Saturday, November 7, 2020

Seriously, Dude, It's Not the Ballpark

There was a piece today by Daniel Kaplan today in The Athletic about Steve Cohen's purchase of the Mets. My first instinct upon reading it was to dismiss it as a bit of contrariness and fluffery but, in thinking about it afterward, I thought it would serve as an excellent starting point for today's post. It was clear from the beginning of the piece that Kaplan was trying to pour some cold water on the mostly positive coverage — at least so far — of Cohen's takeover of the club.

As I noted in my update to Thursday's post, and as I'm sure you're well aware, Cohen and Sandy Alderson became official yesterday, with somewhat predictable results for Brodie Van Wagenen and his top lieutenants. Before I move on to Kaplan's article, I'd like to pause for a moment and acknowledge that, although I agree with these decisions and like the swift decisiveness displayed, I take no joy in anyone losing their job in this current economic reality. I have complicated feelings about Omar Minaya in particular, who ultimately failed but did manage to carve out one of the few Mets bright spots of the 21st century. I hope Omar and everyone who was dismissed find new opportunities for themselves.

Back to Kaplan's piece. Early on he quotes an unnamed source that Cohen will run into a lot of difficulty competing with the Yankees, who have much higher revenues than the Mets. So let's start there. Unless you're someone who refuses to acknowledge the obvious, you can't dispute that, where things stand right now, the Yankees are in a much better financial position than the Mets. That's been the case for about a quarter of a century, and it's not likely to change drastically anytime soon. If there is one consistent talking point of those who want to take a negative view on the possibility of a Mets revival, it's questioning how they can compete with the Yankees in New York.

My simple answer to this is simple. They can't. But let me ask you a question. If you were dumb enough to get into a fight with someone, and the guy was much bigger than you, stronger than you and more physically gifted in general, would you try to fight the guy by just charging into him head on? If you do, I can only hope you are masochistic enough to somehow enjoy a severe beating.

If, on the other hand, you entertain hopes of actually surviving that contest, you'll try to figure out a different strategy than trying to beat your opponent at his own game. Maybe you're a little quicker and a little smarter than your opponent, and logic tells you that you need to compete in a manner that plays to your strengths rather than his.

Judging by what he's done and said up to now, particularly hiring Sandy Alderson, I don't see much chance that Cohen is just going to throw a ton of money at the problem and try to "beat" the Yankees that way. That's good. If the Mets try to compete with the Yankees by just being a free-spending club with much lesser revenues things will go quickly downhill, and all we'll get is a replay of the Wilpons before Madoff.

Going back to our fight analogy, there's also a third alternative. While fighting your opponent on your terms rather than his is preferable, the best possible alternative is to avoid the fight completely. Here's a wild thought, what if we just decide that the largest city and metropolitan area in the whole country can support more than one successful team? What's holding the Mets back is not the success of the Yankees, but their own lack of success. It really doesn't matter if the Yankees continue to enjoy a lot of success. I always thought one of the Wilpons' biggest problems, both before and after Madoff, was not carving out their own niche and competing on their own terms. Fred and Jeff wanted to give the illusion that they were equal to the Yankees, and all it got them, using our fistfight analogy, was beatings and ridicule.

So yeah, if Cohen went hog wild and loaded up on some big names next year while ignoring the systemic problems of the Mets, they probably will succeed a little but not enough. Eventually even a billionaire will get tired of bleeding money, and the honeymoon will be over for Steve Cohen and us. On the other hand, a man who built a multi-billion dollar fortune on his own might have some different ideas that don't involve pointless pissing contests with that team in the Bronx.

Sometimes you get the feeling when you're reading something that the author started out with a point of view and only included facts and opinions that supported it. While I thought the Yankees comparison in revenues was valid, if rebuttable, this part of Kaplan's piece was just silly:

Even with a normal attendance paradigm, the team's stadium, Citi Field, has never been a great draw, and not just because the Mets have struggled on the field. "To the north of the building, you have a bay, to the south Flushing Meadows Park, to the east junkyards and then Flushing, and then to the west, working-class neighborhoods,” the finance source said. "It's hard to get to and if you look at Yankee Stadium, and where it is, three of the four wealthiest counties in the New York metropolitan area have easy access to it."

The point is that it's tough to sell out Citi Field regularly. A great team might help, but to get there quickly requires free-agent spending that likely leads to more losses.

Citi Field opened while the franchise had only begun to deal with repercussions of the Wilpons' heavy investment in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Most of the Mets teams that have called the place home have been bad. However, it's located yards away from the late, great Shea Stadium. Ugly, ancient, falling apart — it was the place to be whenever the Mets had a real competitive team. Indeed, even Citi rocked in 2015 when Yoenis Céspedes almost single-handedly turned the Mets into a must-see down the stretch of that season and throughout the playoffs.

