Met fan Cohen, athwart Met fans’ impatience

Steve Cohen, an owner who believes a jump into the pool requires water in it first.

“I don’t need to be popular,” tweeted Steve Cohen, the so-far very popular new owner of the Mets, on Monday. “I just need to make good decisions.” Apparently, there were enough Met fans thinking Cohen needed to make decisions, period, in the wake of the Padres’ wheeling and dealing and the Mets deciding not to join the hunt for Japanese pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano.

Cohen’s apparent watchword is, “If Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Mets won’t be reinforced in a week.” Met fans drained from years of Wilpon family follies say the American prayer: “Lord, grant me patience—and I want it yesterday.” For Cohen, that’s about as funny as passengers booked for seafaring passage aboard torpedoes.

When the Padres blew up the hot stove with deals making Padres of Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, Met fans felt the old familiar itch to do. something. anything. like yesterday. They forgot for the moment that, before the Padres wheeled and dealt, the Mets were the most active on this winter’s odd market.

I guess on to another pitcher. @StevenACohen2 well I guess McCann and May is it for us. Time to hibernate until Spring Training,” tweeted one such fan. To which Cohen had a polite but snappy retort at once: “That’s the spirit, just give up and go to sleep.”

From the moment his purchase of the Mets was affirmed, Cohen has been singular among baseball owners for putting himself out to engage his team’s fans. He has solicited their input and suggestions. It doesn’t mean he’s inclined to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, even if they forget that he has been a Met fan himself—like me, since they day they were born.

He knows he has a team to reinforce. He knows his amiability has made him something customarily alien to baseball owners: beloved, so far. He doesn’t want to go from there to public enemy number one, but neither does he want to step imprudently into any one of several abysses.

The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman has also caught onto Met fans’ indignation: he’s been receiving no few tweets and e-mails “wondering whether Steve Cohen is the Wilpons, just hoarding a larger stash of money.

“After all,” he continues, “why was George Springer not under the Christmas tree? Why wasn’t Trevor Bauer provided to joyously greet 2021? Why James McCann and not J.T. Realmuto [behind the plate]?”

Sherman notes what such fans forget. This winter’s free agency market, for various reasons, has been about as swift as a number 7 train with a wheel chip on each car. The Mets handing James McCann $40 million for four years is both the most free agency money invested this winter and the longest contract done yet for non-foreign free agents, Sherman reminds you.

“Cohen’s promise was that the Mets would spend like a big-market team, and he should be held to that promise,” Sherman writes. “But that promise has not been broken this offseason. At least not yet.” And Cohen did not become wealthy because he reads markets the way old television jokes read Romeo and Juliet: “Two crazy kids ran off together and died.”

He’s willing to spend but not like the proverbial drunken sailor. For one thing, Cohen knows the Mets’ farm system, what will remain of it after the Show finishes its more than slightly mad stripping of the minor leagues, needs replenishment if not a mild overhaul. For another, he knows a healthy farm often leads to healthy reinforcements either by promotion to the Mets or in deals that bring healthy reinforcements if not fresh prime.

“Hey, Give the Padres credit,” Cohen tweeted after one of the Friars’ two splashy trades. “They had a top 5 farm system that gave them flexibility to trade for Snell. Newsflash, the Mets farm system needs to be replenished.”

News flash, further: Met fans may have the patience of piranha at meal time, but Cohen has no patience for falling into the position of bidding against himself. “The Blue Jays are the only other club known to want to spend lavishly in free agency,” Sherman observes, “but historically it has been difficult to lure top free agents to Canada. Cohen will have to believe that a Springer or a DJ LeMahieu is really going before he considers that game of chicken. There certainly are quieter suitors. But, again, none of the remaining big free agents will be signing without hearing Cohen’s last and best. He will not do a deal he calculates as bad just to stop the noise of even impatient Mets fans.”

Cohen’s memory, like mine, surely harks back to the 1980s when another New York team, owned by a man to whom patience was a vice, jumped into the market pools as often as not before checking to see the water level. For every Catfish Hunter, Rickey Henderson, and Dave Winfield, there were a few too many Dave Collinses, Joe Cowleys, Don Gulletts, Steve Kemps, Dave LaPoints, Bob Shirleys, and Ed Whitsons.

Cohen also knows that, with one or two outlying exceptions, the Yankees’ greatest successes in the free agency era have come by way of a homegrown core blended with a little smart horse trading. Yap all you want about them trying to buy pennants, but when the Yankees spent the biggest in the open market they didn’t reach the Promised Land to which Yankee fans believe they’re entitled every year.

