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STEVE COHEN IS GREAT FOR BASEBALL — AND IF OWNERS DON’T LIKE IT, SELL
His heist in the night, poaching Carlos Correa for $315 million, means the Mets owner thankfully continues to shake up the industry, obliterating the luxury tax with a total 2023 payroll nearing $500M
Those sounds in the night were shrieks of agony. They came from 29 Major League Baseball owners not named Steve Cohen. And they realize now, even in large markets from Los Angeles to Boston but mostly in the flyover hinterlands, that an industry as we’ve long known it never will be the same. They must deal with Cohen’s hellbent mission to conquer the sport with as many billions as necessary, and if the bystanders don’t like it, his latest and most stunning strike leaves them with two options.
Accept the new economic reality and try to beat him with guile.
Or retain an investment bank, commence a sale and get out fast.
Some owners will sell — and anyone who has followed baseball’s three-decade slide from prominence to nichedom knows that’s a very good thing. This dawdling, tone-deaf, stuck-in-the-last-century slog needed a slap in the chops from someone. Rob Manfred and Bud Selig couldn’t wield the blows from the commissioner’s seat. Bloated owners let the game grow as old as a waning TV audience. What Cohen has done, in seizing a bizarre opportunity early Wednesday and poaching Carlos Correa for $315 million, is make the New York Mets either the best team money can buy or the biggest waste of wealth in sports history. Either way, it’s much more fun watching an owner invest a record $806 million into his player payroll this month than stuff the money into his pocket, or merely spend what’s necessary to quiet a restless fan base. Three decades into the 21st century, this is how professional sports franchises must operate to compete. Just last week — after the Mets joined the crosstown Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and mid-sized San Diego Padres in an unprecedented free-agency shopping spree — I delivered a message to owners still trying to maintain “fiscal responsibility’’ in a $11-billion-a-year industry up against the colossal NFL and tech-friendly NBA.
If they can’t keep up with Cohen and MLB’s big spenders, or they can’t win consistently via cost-efficiency, then sell their teams. Only multi-billionaires, or men who act like multi-billionaires, should be allowed to own baseball franchises these days. All sorts of wealthy bastards would love to own teams, regardless of locale. In cherry-picking Correa from the San Francisco Giants, who either spotted a reg flag during his physical as they claim or suffered sticker shock from a $350 million agreement, Cohen remained true to his vow since saving the Mets from the Madoff-cursed clutches of the inept Wilpons. He is a fan first, not a revenue monger, and for the first time since the drug-hazed mid-’80s, the Mets are the headliner baseball team in New York — even in an offseason when the Yankees spent $360 million to keep Aaron Judge.
“We need one more thing, and this is it,” Cohen told the New York Post, which broke the story while you were sleeping. “This puts us over the top. This is a good team. I hope it’s a good team!
“I hope the fans show up.”
Oh, they will. How could they not flock to Citi Field when Cohen has added Correa to play third base beside shortstop Francisco Lindor — a left side of the infield worth $656 million — and thrown $188 million at Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana to join Max Scherzer and his $130 million in the starting rotation. The owner also brought back closer Edwin Diaz, he of the Timmy Trumpet entrance music, and outfielder Brandon Nimmo on nine-figure contracts. Don’t forget relievers Adam Ottavino and David Robertson and catcher Omar Narvaez. Without Correa, Mets fans would have been thrilled. With him, they’re ready to climb the outfield fence and take a bite out of that red Big Apple. This is how an owner creates excitement in the new baseball economy: spend, spend, spend and spend some more until there’s no significant player left to buy.
“This really makes a big difference,” Cohen said. “I felt like our pitching was in good shape. We needed one more hitter.”
He says this so matter-of-factly, as if every owner should be doing it — which, of course, is true in an ideal baseball sphere. What he has done is nothing shy of historically mind-bending, exploding the luxury tax to pieces. The collective-bargaining device was intended to curtail massive spending, but it’s useless when Cohen not only ignores it but blows past it like a Ferrari on a highway of cement mixers. At present — and three-plus months remain before Opening Day — the Mets owe $111 million in tax payments, which will be higher than the payrolls of several major-league teams. Their estimated payroll for next season is $384 million. Their total payroll will approach $500 million. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan points out, that figure is $150 million more than any other MLB organization ever has spent in a season.
