During every holiday season, all right-minded Mets fans should remember to send a card to Magic Johnson. He is the point guard who went one-on-one with Steve Cohen a decade ago and posterized him with the winning bid to land the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Magic’s group prevailed with their $2 billion bet, leaving Cohen stuck with his much smaller investment in the team he grew up rooting for, a team nearly swallowed whole by the Bernie Madoff scandal. At the time, Institutional Investor called Cohen’s $20 million stake in the Mets “something of a hedge.”
Today, you could fill Citi Field a hundred times over with people who might call it the hedge-fund guy’s greatest all-time hedge.
Cohen was among a dozen parties each paying twenty mil to owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, who were drowning in Madoff-related debt. In The Post’s 2012 report on the transactions, SNY network partners Time Warner Cable and Comcast were identified first as the Mets’ new investors, with Cohen identified third … in the eighth paragraph of the piece. With the benefit of hindsight, as they say, that’s called burying the lede.
Now, as undisputed majority owner, Cohen is prepared to pay $421 million — give or take — in wages and taxes on ballplayers for the 2023 season. Ballplayers who will suit up for the New York Mets. For what used to be known as the Fred and Jeff Wilpon Mets.
Ballplayers who will soon be joined by teammates not yet accounted for on Cohen’s payroll.
Before the pandemic turned the marathon 2020 season into a 60-game sprint, Mets salaries were expected to come in around $160 million. Cohen bought the franchise that fall, and has since made a mockery of that number, and of the $293 million tax threshold installed to prevent the Mets owner from doing exactly what he’s doing now to his peers:
Forcing them to play a style of Moneyball that requires no analytics expertise.
This is fantasy baseball, baby, and Mets fans had it coming to them. So often burned by Wilpon Era economics, by decisions made for reasons disconnected from on-field performance, Mets fans initially had a hard time believing Cohen when he punctuated his $2.4 billion purchase of the club with the following pledge: “I’m not in this to be mediocre. I want something great.”
In pursuit of what would be the $360 million Aaron Judge deal, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said owner Hal Steinbrenner was “putting his money where his mouth is.” Cohen has done that, times a thousand. What George Steinbrenner did to calls for free-agency moderation in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Steve Cohen has done to the competitive balance tax — and, more specifically, the Steve Cohen Tax — in the 2020s.
He has taken a Louisville Slugger to the virtues of fiscal restraint. It hasn’t been such a remarkable thing to watch in no-frills places like Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Kansas City. But then again, Cohen isn’t playing to those crowds. His is very much a big-city story, told without apology.
And some people with intel on his championship aspirations will tell you that Cohen isn’t just throwing Monopoly Money all over the board. They say that Justin Verlander for two years at crazy dollars is a smarter baseball play than Jacob deGrom for five years at crazy dollars. They say that David Robertson for one year and Jose Quintana for two represent wise short-term deals.
They say that Brandon Nimmo has homegrown value, and that the center-fielder market looks weak in the coming years, and that stretching Nimmo out to eight years was a sacrifice worth making to keep a full-scholarship player with a walk-on’s work ethic at a reasonable salary of $20 million and change.
They say that the 29-year-old Kodai Senga at $15 million per, or $6 million per less than the 33-year-old Chris Bassitt got from Toronto, amounts to a sensible gamble, even at five years.
“A lot of thought goes into everything Steve does,” said one source with knowledge of Cohen’s approach. “[General manager] Billy Eppler lays everything out for him, shows him the comps and where the industry is, and Steve listens and makes decisions. He’s not going to make a dumb-ass deal.
“Tell me one deal he’s done where you say, ‘Oh my God.’ Even Verlander, for what he got. He did win the Cy Young Award last year.”
So Cohen hired Verlander at Max Scherzer’s $43.3 million wage, giving the Mets the two highest-paid players in baseball history. Soon enough, for Pete Alonso, Cohen will make the $341 million contract he gave Francisco Lindor look like a side deal.
No, it isn’t all about Cohen’s cash. Eppler and manager Buck Showalter have done plenty of smart things, too. When they hosted Senga on his free-agent tour of Citi Field, they made sure the flag of Japan was displayed on a wall between the clubhouse and training room — among the flags of countries that produced current Mets players. The pitcher appreciated it. And the fans appreciated the $75 million that Cohen threw his way.
If the owner isn’t spending like a drunken sailor, he’s at least half in the bag. So here’s a holiday toast to Mets fans, parade-free since 1986. Nobody deserved Steve Cohen more than you did.
This story originally appeared on NYPost