My pal Stu, who turns 64 on Dec. 13, couldn't help but express mixed feelings when he heard the big news about the baseball team he has loved and (occasionally) dreaded since he was a little kid.
He didn't know what to think when the story broke, that the Wilpons were (finally) ending the fan base's frustration by agreeing to sell the team to hedge fun magnate Steve Cohen. On the one hand, Stu was thrilled that the thrifty and haphazard rule of the Wilpons would be ending after decades.
Then again, at the close of a spirited and lengthy texting session, he wrote to me: But knowing the Mets, they'll still screw it up.
Meet Major League Baseball's most neurotic fan base.
The Wilpons, who made their fortune as New York City real estate tycoons, have controlled the Mets since the 1980s – which was also the last time the Mets won the World Series (in 1986, to be exact).
By contrast, the New York Yankees won five championships from 1996 to 2009, including a remarkable run from 1996 to 1998. Mets fans watched in envy and horror as the Yankees took back the town from the K Corner of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry's majestic home runs and Keith Hernandez's blue-collar work ethic and overall brilliance.
Ever since Derek Jeter emerged as the fasciae of New York sports in 1996, the Yankees have all but owned the town. Maybe that will start to change.
New owner Cohen must satisfy the fans by presenting a fresh kind of approach to baseball leadership. This billionaire will have to compete hard for free agents. He'll have to embrace the sorts of analytics that Wall Street titans have used for decades. He has to make the team fan-friendly.
Cohen has the burden of establishing his Mets at a time when the Yankees are riding high. And, with the cloud over the Houston Astros – accused widely of cheating to win – the Yankees have emerged as the favorite to win the 2020 World Series.
The PR-conscious Yankees may now redouble their efforts to sign the most coveted free agent on the block, the great pitcher Gerrit Cole. That move would enable the Bronx team to fill its deepest on-field need – and re-establish their dominance over the Mets. Cole may wind up costing his next employer $30 million a year – huge risk for a pitcher, who pitches every fifth day and plays a position where players get hurt all the time.
Holes to Fill, and Impatient Fans
But diehard Mets fans won't be worried about Mr.. Cole. They care too much about their team's holes – at catcher, in the bullpen, in centerfield and in the starting rotation. Tellingly, respected starting pitcher Zack Wheeler just bolted for the rival Philadelphia Phillies, who paid up to acquire Wheeler. Wheeler will play for Joe Girardi, the Phillies' new manager. The Mets reportedly passed on Girardi, even though he has great street cred. Girardi led the Yankees to the 2009 World Series title and built a reputation as a demanding skipper and a master tactician. Mets fans are still bewildered and angry about missing out on Girardi (Ex-Met Carlos Beltran, who got the job, is well respected in baseball circles).
Cohen will have pressure on him on day one. Mets fans will be impatient to see results and signs that his reign will be different than that of the much-maligned Wilpons. (The New York Times' Dec. 7 takedown told the story in unflinching fashion).
If the Yankees do go on and reach the World Series in 2020, it will be another finger in the Mets' eye, as the team continues to rebuild. The Mets have a lot of assets to boast about, based on their performances in 2019: the best pitcher in the sport in Jacob deGrom, the sensational rookie slugger Pete Alonso and infielder Jeff McNeil, a terrific hitter, as well as outfielder Michael Conforto, who has star potential.
Now, it will be up to Steve Cohen to put the pieces together and make the fan base feel proud of their beloved, forsaken squad.