I cringe when people with algorithms, including those working in front offices, say Cohen is ruining baseball. They forget he was approved by the other owners, despite his problems with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which barred him from a supervisory role at his hedge fund for two years after an underling engaged in insider trading. Once he was waved into their club, griping owners — hello, Jerry Reinsdorf — can’t throw him out. The payroll expectation game is altered forever, especially in bigger markets, including one where I wrote for 17 years. In Chicago, Tom Ricketts expects Cubs fans to be over the moon because he spent $177 million for shortstop Dansby Swanson; he’s supposed to spend that kind of money, all the time. On the South Side, Reinsdorf thinks a White Sox team with a narrowing window of pennant contention should be thrilled that he spent $75 million on Andrew Benintendi; he’s supposed to spend that kind of money, and then some, all the time.
If the other owners don’t like Cohen’s way, sell.
“In the end, what the (heck’s) the difference,” Cohen told the Post. “If you’re trying to make a move, you make the move. If it’s (a few percent) more, what’s the difference.”
One team about to suffer considerable fan backlash is the Giants. First they swung and missed on Judge, who preferred the Bronx pressure cauldron to his native northern California. Then they grew prematurely excited about Correa, announcing a 13-year deal before he passed a medical exam. Given his history of back ailments, the Giants should have waited before calling a Tuesday morning news conference. When they suddenly canceled it, the embarrassment was palpable. This was to have been the offseason when they finally re-established themselves as big players. Instead, they must explain the mess to fans who lately have been avoiding Oracle Park, with three World Series titles in the early 2010s feeling distant. As the rival Dodgers downsize with more prized prospects after years of thunderous spending — and minus cornerstones ranging from Trea and Justin Turner to a fading Cody Bellinger — the Giants have been absurdly outspent by their traditional patsies in San Diego, the new favorites to win the National League West.
Sheepishly, the Giants claim to have re-engaged with Correa’s agent, the ubiquitous-and-never-more-powerful Scott Boras. But by then, he was flying to Hawaii to meet face-to-face with Cohen. “I never heard from them after that,” Boras told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We gave them ample time.” Sounds like sticker shock, doesn’t it? A serious team can’t offer $350 million and use a supposed medical concern to lower the price. Naturally, Correa was going to take the deal in New York, where he easily can reach a World Series soon. He’ll make $35 million less for 12 years, instead of 13 in the Bay Area, and he becomes the latest — and riskiest — star to sign a contract that won’t expire until long past his prime. There’s a chance Correa, 28, won’t be able to walk at 40. There’s a better chance his back will give out in the next few seasons. In a statement, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi seemed to suggest Correa has significant health concerns — perhaps an ankle broken when he was 19. Was this real? Or was it the Giants’ way of slipping out of an exorbitant deal they suddenly didn’t want? Said Zaidi: “While we are prohibited from disclosing confidential medical information, as Scott Boras stated publicly, there was a difference of opinion over the results of Carlos’ physical examination. We wish Carlos the best.”
And if something goes wrong, what’s $315 million to Cohen? He’ll just spend another $400 million on another slugger. That’s chump change to a man worth $17.4 billion.
It’s little wonder why he and Boras get along so well. He has the billions. Boras has the players worth hundreds of millions. He has negotiated about $1.2 billion in new contracts this offseason, from Correa’s $315 million to $280 million for Xander Bogaerts, $162 million for Carlos Rodon and $162 million for Nimmo. Wouldn’t we all love to have Boras representing us?
Just the same, wouldn’t we all love to work for Steve Cohen. Verlander had options, including the Dodgers, but he was intoxicated after a phone call. “It really wasn’t a baseball call. It was just a ‘Hey, this is Steve. You’re Justin. Let me get to know you a little bit.’ ’’
From there, the three-time Cy Young Award winner said he “took a leap of faith.” A no-brainer, it seems. “When I look back at the process, it was one of the things I think gave me an insight into how Steve views the organization and this isn’t just an investment for him," said Verlander, who will be 40 in February. "He wants to have his finger on or get to know people intimately that are involved in this thing, and what more could you ask for as a player than that?”
What more could you ask for as a fan? At present, the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Nationals are for sale. In the new year, expect that number to expand from two to five. Call it The Cohen Factor. You have to love it, as cobwebs are vacuumed from the ears of baseball’s old-fart lords.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.