When another fan tweeted to Cohen, “What exactly are we doing? Is James McCann really going to be our biggest pickup this offseason? Please say no,” Cohen replied, “Let me put it differently. Don’t you think someone will take our money? It just has to make sense.”

The last time any Met administrator spoke about “making sense” was when?

The Mets know their starting pitching can’t stop at Jacob deGrom, re-signed Marcus Stroman, David Peterson, due-to-return Noah Syndergaard, and just another body. Seth Lugo is far better suited at the rear end of the bullpen, which also needs all the reinforcement/replenishment it can get.

They also have a very solid core around the field and at the plate, and McCann is a big upgrade behind it. But if they really want to go in for George Springer, they need to decide who’s the expendable one to slot Springer into their outfield. They need to decide how to make things work otherwise so Jeff McNeil can be restored to his natural infield habitat.

They need to decide whether Cohen’s determination to replenish the farm is worth casting eyes upon Springer, Trevor Bauer (pitcher), and D.J. LeMahieu (middle infielder). That trio, Sherman reminds us, got qualifying offers from their 2020 teams, meaning the Mets lose draft picks if they sign any or all of them. For farm replenishment, that’s not an option. If they can only afford one big ticket, Springer may yet be their prime target. May.

Cohen and the Mets also need to find a way to help commissioner Rob Manfred off the proverbial schneid and into the right decision about last year’s experimental rules. So does, well, every other Show team. You’d like to think that even ownerships as determined to tank as Cohen isn’t don’t want to embarrass themselves entirely.

In with the universal designated hitter, once and for bloody all, and out with the other nonsense. Among other salutary things—such as an end to the lineup slot wasted by spaghetti-bat pitchers, and rallies murdered when enemy pitchers work around that potent number eight bat to strike out their counterparts—it’ll keep Dominic Smith’s bat in the lineup without having to sacrifice Pete Alonso’s bat (yes, children, Alonso’s 2020 was an aberration of a down irregular season) at first base.

Cohen seems determined to avoid the comedies of errors committed by prior team ownerships and administrations. He resists the temptations to which too many Met fans would be prone if placed into his position for even one week. A man who speaks about making sense is a man who earns a very wide benefit of the doubt.

Speaking for myself alone, now, I have a wish of my own for Cohen. It has nothing to do with wanting him to slip into a sailor’s uniform, get himself bombed out of his trees, and throw dollars around the free agency market like they were just blasted out of a pinata.

My wish is that Cohen might consider a gesture on behalf of more than a few of the Met players he, like me, grew up watching and rooting for in the 1960s and 1970s. Players whose major league careers were kept too short for assorted reasons. Players who were frozen out unconscionably when, in 1980, owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned baseball’s pension plan.

The re-alignment awarded pensions to players after 43 days’ major league service (previously, a player needed four years) and health benefits after a single day’s major league service. But it didn’t apply to short-career major leaguers who played between 1949 and 1980.

For those short-career players, their sole redress was a 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-players union director Michael Weiner, a deal giving them $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league time they had, up to four years’ worth. The kicker, right in the pants, is that they can’t pass that money to their loved ones if they pass before they stop collecting the money.

Several former Mets are among what are now 618 such short-career players without full pensions other than what they receive under the Selig-Weiner deal. They include pitchers Bill Wakefield, Bill Denehy (traded to Washington in exchange for manager Gil Hodges) and Jack DiLauro (a 1969 Met, though not in the postseason), infielder Bobby Pfeil (another Miracle Met), outfielders Rod Gaspar (still another Miracle Met) and George (The Stork) Theodore, and others.

Denehy, Pfiel, and Gaspar have each told me in interviews they believe that, if Weiner had lived (he died of brain cancer in 2013), he would have worked to go further with such pension redress. The players union since has taken little to no interest in such redress; neither, apparently, does the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

But Marvin Miller, the late pioneer of the players union, is known to have said that not re-visiting the 1980 pension changes on behalf of the short-termers was his biggest regret. And if the Show has now conferred proper formal, official major league status on the seven known Negro Leagues we believed to our souls contained major leaguers all along, it should be known that there are African-American and other minority players among the frozen-out 618.

I’m not a man who believes I have the right to tell anyone else how to spend his or her money or where to channel their resources. Nor do I believe I have the right to choose another person or group’s obligations, moral or otherwise. But Gaspar had a point when he told me, last month, “They have so much money, the owners, the players’ union, they have so much money, how much money would it cost them to give the [pre-1980 short-career] guys who are still alive the pension?”

