September 27, 2022

Mike Lupica: Even Steve Cohen’s billions and his heart may not cure the curse of Queens

New Mets owner, billionaire Steve Cohen, is rewriting the book when it comes to ownership of baseball teams. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — He stands outside the visitors’ clubhouse at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, maybe an hour or so before the Mets would play the Washington Nationals on a Saturday night in the spring. He wears a baseball cap and sneakers and is chatting with Buck Showalter, maybe twenty yards from one of the team buses that has brought the team down I-95 from the Mets home in Port St. Lucie. When George Steinbrenner was alive and in charge of the Yankees, you always knew when he was in the area. It is a little different with the new guy who owns the Mets.

He introduces himself this way, grinning as he shakes your hand:

“Steve Cohen. Mets fan.”

And that is true enough. Cohen is the Mets fan who officially closed the deal to buy the team from Fred and Jeff Wilpon in November 2020. But he is more than that. He is the fan who is the richest owner in baseball history. He is the owner whose ability and willingness to spend big has already scared the living daylights out of almost all of his fellow owners, including the Steinbrenner who now owns the New York Yankees.

You have to know this about the 99-day lockout that ended less than a month ago in Major League Baseball and lasted long enough to push back Opening Day by a week: In the end, the other owners weren’t afraid of baseball players as much as they were afraid of the deep pockets of Cohen, the new Boss in baseball in New York, just without as many back-page — or front-page — headlines and controversy and noise louder than New York City traffic as Boss Steinbrenner when he was reinventing the modern sports owner almost 50 years ago exactly.

I asked Showalter about similarities between his first owner, Steinbrenner, and his new boss, Steve Cohen.

He smiled.

“You mean other than how much they both want to win?” Buck said.

In a world where we are obsessed with the kind of money free agents make in sports, the most important free agent in town is the guy who didn’t get paid to come to New York. He paidOh, man did he ever pay, $2.4 billion to become a New York Met. And now he clearly loves the fact that the new competitive balance tax in the big leagues is unofficially named after him.

“I know the name for it, it’s called the Cohen Tax … the way I describe it, it’s better than a bridge being named after you or something like that. It’s still a lot of money to spend on a payroll,” Cohen said. “I don’t feel that it’s so confining that I can’t live with it.”

Mets fans really do look at Cohen the way Yankee fans looked at Steinbrenner, especially when George was riding high, when he first hit town in the ‘70s and then when the Yankees got back on top two decades later: He was a pirate. But he was their pirate. Steinbrenner was a bad boy with campaign financing, before the Yankees ever won him a World Series, and was a bad boy much later when he got caught paying a man named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. Cohen had his own problems, and expensive ones, with the SEC. All of that is part of his personal history, same as being a Mets fans is part of his personal history.

But now here he is. Sometimes it is difficult to process that he has only been in charge of the Mets for 16 months. It seems like much longer than that. There have been a lot of New York sports owners to come along since Steinbrenner. The Dolans ended up with the Knicks and the Rangers finally, and Woody Johnson got the Jets, and the big Russian, Mikhail Prokhorov, got the Nets before Joe Tsai did. But there has been nobody like Cohen since Steinbrenner changed everything in the Bronx forever. Now Cohen is trying to change everything in the baseball borough of Queens, with a team that has only won two World Series in its history.

There has been so much player movement since the end of last season, before the lockout began and after it ended. But not one play sent more of a shock wave through the sport than Cohen being willing to spend $130 million on the great Max Scherzer, who will turn 38 during the upcoming season.

“He looks at this like he wants to win a championship, and he’s going to do whatever it takes to win,” Scherzer said of Cohen after he signed on with the Mets. “You don’t hear that from owners too often these days.”

“Our baseball people got together,” Cohen said at the time, talking about the amount of money it took to make Scherzer a Met. “And that [$130 million] was the value we put on Max.”

He made it sound as easy as a Scherzer fastball down in the zone.

Of course, there is no guarantee that money can buy you a World Series. The team that spends the most doesn’t always win, and if you don’t believe that, ask Hal Steinbrenner, whose team has spent about $4 billion on baseball players over the past two decades and has one World Series title to show for spending like that.

So there is absolutely no guarantee that Cohen, Mets fan, is going to produce the first World Series champ for Mets fans since the glory days of 1986. We all remember, and vividly, how bad things looked for the Mets when they couldn’t find somebody to come be their general manager after last season ended, and suddenly they looked like the same old Mets.

Just not for long.

Sixteen months into this, know this: Everybody knows Cohen is in town, even when he is the New York sports owner having fun with other Mets fans on Twitter. The new Boss of baseball in New York. The new guy looking to put together the best team money can buy.