I wasn't always so interested in the nuts and bolts details of running a baseball team. I've been a Mets fan for many years, going back to the 1969 World Champions. I remember coming to an understanding toward the end of the seventies that the Mets were led by incredibly unqualified people, but I was in my late teens and early 20s during that time. I had temporarily put aside my obsession with the Mets and baseball for other, prettier obsessions. Then Frank Cashen came in as GM, and the rebuild was so successful I didn't have to spend much time thinking about what was going on off the field.
I remember as the '90s wore on and the club was much less successful, I started questioning why the Mets seemed to enjoy so little success developing their own players compared to some other teams. Even while they were enjoying some success under Bobby Valentine, it always seemed they were competing against teams that had a deeper well of talent than they did. When it all came crashing down again in 2002, I really started questioning the organizational direction the Mets were taking. Thanks to the internet, there was a lot more information available on what successful clubs were doing and the Mets weren't.
The collapse of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme and the subsequent revelations that the Mets finances were deeply impacted by the affair gave me some hope that the Wilpons would have to sell the team and perhaps the new owner might decide to change the overall management philosophy that clearly wasn't working. But, of course, Fred Wilpon was bailed out by his good friend Bud Selig and was able to hold on to the club. Sandy Alderson was brought on to lead the club, and it seemed to me that perhaps at last, the Wilpons would be forced into making structural changes to the organization that would fix some of the obvious deficiencies in the way things were run.
Fairly quickly word started leaking out that Alderson wasn't fully aware of just how bad the finances were when he took the job, and was experiencing resistance from the Wilpons to his attempts implement changes in the way the club made its decisions. It became clear, even before Alderson eventually departed, that nothing was really changing at all - there was just less money available for payroll to gloss over some of the mistakes being made.
I always maintained that the Madoff revelations and the subsequent financial fallout was the final missed opportunity for the Wilpons. If there was ever a time for them to do an honest assessment of the way they were running the club and what they needed to change, that was it. Despite the club's poor results during the years he controlled it, there's no doubt that Wilpon loves the Mets and wants the club to do great. When he took the Madoff hit, by all accounts Fred was determined to hold onto the team. If I was in Fred's place, I would have taken a hard look in the mirror and questioned everything I had done leading up to that point. I would look at clubs that enjoyed much more success than the Mets, particularly those that operated with much lower revenue, and then tried to relentlessly implement what they did to be successful.
It's not like the information is a huge secret. As a layman with no actual skin in the game, I've spent countless hours reading about this subject simply because I wanted to understand why the Mets could never seem to sustain success. I put away my skepticism of statistical analysis, which I realized had everything to do with my age and the era I grew up in, and learned about how successful teams were crunching data and taking the information gleaned from it to make better decisions. I realized the importance of maximizing the production of a farm system, which involved more than just being able to occasionally graduate some decent players to the Major League club.
I know this is water under the bridge now, but I honestly question why the Wilpons were so unwilling to take chances on methods that were working for other clubs. I don't know how you could be resistant to trying new things when you've been failing with what you've been doing for so long. They may have tried to bluff their way with the fans and the news media, but they knew what the team's books were really telling them about the long-term viability of their control of the team. But they apparently stayed opposed to allowing fresh thinking and new ideas into the organization until the bitter end.
You can't even look at the hiring of Brodie Van Wagenen - a sports agent with no baseball management experience - to be the GM as any sort of sign that the Wilpons were willing to innovate. Van Wagenen was hired because he worked well with Jeff Wilpon. Van Wagenen beefed up the analytics department a bit, but his regime didn't change the momentum of the club, unless you consider the negative effects of the Cano deal. That's the sort of momentum we obviously didn't need. I can't really fault Van Wagenen for failing to innovate much, because the Wilpons had the final say in the matter and they weren't ever going to allow real innovation happen here. They've deeply earned their enduring legacy with Mets fans by never, ever fixing what was systemically wrong with their ballclub. Soon it won't be theirs any longer, although their share of the $2+ billion sale will surely help to sooth their sense of loss.
Soon it will be time to judge Steve Cohen based on his actions rather than projecting. What little info we have up to now is quite promising. The fact that he is prepared to lose quite a bit of money in his first couple of years running the show is promising, because he's reportedly looking to invest in making the Mets run better, not just spend money on free agents.
Even this story from last week showed me something. Making sure that the seasonal employees who work at Citi Field have some cash to survive the winter won't have any real effect on the ballclub itself, but it sure helps change the atmosphere of cheapness that surrounds the Mets. There's a real opportunity to get some smart baseball minds into the organization if Cohen carries this philosophy over into his management and scouting and development.
Just today there's a report that the Cubs, owned by the billionaire Ricketts family, are laying off more than 100 employees. That's including some important people in scouting and development and on the business side. As the article points out, there's a degree of short-sightedness at work here, and a willingness on the part of some clubs to save some money now at the risk of losing some of what gave them a competitive advantage:
This is how it works in baseball. Teams talk about creating an identity, doing things a certain way, using proprietary information, finding the hidden advantages. And then, when it’s convenient, say everyone else is doing it. That is the story of Corporate America in the middle of a pandemic and a global recession. The players viewed as assets through the game’s analytics movement already know this: In the end, everyone is a number on a spreadsheet.
A smart guy like Cohen should look at folks cut loose by the Cubs and other organizations and treat it like a smorgasbord of available talent, filling up his dish with the cream of that crop. The Wilpons certainly wouldn't have taken advantage of the opportunity if they were still around, let's see what Cohen does.
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