets wanting to avoid a 24-man-plus-one roster, even though he never knew how much of the perk list was far more Boras than A-Rod talking. He lived to regret his remark.

That label stuck to Alex, and I didn’t mean for that to happen. But I just thought the rules had to be the same for everybody. Mike Piazza was the most low-maintenance superstar there was, with no entourage, only his brother and dad coming around once in a while. Mike always had the prettiest girl waiting for him after the game, and that was it. It was just Mike.

Not only was Rodriguez not going to become a Met, he inadvertently tore it with his BFF Jeter, who was going through his own contract haggle with the Yankees at the time. When A-Rod finally signed his precedent-busting deal with the Texas Ranger ($250 million), he also commented on the Jeter haggle. Oops.

“Jeter’s been blessed with great talent around him; he’s never had to lead,” Rodriguez said. “He can just go and play and have fun. He hits second—that’s totally different than third or fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie [Williams] and [Paul] O’Neill. You never say, ‘Don’t let Derek beat you.’ He’s never your concern.”

He didn’t mean for it to sound as though he’d just reduced The Captain to a mere ship’s mate. But there was a right and wrong way to say aloud that you thought Jeter was only one of a pack of leadership-quality Yankees who didn’t have to take the whole thing upon himself. Which is probably what A-Rod tried to say. Seeing it in cold print, he knew it meant trouble.

Assorted stories then and since have said Rodriguez hustled it to Jeter’s Tampa spread post haste to straighten it out and got a closed door to greet his arrival. The worse news for Rodriguez was that Jeter did have one thing in common with the Yankees’ Hall of Fame legend Joe DiMaggio, or so it was said: if he thought you did him dirty, even once, you might as well remove him from your address book. Permanently, perhaps. (Since 2010, their first spring training together after a Yankee World Series win, A-Rod and Jeter have patched up their once-fractured friendship.)

The Rangers didn’t exactly blow up the league with A-Rod. It wasn’t exactly A-Rod’s fault that the pitching-challenged Rangers of the time thought the solution to their most glaring problem was to spend the equivalent of a solid pitching staff on . . . one shortstop. The worse news was A-Rod’s insecurities kicking his insides out. “You wonder now about the real impact all that had on A-Rod,” I wrote upon his finalized suspension.

You wonder how his own agent botching a deal with the team of his dreams ate away at him. You wonder how deeply costing himself his best friend in baseball haunted him. You wonder what that cost him in a time when Jeter could have given Rodriguez critical moral support and steerage, when—slapped hard across the face with the reality of his off-the-chart deal, and the expectations attached to it, actual or suggestive — Rodriguez instead drove himself toward the netherworld of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, out of a quiet desperation to live up to his deal that equaled not trusting the talent that put him in position for the deal in the first place . . . Even if you acknowledge the Rangers bid against themselves to give one shortstop the money that would have built a long-term competitive pitching staff, you can’t lay that kind of responsibility upon his head.

Which brings us now to Rodriguez’s public suggestion that major league baseball players need—wait for it!—a salary cap. Especially after the owners tried to strong-arm them into a virtual one during the haggling over when and whether to open a 2020 season during the coronavirus world tour. A-Rod sounds only slightly less hypocritical than the Congresspeople standing foursquare for the balanced budget on the campaign trail but standing for glandular deficit spending in office.

As happened with his ancient observation of Derek Jeter, Rodriguez probably stumbled over his own tongue. He wasn’t wrong to suggest as he did concurrently that baseball would be wise to “get to the table and say the No. 1 goal, let’s get from $10 to $15 billion [total value of baseball] and then we’ll split the economics evenly.” But sports circles tent to interpret that as code for salary capping. A man who earned almost half a billion dollars playing the game and now implies it’s time for a salary cap looks too deeply to be saying, “I got mine, the hell with yours.”

Which is exactly how a number of players and other officials representing them see it. A-Rod’s one-time Yankee teammate, now-retired pitcher Brandon McCarthy, practically called for a little cancel culture sent his way. “I hope to god he’s shouted out of every clubhouse he attempts to enter in this and future seasons,” former 13-year pitcher Brandon McCarthy said in a Thursday tweet. “Call him a self-serving liar and make him explain himself to a room full of his former peers if he wants broadcast content.”

Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, wasn’t quite inclined to go there. “Alex benefited as much as anybody from the battles this union fought against owners’ repeated attempts to get a salary cap,” said Clark a little more reasonably. “Now that he is attempting to become an owner himself his perspective appears to be different. And that perspective does not reflect the best interest of the players.”

Before you decide that A-Rod is unique in threatening to graduate from a player to a potentially odious owner (assuming J-Rod become the winning bidders for the Mets), hark back to some baseball history. It’s strewn with players who became snakes in the front office. Eddie Lopat (pitcher), Paul Richards (catcher), Ralph Houk (catcher), and Al Campanis (second baseman and, incidentally, eventual provocateur of Andy Messersmith’s successful reserve clause challenge) were just four such reptiles known to screw players on contracts and other things.

It also features Al Rosen. The power-hitting Cleveland Indians third baseman of the 1950s became a very generous general manager in the 1980s, having learned from the ever-spending Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Rosen injected a steroid shot (no pun intended) into salary escalation when, running the San Francisco Giants in 1990-91, he signed decent but no great shakes pitcher Bud Black to the kind of deal you’d have expected the Orel Hershisers and Dwight Goodens of the time to sign first.

The same Al Rosen who lamented runaway salaries to reporters at the December 1990 winter meetings, saying, “For a hundred years we couldn’t find a way to destroy this game, but now I think we’ve found the key.” John Helyar (in The Lords of The Realm) wasn’t the only observer wondering whether Rosen’s listeners should laugh, cry, or drop a hood over him and a final cigarette between his lips before a firing squad.

Now, along come J-Rod. Seeking to own the team for whom A-Rod once wanted in the worst way possible to play, until he did or didn’t freeze himself out of the chance. Bear in mind, too, that power couples owning sports teams doesn’t always mean joy to the world, or at least their teams and fan bases. Just ask former Los Angeles Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt.

With Rodriguez speaking of salary caps after earning about half a billion uncapped balloons during his own playing career, Mets fans and observers may not be the only ones pondering whether they’ll have to laugh, cry, or bring in the firing squad. If not pondering whether A-Rod has some sort of peculiar revenge in mind.

Rodriguez the boyhood Mets rooter might care to know that there is a one-time Mets pitcher named Bill Denehy living in southern Florida. He’s the man the Mets traded to the second Washington Senators to obtain manager Gil Hodges. Injuries (and a grave misdiagnosis or two) shortened Denehy’s career to portions of three major league seasons with the Mets, the Senators, and the Detroit Tigers. Excessive cortisone injections likely contributed to Denehy’s near-total blindness today.

The affable Denehy (fair disclosure: we have become friends over the past year plus) is one of 600+ short-career former major league players who were left out of the 1980 player pension realignment that vested players for pensions after 43 days’ major league service time and for health benefits after one day’s time.

Since 2011, when then-Players Association leader Michael Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig hammered out one small adjustment, those players get $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league time, up to four years. It was a start Weiner didn’t live long enough to pursue further.

Denehy, former Rangers pitching phenom David Clyde, former Atlanta Braves pitcher Gary Niebauer, and former Chicago Cubs third baseman Carmen Fanzone, are just four of those players. They and dozens more such as them, all whose careers proved short for assorted reasons, also hit the hustings for the Players Association to get among other things the free agency that brought Rodriguez his un-capped millions.

J-Rod (and Clark, for that matter) might want to lend them even a small eye and ear about that.