New York Mets: Cohen said backing out of deal to buy the team

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04: New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon listens as Carlos Beltran, left, is introduced as the Mets manager during a press conference at Citi Field on November 4, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04: New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon listens as Carlos Beltran, left, is introduced as the Mets manager during a press conference at Citi Field on November 4, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

Reports say billionaire Steve Cohen wasn’t thrilled about the Wilpons moving the fences at the 11th hour, so he may not buy the New York Mets after all.

Steve Cohen, the billionaire who was buying the New York Mets until (apparently) he wasn’t, grew up in a Nassau County, Long Island town known as Great Neck. I knew Great Neck as the home of a classic opulent wedding/bar-mitzvah semi-factory, Leonard’s of Great Neck.

You know it if at all as the joint (now renamed Leonard’s Palazzo) where Johnny Sack asked Tony Soprano to perform a hit before Sack was hauled from his daughter’s wedding back to prison. (Season six, episode five, if you’re scoring at home.)

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Take that, Mr. Cohen: After my parents moved us from the north Bronx, I finished growing up (it was alleged) in Long Beach, an island strip in southern Nassau. Long Beach had a little bit of every economic strata, a lot of beach and boardwalk, and a home for Don Vito Corleone (in The Godfather) from which son and heir Michael plotted and delivered the execution of the fictional heads of the Five Families. My mob’s better than your mob.

Thus my only bragging right on the wealthy hedge fund manager with whom I have in common being a Met fan since the day they were born, each of us first seeing our anti-heroes in the ancient, rambling wreck of the Polo Grounds, awaiting Shea Stadium’s completion. When the news broke in December that Cohen intended to raise his stake in the New York Mets from four to eighty percent, effectively taking a controlling interest, I wasn’t the only Met fan feeling as though Hanukkah and Christmas each came early.

At the same time, though, I also remembered the watchword of most Met fans when receiving encouraging news: Trust your mother but cut the cards.

Now the word out of New York now is that Cohen is backing away from the deal. The New York Post described it as the deal being on life support. And the main reason coming out of New York, according to the Post and other reports flying forth Tuesday evening, is that the incumbent owning Wilpons (honk if you require smelling salts) moved the fences back, changing the terms of the deal at about the eleventh hour. Early social media reaction suggested Met fans weren’t sure whether to howl or weep over the shock of recognition.

Nine years ago, another wealthy hedge fund manager, David Einhorn, had a deal in place to buy the Mets. Until he didn’t, either. Post reporter Thornton McEnery reminds us that then, too, the Wilpons tried to tweak the deal at just about the last minutes and Einhorn, too, walked away. He wasn’t as quiet about it as Cohen seems to be so far, accusing the Wilpons of dealing in bad faith. That’s not an alien accusation. Met fans often accuse them of dealing in worse faith when it comes to building competitive teams.

Cohen’s purchase would have been structured to effect a transition of power, with Fred Wilpon remaining on the throne for five more years, his son, Jeff, perhaps remaining as the chief operating officer for the same five years, and then Cohen taking full command of the franchise though not of Sports New York (SNY), the Mets’ regional broadcasting network. McEnery suggests the Wilpons weren’t quite ready to surrender all their power after the five-year transitional window, after all. No wonder Cohen quaked.

In December the word that Cohen would buy and take gradual command of the New York Mets was seen in some places as no less than the Messiah’s coming. A week and a half before Valentine’s Day, Cohen’s withdrawal is seen as Met fans being led to the mountaintop, shown the Promised Land, and given a swift kick to the rocks below.

Like the Wilpons, Cohen has known the consequences of dealing with the dubious. The Wilpons were brought low, essentially, when they put their faith in Bernie Madoff; Cohen had to pick up, dust off, and start all over again, after his creation SAC Capital Investors copped to five counts of insider trading in 2013 and ponied up a $1.2 billion fine. Cohen himself wasn’t accused of wrongdoing but SAC was forced out of the outside investment game.

He merely created Point72 Ventures three years ago plus Cohen Private Ventures, which he said in December would manage his majority Mets stake if the deal got done. But now, if indeed he is pulling out of the deal, it means the light at the end of the Mets’ tunnel got hit with a power failure. Again.

The Wilpons have an unfortunately well-earned reputation as Steinbrennerian meddlers (George, not Hal) without Steinbrennerian results ever since they took complete control of the Mets. Wilpon pere and fils alike have been too renowned for blocking signings and deals their baseball brain trusts have recommended strongly enough to them while signing off on signings and deals described as dubious most charitably.

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Let’s see. The New York Mets spent the winter making a few interesting signings and trades. Then, they hired and had to part with a former Met over his revealed involvement in Astrogate. Now, a hoped-for messiah planning to buy the team seems planning not to buy it over eleventh-hour shenanigans of as-yet-revealed origin. Is that so Mets, or what?