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Just because he's rich doesn't mean Mets owner Steve Cohen isn't still learning

Mets owner Steve Cohen.

Mets owner Steve Cohen. Credit: Bloomberg/Scott Eells

As a fan, Steve Cohen compiled a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about the Mets, having grown up in Great Neck before buying a minority stake in his favorite franchise.

As a first-year owner, Cohen came off as someone not much different from that Long Island kid in a Tom Seaver jersey. Aside from the self-made $14 billion fortune, of course.

Dinners with the players at his Greenwich compound. The Twitter interactions with fans (and pokes at his slumping roster). There was a front office that turned out to be built on a swamp, a record $341 million contract for the winter’s shiniest object, Francisco Lindor, and a cliff-like plunge out of first place by a Mets team that devalued faster than a shady cryptocurrency.

Bottom line, owners have learning curves, too. Just because Cohen has amassed more wealth from his hedge-fund ventures than the GDP of many small countries, it doesn’t mean he’s going to cruise to multiple World Series titles. Or even just the one he pledged within three to five years of his 2020 purchase of the Mets for a tidy $2.45 billion.

 

To his credit, Cohen surely realizes that now. Being mostly an observer of the Wilpons' affairs as a minority shareholder isn’t sufficient preparation for assuming control of the whole Flushing operation. Just as Cohen famously said upon his Mets takeover that he didn’t prefer to have people "learning on my dime," there is no substitute for on-the-job training, and that’s what the 65-year-old owner got this past year.

"I think the major lesson was if you’re going to be in first place for 100 days, try to do it at the end of the season, not the middle of the season," Cohen said Friday. "That would be helpful.

"Listen, it’s a first year. There’s a lot of learning. I’m just getting acquainted with baseball. Getting up to speed on the language, getting up to speed on just all of the little intricacies.

"For an industry that’s not a big industry, there’s a lot of moving parts in running a baseball team. Whether it’s analytics, whether it’s technology, whether it’s all sort of player development and health. There’s a lot of moving parts, which is why it’s really important that we build all of these areas out and find the best and brightest."

That Cohen was making these comments during a Zoom news conference to introduce the third general manager of his 13-month ownership of the Mets underscored just how challenging all of that can be.

One of Cohen’s first tweets of 2021 was to announce the January firing of his first GM, Jared Porter, who was axed the morning after an ESPN story alleged he had sent unsolicited, salacious texts to a female reporter while employed by the Cubs years earlier.

Cohen acted swiftly in that case — it was only a matter of hours between the story’s posting and Porter’s termination — then launched an independent review of the entire Mets organization when more in-house accusations surfaced, some tied to the team’s former manager, Mickey Callaway.

Eppler’s hiring stirred up similar situations Friday. He was the GM who brought Callaway on board as pitching coach of the Angels and also was in charge when pitcher Tyler Skaggs died of an overdose from drugs that allegedly were supplied by team personnel (the family’s wrongful-death suit is ongoing). When those culture questions were posed Friday, Cohen made himself available to answer them. It’s worth noting that few owners would leave themselves open to such an interrogation.

"We’ve done our due diligence," Cohen said. "It’s an organization, and Billy’s just one person in that [Angels] organization. We vetted it in multiple ways. We spoke to a lot of people that were around the organization at that time. We spoke to people within baseball, and we’re incredibly comfortable with Billy and his decision-making, his ethics and his integrity."

By now, you’d have to believe the Mets are leaving nothing to chance in their hiring process. To date, they’ve come up empty in what has amounted to a year-long search for president of baseball operations, a hunt that really began when Cohen bought the franchise.

In the past seven weeks, Cohen and club president Sandy Alderson pivoted to merely getting a GM instead, only to have more than a dozen candidates either withdraw or be denied permission to interview before the Mets ultimately got Eppler.

That’s a part of the baseball business Cohen admits he wasn’t prepared for. It doesn’t happen in the hedge-fund world, where money makes all the decisions, and Cohen has more than most. But being MLB’s richest owner couldn’t buy him any of his high-powered first choices to run the Mets’ organization such as Theo Epstein, Billy Beane or David Stearns. Or even any of the next tier already employed by another team (Eppler was working on the agent side with the William Morris Endeavor group).

So where does Cohen fit into the baseball decision-making for the Mets? It sounds as if he’s still figuring that out, too. As much as he keeps talking about his "day job" running Point 72, he was closely involved with this front-office hire and made it clear Friday that he’s willing to spend big this offseason to upgrade the Mets. Cohen isn’t going to write any huge checks without having his voice heard as well.

"It’s not my job to dictate who the players are going to be," he said. "My job, when they come to me, is to say, ‘Let’s do it, let’s spend on this, let’s make this trade, I agree.’ But I want to delegate out to my people. I want to give them a lot of rope and let them make decisions.

"Ultimately, if you’re going to interfere in every decision, it’s not going to work. At least that’s how I run my other businesses, and that’s done well. I expect it to run the same way here.

"You’re not going to fix everything the first year. I call it a little bit of a treasure hunt. As you go through the organization, you find things that you need to fix, and that’s sort of what I would have expected coming into an organization that was under-resourced. We made progress last year."

Cohen pushed hard on the data-gathering side, beefing up the department to 26 analysts — a significant jump from the previous staff of five. And he said Friday the plan is to give Eppler and Alderson "whatever they need" to improve the 2022 roster, which suggests going well above the $187 million already on the books for the coming season.

Cohen may be a year wiser as owner, but he’s not letting go of his fanboy side, either. The Twitter presence, wildly popular among the Mets’ faithful, will continue now that the GM search has concluded. Cohen seems to enjoy connecting with the fan base despite the "combative" nature of Twitter and "being a tough place to get your message across." There are many reasons why owners don’t wade into the social-media quicksand, but Cohen appears ready for another dip.

"I’ll probably get back on, give it another shot and see how it goes," he said. "We’ll see. I think people like it, so why not keep going?"

Guess we’ll find out. With Year Two of the Cohen Era already underway, that's true of a lot of things.

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