It would be a phenomenal gesture on Steve Cohen’s part if he should think well, by himself, of doing something solely for the short-career, pre-1980, former Mets affected negatively by that pension change. If nothing else, the image augmentation would be invaluable—an owner doing what the players union and alumni association either can’t or won’t.

Should Cohen consider it, however he might choose to do it, it might even kick off a wave among his fellow owners to do likewise for their teams’ frozen-out, pre-1980 short-career former players. Might. Quick: Name one owner who wouldn’t mind making the players’ union look a little foolish.

A Curt Flood Award? The first should go to Andy Messersmith

“Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”—Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons.

My first notice came when I saw San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser’s praise: “How wonderful! The [Major League Baseball Players Association] is instituting a Curt Flood Award for the Oakland native whose efforts helped bring about free agency and allow players to, eventually, be paid their worth on the open market. It will be handed out for the first time Thursday.”

I know who should receive the first Curt Flood Award, and I hope to God the Players Association thinks likewise. The first Flood Award ought to go to Andy Messersmith.

Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn was the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World. “After twelve years in the Major Leagues,” he began, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood fired his gun from the same city in which a certain former slave proclaimed that living now on free soil made him thus a free man.

Small wonder that George F. Will would nickname Flood Dred Scott in Spikes. “[Scott] was not the last time,” Will wrote in 1993, “that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property . . . Six years later—too late to benefit him—[Flood’s] cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.”

Flood’s was the groundbreaker that didn’t quite make it. But the graceful center fielder kicked a door open just wide enough for further pressure. Catfish Hunter kicked it a little further open in 1974, after Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hunter was thus awarded his free agency.

The Hunter case didn’t challenge the reserve clause itself. The bidding war to follow for his services was won by the team who actually offered him the third-highest dollar-worth amount among the suitors but the division of the dollars Hunter wanted most, including an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. But it shone a light his fellow players had only suspected might reveal platinum on a fair, open job market.

The official name of the case to come would be John A. Messersmith vs. Los Angeles Dodgers. (Messersmith preferred to be known as Andy, though his middle name was actually Alexander.) The official net result of his almost unexpected 1975 challenge was to finish what Flood began. Almost unexpected?

Messersmith first emerged as a California Angels comer with a bristling fastball, a deadly changeup, a 2.77 ERA, a 3.04 fielding-independent pitching rate, and an upbeat personality that didn’t mind crossing the line to periodic flakiness. The Angels traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in November 1972, in a multi-player swap that made a somewhat temporary Angel out of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

He was just as good and stubborn on the mound with the Dodgers, finishing fifth in the 1973 National League ERA race (2.70), then becoming one of the league’s two 20-game winners with a 2.59 ERA in 1974 for a pennant-winning Dodgers aggregation. He also finished second to his relief pitching teammate Mike Marshall in the Cy Young Award voting.

“He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever managed,” said his manager, Walter Alston, before that World Series. “He can do it all. He can pitch, field his position, has a good move to first . . . Andy is the kind of guy who wants the baseball. He wants to pitch and that’s why I put him up there with the other great pitchers I’ve had the good fortune to manage.”

Andy was also the kind of guy who proved to be just as stubborn talking contract as getting hitters out. He reported unsigned to spring training 1975, the original issue being not whether he’d get a well-earned raise from the $100,000 he earned in 1974 but how much of a raise. Then, according to Wall Street Journal writer John Helyar in The Lords of The Realm: The Real History of Baseball, the Dodgers’ then-general manager, Al Campanis, screwed the proverbial pooch:

As they sat in [Campanis’s] Vero Beach office . . . Campanis infuriated the pitcher. Quite apart from how well the pitcher had performed, quite apart from how much the Dodgers could allegedly afford, he injected a deeply “personal issue.” (Even eighteen years later, the matter cut so deep with Messersmith he wouldn’t elaborate on it.”)

Two things happened. One, Messersmith severed talks with the GM. “This is way out of the boundaries of negotiations; this is something else,” he told Campanis. “I’m not going to deal with you anymore.” He insisted on shifting the talks to Peter O’Malley, the club’s president. The other thing to emerge was a new non-monetary demand. No way, Messersmith decided, would he let Al Campanis be in a position to dictate his career. He’d already had to change teams once when he crossed his first GM, the Angels’ Dick Walsh. Now he wanted a no-trade clause in his contract. “I’m going to have some control of my destiny,” declared Messersmith.

