New York City being New York City, and the Mets being the Mets, it was inevitable that a master of the universe would finally push the penurious Wilpon family into the mists of history.
That this master of the universe is Steven A. Cohen, a financier who is not unduly burdened by ethics and who sidestepped criminal indictment, is more or less perfect for this city, this team and this age.
Cohen commands a great pile of stones in Greenwich, Conn. — a palazzo with more bedrooms and more bathrooms than you could count in this and another lifetime — donates vast sums to the art world and to children’s health, and is worth many billions of dollars.
Under the terms of his proposed deal for controlling interest in the Mets, he would take the helm of the team even while the Wilpons retain putative control for five years. As Cohen is a raptor’s raptor, I would bet a large sum of money I don’t have that the Wilpons will quickly become potted plants.
Mets fans, and I speak as a lifelong member of this sect, are likely to react to this news with glee. This week they watched Zack Wheeler, one of the better No. 3 starters in baseball, walk away to the Mets’ chief competition, the Philadelphia Phillies, without his longtime team bothering to put in a bid for his services.
A new owner who will burn bonfires of his cash in pursuit of a championship is like water falling on the desert of Mets fandom.
Some might see this as myopia by fans, and maybe that’s right, even though it reflects a sporting commonplace. The population of team-owning oligarchs contains its fair share of those with mysterious and unsightly fortunes. It’s worth recalling that the other baseball team in town was long run by a (later pardoned) felon who obstructed justice.
He did, however, put out a fine baseball team. ¿Que será, será?
Before relativistic spin leaves me dizzy, it’s worth tarrying a few minutes on the fellow who is likely to soon take control of my Mets. The process by which Cohen could ascend his throne is multifold: Major League Baseball will figuratively pat him down, and he must pass through several committees and obtain a two-thirds vote of the team owners. Nothing is certain, although my guess is that far more attention will be paid to the billions in his wallet than to the considerable taint of his business transgressions.
Cohen ran SAC Capital Advisors, which year after year produced wondrous returns. CNBC analysts felt something akin to awe and all but prostrated themselves. (It’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the Wilpons were cast upon a reef for not dissimilar reasons, after they placed touching faith in the fantastical returns produced by their friend Bernie Madoff.)
A shrewd fellow, Cohen constructed a carefully decentralized operation with about 140 small teams. He waved his figurative garden hose and sprayed these teams with hundreds of millions of investment dollars. His rule was simple: Make money, or get lost.
As these teams enjoyed autonomy, Cohen retained two lovely words: plausible deniability.
Alas, federal regulators came knocking about seven years ago and began to indict some of his top employees. A Securities and Exchange Commission filing reported that Cohen — surprise! — was more attentive than he had let on. “Faced with red flags of potentially unlawful conduct by employees under his supervision, Cohen allowed his traders to execute the recommended trades and stood by,” the filing stated.
Not that this fazed Cohen’s investors, who continued to pour money into the many-gallon jug that was SAC.
For a while, it appeared that Cohen might face the possibility of spending a few years living rent-free in a federal facility. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, oversaw the investigation, and while he declined at that time to answer specific questions about Cohen, he characteristically thumped his chest.
“I don’t see anyone that’s too big to indict,” the prosecutor said then. “No one is too big indict.”
As often happened with federal prosecutors, Bharara talked a better game than he prosecuted. Eight employees of SAC fell, but Cohen stepped away virtually untouched. He was, in essence, given a child’s timeout, a mandatory two-year hiatus from managing money.
Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica has written much of Cohen, including for The New York Times, and he later wrote a book exploring the Justice Department’s failures to prosecute executives. I called him and asked about this oligarch’s decision to inhale the Mets.
“When we let rich malefactors skate free,” he told me, “they take over ball clubs, are feted as philanthropists and even can ascend to the highest position in American government.”
Cohen is one short of that trifecta. His friends insist he has a rich sense of humor. I don’t doubt that. In fact, I would wager that when the hapless Wilpons agreed to give him control of the club if only he would let them remain in de facto control for another five years, he nodded and smiled broadly.