The Mets don't need to break the bank on free-agent spending to get people back into Citi. They need to put a consistent winner in there. Then the real regret won't be the location of the ballpark, it will be the more than 15,000 seats that the current ballpark shed compared to Shea. (Thank you, Wilpons, for thinking small, as usual.) I can guarantee you, regular competing will solve attendance problems. Time and time again, free agent spending has proven to be one of the least efficient ways to build a winner. Alderson and company need to emulate teams like the Red Sox, Dodgers and even the Yankees and build a winning organization. If they do that, people will find that ballpark, I promise.

Now, that's not to say going forward that there doesn't have to be a lot of upgrades to the area adjacent to the ballpark. That was supposedly in the works until the Wilpons went cash poor. There needs to be shopping and entertainment surrounding the park. There needs to be a nice hotel in walking distance where Mets fans who live in other parts of the country can come to stay, enjoy a weekend of baseball, shopping and entertainment without getting into a cab. It's a massive opportunity which was, basically, the one thing that A-Rod's bid had going for it. Someone is going to cash in on that opportunity. I'd be shocked if, ten years down the road, the whole area around the ballpark wasn't alive with the sounds of cash registers ringing.

A final point from Mr. Kaplan's article was the idea that, if they were smart, the Mets should really consider doing a tank job in the manner that the Astros and Cubs rode back into competitiveness. The idea is that, while the fans would be angry during the consecutive 100-loss seasons required, they'd eventually come back once the team came out the other end.

Look, it's a given that baseball is slow to change but, once someone succeeds with something, others will follow suit. Tanking your way to improvement has become the tried and true method for moribund franchises to crawl back to competitiveness. Frankly, this is the path the Mets should have followed in 2009. They did somewhat of a rebuild in Alderson's early years as GM, but the Wilpons were too timid to really break it down, so they tried to have it both ways. The club was both unwatchable for a long time but weaker on the other end because of that stupid approach.

But I believe the idea that tanking is the only way forward for any club looking to turn things around is just kind of lazy and reflective, at least to me, of the relentless copycat instincts that pervade Major League Baseball.

I wouldn't argue for that approach now, because I honestly believe there is a core of players here strong enough to build into a contender. I would consider Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Pete Alonso, Dom Smith and Jeff McNeil to be vital parts of that core, and wouldn't consider trading any of them except for the most compelling of deals. There is a core of minor league prospects that, while thin, are a good nucleus of a winning system. So yeah, you could trade deGrom and the other names on the list and try to have a top-5 farm system almost immediately and a contender again in maybe 2025. You'd get some applause in some circles for your discipline in breaking it down in that manner, but I think you'd be missing a real opportunity to change the perception of the Mets much sooner.

What's going to be harder, but I think ultimately more preferable, is follow the path the Dodgers took after their club was sold. It's possible to be stronger now and still build for an even stronger future. There are decisions that need to be made this winter, which I believe will not include instant gratification by deleting a prospect pool that's already a little shallow in a blockbuster trade for a shortstop that's a free agent after this upcoming season. That strikes me as a move for a little further on in the development of this franchise if things go well.

The smart thing to do, at least to me, would be to improve the team by leveraging the large pool of available talent created by this pandemic. I see one really big signing and a lot of smaller moves. I see some patience being exercised even if that isn't always popular. I think Cohen and Alderson are going to implement a plan that makes the team more fun and competitive this season and continues to build year after year into something more. If they do this right, it won't matter what the Yankees do or where the ballpark happens to be located. If they just overreact and try to spend their way into relevance, I only see continued pain and frustration for Mets fans. I'm honestly betting on the smart approach.

So, that's the meat and potatoes of Kaplan's article. I've read a lot of good stuff from the man, but this one deserves a chuckle and a quick dismissal. He tried too hard to come up with a contrarian view of the sale, and the arguments were pretty weak and uncompelling.

Okay, I'm going to check out for today. You may have been surprised to not see me weigh in yesterday once the final sale went through and the old front office was purged. Lisa, the love of my life for 26 years, is going through some health issues. As much as I want to weigh in here, my first loyalties are to her and our two furry charges that need to be looked after. Please be patient with me if I'm a little more sporadic in this space over the next week or so. I'm sure that I'll have something to say here virtually every day, I'm just not sure I'll always have the time to say it.

Please stay safe, be well and take care. Let's go Mets!.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos


  1. A couple things

    First, best wishes to your wife for a speedy recovery back to 100%

    And, another 100% agreement here. One big signing and a couple smaller ones can get it done. A little luck like Stroman accepting the Q.O. would help as well. Let's concentrate on making this team fun to watch by improving the team defense and adding some speed and playing good fundamental baseball.

  2. Thank you for the best wishes for Lisa. I agree with your points, too


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