O’Malley was more to Messersmith’s taste but no more amenable to a no-trade clause. “We’ve never given one,” he said, “and we aren’t going to start now.”

So Messersmith refused to sign a new contract and pitched 1975 without one. “At the start,” he’d say later, “it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” The National League’s hitters got a not-so-friendly reminder. Messersmith led the league with forty starts and seven shutouts, and finished second with his 2.29 ERA, and the hitters only hit .213 against him.

“Every time he took the ball,” Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed. He was doing it for us all.”

By August, however, Messersmith found himself pitching for something above and beyond the need to stuff Al Campanis. The union’s original executive director, Marvin Miller, called him. By that time baseball had only one unsigned player on active duty—Messersmith himself. Miller wanted to know if Messersmith would consider filing a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

The Dodgers didn’t make it simple for him. Neither did the near-constant questions from sportswriters Helyar summed up as, “So how ’bout that contract, Andy?” They kept hiking the money the longer and the better Messersmith pitched. Come September, Helyar noted, the offer was three years and $540,000 total. But the offer still excluded the no-trade clause that was Messersmith’s most unbreakable demand.

“We had no intention of trading Andy Messersmith,” O’Malley insisted. “He was a quality individual, a quality performer, and a delight to have on the team.” Messersmith took one look at Campanis still in the front office and decided there was no dollar amount able to buy him off.

“When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant,” Helyar quoted Messersmith remembering. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and [union general counsel] Dick [Moss]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Miller’s only concurrent worry was whether the incredible money would back Messersmith off the grievance track. The union director thus enlisted pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but contemplating retirement following persistent arm soreness. McNally agreed join a grievance. Messersmith had no intention of backing away from it. “I’ve come this far,” he said. “I need to see this through.”

There’s no reason why a club should be entitled to renew a player’s contract year after year if the player refuses to sign and wants to go elsewhere. I thought about it for a long time and I didn’t do it necessarily for me, because I’m making a lot of money. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Well, here’s a guy in involuntary servitude at $115,000 a year.’ That’s a lot of bull. But then, when you stop and think about the players who have nowhere to go and no recourse … this isn’t for a guy like me or any other established ballplayer unless you’re having problems with your owner or something like that. It’s more for the guy who is sitting on the bench and who believes he hasn’t been given a chance.

When the hearings in the case finally took place before arbitrator Peter Seitz, Messersmith stood his ground. And the earth moved under his feet.

After first flattening Kuhn—especially the commissioner’s staggering bid to claim that the end of the reserve clause would mean corrupted or thrown games—Moss delivered a knockout punch with the least likely glove: Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith, courtesy of a Minneapolis Star story from March 1974: “If [a player] doesn’t sign by March 10, I can invoke the option clause. If I do that, I can cut him as much as I want up to 20 percent. Of course, he would then be playing out his option. At the end of the season he would be a free agent.”

In other words, for decades the owners used the strict language of uniform players contract Section 10(A) unlawfully, agreeing among themselves not to sign players who refused their incubment teams’ offers. Seitz, who preferred (and indeed all but begged) that the owners and the players negotiate and settle themselves, was left no choice after the owners’ Player Relations Committee leader John Gaherin told him, “There’s no change in our position. So turn the crank.”

Seitz turned the crank. Miller signed “assent” and Gaherin signed “dissent” on the document aboard which Seitz ruled in favour of Messersmith. (And McNally, though it was understood if often forgotten that the former Baltimore Orioles standout had signed onto the case strictly as a human insurance policy.) Gaherin promptly and almost apologetically handed Seitz a letter firing him as baseball’s arbitrator.

“Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons said. “[Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all. It’s what showed a new life.”

It would also have been nice and in the spirit of Flood and Messersmith if the union had thought concurrently to finish what former executive director Michael Weiner began in 2011, and bring complete and final pension redress to what remain 600 plus short-career major league players frozen out of the 1980 pension re-alignment.

Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig made possible their current stipend of $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. The bad news: those players can’t pass the stipend on to their families should they pass on before the stipend ends. They also can’t be part of the players’ medical plan. Miller himself is known to have said that failing to review and revamp that 1980 pension realignment while he led the union was his biggest regret.

But if there’s a better inaugural recipient of the Curt Flood Award than the man who finished what Flood began, I’m unaware of him. Baseball players since have known what they owe Flood. They don’t always remember what they owe Messersmith, too. Giving him the first Flood Award would remind them powerfully.