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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Steve Cohen’s amazin’, maddening, money-losing bid to own New York

Steve Cohen, the hedge fund billionaire and owner of the New York Mets, watches a batting practice with his wife Alex, during spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Feb. 20, 2023.

By Matt Flegenheimer and Kate Kelly

Around early 2020, before the New York Mets were his, Steven Cohen received an unexpected request: Justin Verlander, then the Houston Astros’ ace, wanted to speak with him.

The subject was not baseball.

“He was wondering about hedge fund investments,” Cohen, a hedge fund billionaire, said in an interview, wandering between practice fields in a semi-tucked golf polo at the Mets’ spring facility. “I met him through a friend. ‘Sure, I’ll help you out. I’ll help you think about it.’ Why not?”

Much about Cohen’s life had changed by then, and much more would be changing soon. Seven years earlier, he had been a financial pariah, his firm held up as an emblem of Wall Street malfeasance amid insider trading violations and nearly $2 billion in attendant fines. The stakes of this conversation — which Verlander recalled as a “kindness of his heart” gesture by Cohen with “probably pretty dumbed-down” general guidance — were ostensibly smaller, destined to engender more goodwill than scrutiny, with Cohen primed to join Major League Baseball’s ownership ranks in short order.

But the two kept in touch. In December, Verlander became Cohen’s prized acquisition in another extravagant Mets offseason, his $43.3 million salary accounting for roughly one-eighth of the team’s record-melting 2023 payroll.

Those earning the rest have not hesitated to work their new connection, either. “There may have been other players that are interested,” the owner said, performatively coy.

And Cohen, friends say, has always relished being the man to see.

“A lot of these guys get paid well, right? And they’re looking for advice,” he said. “Kind of in my wheelhouse, right?”

People own teams for all sorts of reasons: boredom, passion, civic mission, macho flex. Images can be retouched, stories recast. Winners write history and can rewrite it.

Entering his third season in charge, Cohen has become perhaps the most significant, contradictory, beloved, resented, limit-testing new owner in U.S. sports.

He is at once an extreme version of a type — the munificent steward, willing to lose money in a show of how much money he’s made — and a model all his own, his tenure rocketing toward something that can feel like a referendum for the man, the Mets, their city and the sport itself.

Cohen, 66, has carried off a remarkable reversal in public standing, migrating over the past decade from a reclusive avatar of scofflaw capitalism to an avuncular Twitterer who could probably be elected Queens borough president by acclamation.

The Mets have swiftly shed their ingrained identity as lovable losers, their ownership shifting from the cost-conscious, Bernie Madoff-swindled Wilpon family to a white-collar boundary-pusher long appraised as neither lovable nor a loser.

New York has made room in its political class for a burgeoning macher, with Cohen donating prodigiously to key officials as he imagines transforming the neighborhood around Citi Field into a casino-cum-entertainment hub.

And baseball is grappling with the ramifications of Cohen’s runaway spending in the nation’s most capitalistic major league, where no salary cap constrains him and only one team thought to buy Super Bowl ad time just because it could.

In dozens of interviews with allies, adversaries, current and former employees and players, the Cohen rendered is by turns paradoxical and straightforward: He can be brusque and solicitous, open-minded and closed off, faithfully process-driven but seemingly convinced of his own destiny in any venture. Here is a man who has everything, except total control over his public legacy, betting that his savvy and financial muscle can bend an unfamiliar world to his whims because winners win, and what is Steve Cohen?

Those who know him say his view of subordinates can be similarly binary — morons and moneymakers, doers and duds — producing sometimes savage encounters in the workplace. Business associates have been routinely berated in front of peers, their intelligence insulted in a hail of expletives.

At minimum, Cohen’s overlapping roles now can produce some surface tensions in his days. He is an inveterate ticker reader who could not stop gushing about the preseason “vibe,” an obsessive trader who recently started working from Citi Field on Thursdays so he could join team meetings a few hours after the market opens.

He is a famed bottom-line watcher outwardly unbothered by the hundreds of millions of dollars he stands to lose this season on the team, to which several executives from his hedge fund, Point72, now dedicate part of their time.

Even Cohen’s speaking manner betrays a certain wear-you-down relentlessness. He often begins sentences with “listen” and ends them with “right?” — a tic that conveys his wishes clearly: Hear him out and kindly agree with him.

But Cohen insisted that age and perspective had dulled his edges, straining to project an emotional evolution, to a point.

“I’ve mellowed,” he said. “You just get older, and things that used to bother you don’t bother you as much.”

At times, Cohen reached for generic modesty, never mind the fans on site wearing shirts with his headshot beneath a photoshopped crown. “It’s not about me,” he said.

He allowed, more often, that it was about him at least a little.

“You know what I hear over and over again? I’ve never seen this: They come up and thank me,” Cohen said. “I’ve never seen that with owners.”

He had a theory.

“Listen,” he said. “I just think I’m new, I’m different. Right?”

The Manager-Made Lasagna

Some snapshots from Cohen’s long Mets arc can resemble any die-hard’s: a precious day at the Polo Grounds with his father, a garment manufacturer from whom Cohen has said he craved more attention as the third of eight children; slumming it with friends in the Shea Stadium upper deck, then swiping better seats as they emptied.

Other episodes were more bespoke, fantasy-camp-style indulgences to accompany Cohen’s growing fortune. For some $400,000, he acquired the baseball that squirted through Bill Buckner’s legs on the way to the Mets’ 1986 World Series title. For considerably less, presumably, he and his wife, Alex Cohen, won a charity auction around 1999 requiring Bobby Valentine, then the Mets’ manager, to prepare lasagna for 20 people at the Cohen estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, Valentine recalled.

