We’ve seen this Mets fairy tale so many times in so many arenas, be it an athlete landing a long-term deal, a United States President cashing in upon his departure from the White House or the Judy Blume young-adult novel “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t”:
Can you strike it rich and not change who you are?
The Mets, not always winners (to put it generously), always have been charmers. They are 72-year-old Casey Stengel guiding their very first effort to a historically awful 40-120. They are Banner Day. They are the Home Run Apple. They are, more often than not in their history, the underdog.
Therein lies the challenge for Steve Cohen, definitely not the underdog. Can the Mets’ new owner, immediately the wealthiest member of the fraternity he just joined with Friday’s joint developments — the Major League Baseball owners and Mayor Bill de Blasio approving Cohen’s purchase of the club from the Wilpons — guide this team to its powerhouse potential without compromising its brand of lovability? In a market in which Yankees fans regard any failure to win a title as an utter disaster, can the Mets both challenge the Yankees and not become them?
Day 1 went well on this front, as Cohen made sure to mention that his family are “lifelong Mets fans,” and threw some red meat to his customers by mentioning, “With free agency starting Sunday night we will be working towards a quick close. Let’s go Mets!” He also backed up his previous promises to take care of the Mets’ blue-collar employees (groundskeepers, security guards and engineers) by restoring their pre-pandemic salaries as of Sunday, plus to increase the giving of the Mets Foundation, plus (as per negotiations with de Blasio to get the mayor’s signoff) to make a $17.5-million donation to area small businesses hurt by the coronavirus.
Now he just has to build on that, and let’s face it, Cohen didn’t establish his own brand, one welcomed overwhelmingly by Mets fans, by being warm and fuzzy — or by appearing particularly fallible or even human, really. He’s more Terminator than Kindergarten Cop.
The Wilpons were nothing if not fallible, of course, their list of missteps far too vast to enumerate here. They didn’t grade perfectly on the humanity front, either, as evidenced by Noah Syndergaard’s statement to The Post’s Mike Puma when Friday’s news broke: “All I plead is that the new owner treats players and personnel in the organization like people and less like expendable commodities.”
Nevertheless, part of the Wilpons’ legacy will be how the Mets rallied in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. How Shea Stadium turned into a staging area for relief workers, with Bobby Valentine and his players and coaches helping out, and how Mike Piazza’s dramatic homer 10 days later led to many grieving people learning organically that they were capable of emoting over something as insignificant as a ballgame. The Wilpons maintained their dedication to those who lost loved ones that horrible day through their dedication to the non-profit Tuesday’s Children.
These owners loved their team and made it their primary focus and yes, they actually did want to win, even if their actions often proved self-defeating or insufficient.
In a statement Friday, Fred Wilpon said of Cohen: “He shares the view that Saul [Katz], Jeff and I have long held, that ownership of the Mets is a public trust. I know that he will take that as seriously as we always have.”
If the Bernie Madoff fiasco forever damaged the trust Mets fans held in the Wilpons and Katzes, it also made loyalty an even greater badge of honor, and the occasional payoffs like 2015 all the sweeter. That team, too, featured so much charm, or at least color: Syndergaard. Matt Harvey. Yoenis Cespedes. Bartolo Colon.
Can a fully operational Death Star be charming? Or will the Mets have to give that charm up for good? Here’s hoping Cohen, a seer of sorts, finds a way to thread that needle. What a shame it would be for the Mets, no longer scrappy, tacky or second-tier, to lose their soul.
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