Already we're seeing signs that freshly minted New York Mets owner Steve Cohen is the kind of team steward that MLB badly needs -- one who prioritizes winning and tending to the morale of players and fans alike.
MLB right now has too many owners and ownership groups that view the teams they own as little more than portfolio holdings. Winning is secondary to maximizing profits and seeing their investment appreciate to unimaginable heights, even though the latter will be achieved almost no matter what ownership does.
Defenders of the contemporary C suite will trot out pablum like "that's just business" to justify this en masse practice of caring more about keeping labor costs down than producing the best possible product. To an extent, that's true -- the current business environment largely is about that. However, it wasn't always this way, and those who suggest otherwise mistake the trend for a foundational principle.
Time was when large-scale businesses cared more about the stakeholder than the shareholder. That is, customers, employees, suppliers, and the community in which the business was located mattered at least much as those with equity shares. For a number of reasons beyond the scope of this particular harangue, that's no longer the case, which, it says here, is not a good thing.
Not surprisingly, this change in mindset long ago made its way to baseball. Minor leaguers are paid subsistence wages, service time of young major leaguers is manipulated, tax dollars are extorted for the construction of new ballparks, team financials are baldly lied about in the service of not pursuing premium free agents or re-signing homegrown stars, negotiations with the union are treated cynically, and so on. Beyond that, you have well-heeled, money-printing teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, and Red Sox at various points in recent history over-responding to the incentives of the luxury tax. At the other end of the revenue continuum, the AL champion Rays are risibly trying to claim they lost money by making the postseason in 2020. Because of this pervasive "portfolio mindset" in MLB, the game is starved for an owner like the late Mike Ilitch of the Tigers, who -- novelty of novelties -- saw his prevailing mandate as building the best team possible.
And that brings us back to Cohen, who, if early indicators are any guide, may be just that. Consider what he's already done:
- One of his first steps after becoming formally approved as team owner was to restore the pre-pandemic salaries of Mets employees. Then he established a relief fund for seasonal employees who work for Citi Field subcontractors that will pay, say, concessions workers a monthly stipend until Opening Day.
- In related matters, Cohen early on referred to the Mets as a "civic trust," which hints at that long, lost "stakeholders first" mindset. As noted above, that isn't how most of his peers approach their obligations as team owners.
- Cohen fielded ideas from Mets fans on Twitter and responded positively to the possibility of an old timers' game once fans are permitted to return to the ballpark.
- He brought back Sandy Alderson as team president, and to hear Alderson tell it he wouldn't have chosen to return if not for Cohen's seizing of the reins.
Cohen's early tones of commitment to the singular goal of winning persuaded Marcus Stroman to accept the Qualifying Offer and return to the Mets on a one-year contract for 2021:
- Cohen didn't blanch when Alderson in their joint presser openly pined for NL Cy Young winner and current free agent Trevor Bauer.
- Cohen at that presser also said, "This is a major market team, and it should have a budget commensurate with that." That pledge more than any other drew the brightest of lines between Cohen and the outgoing Wilpons.
- And: "We're going to build out our processes -- whether it's analytics, whether it's scouting, whether it's, development of players, we want to be excellent in all areas of this game. That's going to require resources, and I'm fully committed to making that happen."
It's little wonder that his fellow members of the legalized monopoly didn't unanimously approve Cohen -- he's apparently not committed to the grift they've been perpetrating. Instead, he's committed to his team, at least by the sounds of things. Speaking of which, Cohen said this at that introductory press conference:
"When I really thought about this, you know, I can make millions of people happy, and what an incredible opportunity that is. And so, you know, that's how I'm thinking about this. You know, I'm not trying to make money here. OK, like I have my business at Point72 [Cohen's hedge fund], and, you know, I make money over there. So here, you know, it's really about building something great, building something for the fans, winning."
To be sure, Cohen already glows in comparison to his predecessors in Queens. The Wilpons for too long treated the Mets as nothing more than a profit center and a means to cover their Bernie Madoff-related losses and liabilities. As such, it's been a long time since the Mets invested in themselves at levels befitting a team that shares the largest media market in the Western world. Cohen says those days are over. Now comes the time when actions must rise to meet the words, and Cohen should be judged by the extent to which that happens.
The Mets have a core that can contend, but Cohen must build around via free agency and by leveraging a trade market that figures to be flooded with useful players. The suspension of Robinson Cano has freed up millions while also removing a key player from the roster. Add that situation to Cohen's to-do list. If he crosses out most of those items before Opening Day, then he'll have backed up his refreshing proclamations. And if he does that then Cohen will have established himself as exactly the kind of owner MLB needs more of -- one who gives a damn.