Yet Cohen’s efforts were also shadowed by mushrooming scandals at his business, SAC Capital.

Through the volatile, opportunity-rich 1990s and early 2000s, Cohen and his hedge fund developed a reputation for almost preternatural market timing, appearing to find the right side of every trade, with average annual returns nearing 30%.

Competitors spoke of Cohen the way baseball watchers assessed titans of the steroid age: Yes, he was talented. Yes, everyone hustled for an edge, often in the ethical murk. But SAC could seem especially tethered to the period’s excesses, an inspiration for the legally dubious firm on the television series “Billions.”

For years, prosecutors aggressively pursued SAC — “a veritable magnet for market cheaters,” they said — indicting and convicting employees found to have engaged in illegal trading. Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan at the time, eyed Cohen with particular resolve. (Bharara did not respond to requests for comment.)

Although Cohen was never personally charged, SAC pleaded guilty to insider trading infractions in 2013, becoming the first large Wall Street firm in a generation to admit to criminal wrongdoing. Cohen paid a total of $1.8 billion in fines. During a mandated hiatus from managing public money, he transitioned to a “family office,” Point72, that would manage much of his personal fortune, estimated today by Forbes to exceed $17 billion.

At times, Cohen’s circle seemed to view baseball as a reputational balm. As congressional leaders scrutinized trading activity at SAC in 2011, according to the 2017 book “Black Edge” by Sheelah Kolhatkar, one company emissary to Washington sought to assure Senate aides that Cohen was “civic-minded” by remarking that he was considering a stake in the Mets. (In 2012, Cohen became a minority owner.)

A Tax Named Just for Him

Of all the Mets’ throwback indignities — late-season collapses, less-than-amazin’ talent, little-sibling status in its city — the Bobby Bonilla contract stands apart.

Every July 1, Bonilla, 60, who last played in 2001, collects a seven-figure check. Rather than pay out the remaining $5.9 million on Bonilla’s contract, the Mets agreed to send him nearly $1.2 million annually from 2011 through 2035, the sort of maneuver that became synonymous with the franchise’s mismanagement and small-time wheeler dealing.

Cohen sees it differently — or, at least, sees himself differently. Since taking over, he has invited Bonilla to return for a ceremonial check handoff, a would-be visual both organizationally self-effacing and personally swaggering in its message: These Mets are good for the money.

In ways large and small, Cohen’s functionally unlimited resources have rewired more than a half-century of Mets self-perception, even if last year, like so many before, ended in disappointment: a quick playoff exit after a 101-win season. (Some fans also cite a devastating preseason injury this month to standout closer Edwin Díaz, who crumpled during a postgame celebration at the World Baseball Classic, as evidence that the team’s hard-luck fate persists.)

The most conspicuous shift has been in free-agent dollars. The team’s projected 2023 payroll is around $370 million, by far the highest ever in the sport. That is before an expected luxury tax bill of roughly $100 million, another record. The New York Yankees, the next closest team in total outlay for 2023 big leaguers, are some $160 million behind.

Cohen has said he considers the free-agent splurging a temporary measure while the team rebuilds its farm system, hoping that future offseasons will prove a little less interesting.

But Cohen rejects that the Mets are a vanity project, as even many admirers suspect, framing his aims (not entirely convincingly) as entirely altruistic: “I can make millions of people happy.”

Still, the provision in last year’s collective bargaining agreement was not subtle: a new luxury tax threshold, nicknamed the Cohen Tax, intended to discourage unbridled spending.

Cohen took it personally — as a point of pride.

For other clubs, the world Cohen has created, or at least accelerated, can be difficult to explain to fans, who wonder why their rich-but-not-Cohen-rich owners cannot afford better players.

“Every team has a budget,” John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, told Boston Sports Journal via email last month, with a parenthetical caveat in the middle: “(maybe not the Mets).”

Cohen is adamant, if vague, about the value the Mets derive from this. The analytics department, expanded fivefold since he bought the team, has been aided by a Point72 data executive. Cohen’s chief technology officer and head of human resources have assumed equivalent responsibilities with the team. He talks up the “risk-taking mentality” that hedge fund thinking imposes on a risk-averse sport.

Although Cohen has said he dissects his losses more than his wins in business, he is quick to interrogate baseball decisions that turn out well, according to Billy Eppler, the team’s general manager. “Did this happen because we were lucky,” Cohen has asked, “or because we had a good process?”

Team officials insist Cohen does not dictate day-to-day personnel decisions, though he has engaged directly with agents like Scott Boras on major deals. (The team’s brief agreement with Carlos Correa, waylaid by a physical, was hashed out in a back-and-forth session with Boras while Cohen was in Hawaii.)

Cohen has also pulled back some since a Twitter-adventurous first year as owner, calling the site a “cesspool.” As the team slumped in August 2021, he memorably vented that it was “hard to understand how professional hitters can be this unproductive.”

When Cohen has gone quieter, some players have gone to him. As he struggled in his first Mets season, star shortstop Francisco Lindor said he turned to his boss for counsel.

Life is long, Cohen suggested. Time passes.

“It’s just, ‘Hey, I have bad days, too,’” Lindor remembered. “‘If people judged me based on what I did every single day, you know, I would be probably one of the worst guys in the world.’”

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