Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Savor the Moment

The Mets earning a playoff berth was special. Make sure you enjoy it.

When the Mets beat the Brewers to clinch a playoff spot last night, it affected me more deeply than I expected. After all, despite their stumble against the Cubs last week, I've known the Mets were playoff-bound for quite some time. But I shouldn't have taken for granted the meaning of just earning a playoff spot when your team has only accomplished that feat 9 times in the previous 60 seasons. Therefore, I will ignore anyone who tries to crash this party and put a damper on the significance of last night's achievement.

Maybe it's a little petty of me, but I couldn't help but take a little extra satisfaction that this moment happened in Milwaukee. As Gary Cohen mentioned on the telecast last night, the Mets have fared horrendously in that city in recent years. But it's more than that. I couldn't help but hope that Brewers' owner Mark Attanasio attended the game last night and took great displeasure in the result. Not so fun when someone else is denying you something you want, right, Mark?

But, my pettiness aside, last night was special. Max Scherzer comes back and gets his 200th career win in dominating fashion. Pete Alonso hit an absolute bomb of a home run. The Mets beat an ace pitcher in Corbin Burnes. They played an excellent game as a team last night. Yes, the Braves are still on the Mets' heels, and Atlanta is playing the Nationals, who have essentially packed in their season. Nonetheless, last night's achievement really matters. If you run into anyone trying to pour cold water over the good feelings, in person or in the media, freaking ignore them.

Yes, there is still work to be done. I really want the Mets to finish ahead of the Braves. The Mets have only won the NL East six times in 60 seasons. That's an insanely low number. Almost by itself, that number is an indictment of the futility of the Wilpon years. So when I choose to allow myself the right to feel good about making the playoffs, that's not to say that I won't feel much, much better if the Mets manage to take the division. The next time the Mets win the division, whether this season or in the future, will be really special to me in a way that probably only long-time fans could understand.

But ending the playoff drought is a huge achievement. One of the hardest things to do in sports is to successfully perform a U-turn from being a perennial loser to a real contender. It takes more than just spending money (although that certainly helps, no doubt) to change the collective mindset of an organization where mediocracy is an acceptable outcome, and performing horribly when your team needs you the most doesn't leave you "devastated."

Whatever happens in the Mets' last 13 games, I take great pleasure in the way that Steve Cohen has turned this organization around in a relatively short time, even despite some first-year stumbles. Sports Illustrated had a piece up on their site by Stephanie Apstein last week that offered a decent summary of the positive changes to the Mets organization under Cohen. Not that the owner himself was impressed. In reply to a tweet, Cohen dismissed the article as "a lazy article" that he characterized as a "cut and paste." Personally, I rolled my eyes a few times at some of the usual cheap shots that worked their way into the piece, but overall I thought it was a useful history of the past couple of years, with some further lookbacks at the woeful Wilpon regime.

For those unfamiliar with the timeline of the Wilpon era, Fred Wilpon first showed up as a 1% partner in 1980, when the Payson family sold the club to publishing company Doubleday & Co. That company was sold to a German corporation in 1986, which, in turn, sold the Mets to Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday after the 1986 championship season. Although they were 50-50 partners, Doubleday and Wilpon didn't get along. In 2002, Wilpon finally took full control of the Mets by buying out Nelson Doubleday. The Mets went without a championship from the time Wilpon became an equal partner with Doubleday after the 1986 season through the present day.

Fred Wilpon controlled the Mets for 34 seasons, from 1987-2020. Besides the dearth of championships, there was an awful lot of losing going on. 18 of those 34 seasons featured losing records. 4 of the winning seasons came at the beginning of that stretch as the 1980s dynasty slowly winded down.

It gets worse if you just look at the years from 2002-2020 when Wilpon had sole ownership of the club. Over 19 seasons, the Mets went 1458-1516. They went to the playoffs only 5 times. They finished below .500 12 times, including 4 seasons with 90 or more losses. Worst of all, there was an accurate perception around baseball that the Mets were a poorly-run organization that wasn't willing to do the hard work of turning things around by addressing the overall lack of professionalism. This was compounded when the Madoff scandal broke and took away the Wilpons' primary source of cash.

Because Fred Wilpon was well-regarded by the other owners and a friend of then-commissioner Bud Selig, he was given substantial loans from MLB to prop up his ownership of the Mets. This delayed the eventual sale of the club by years. Even with the loans, Fred had to pinch pennies to pay the bills. Not only was the club poorly run, but it was one of the worst-paying organizations in MLB. When Steve Cohen and newly-appointed team president Sandy Alderson took over in November 2020, they were handed the keys to the baseball equivalent of a poorly-maintained, rusting 20-year-old sedan.

Apstein documents how one of Cohen's first moves was to take Alderson's advice and raise the salaries of most Met employees. While this didn't have the pronounced P.R. effect with fans that spending more on players' salaried did, it was crucial to ensuring the Mets organization would become attractive in recruiting the most talented people out there and retaining the ones they already have:
The team commissioned an industry-wide study in late 2020 and quickly realized Alderson's suspicions were correct. The Mets decline to speak specifically about figures, but one person familiar with the outcome says that by the following spring, "the overwhelming majority" of employees had received a salary bump. Another person says, "I would say more than 50% of our player development staff significantly—significantly—got an increase that got them on the scale where they should be for their job title." A third person says he knows of someone whose pay jumped 100%. Alderson refuses to take credit for the increases but says several people told him the raise had been 'life-changing." 
Perhaps obviously, it also improved morale. "Lots of people are willing to do whatever it takes, including work for nothing or for a small amount to get their foot in the door," Alderson says. "But eventually it wears off. Eventually it becomes a job. A job with a certain amount of cachet, but you can’t eat cachet and you can't support a family on cachet. So at some point you owe it to your employees. If you're going to demand excellence, then you have to be prepared to acknowledge it."

Paying good wages matters. Even if you have solid people at the top running the club, you're not going to succeed without the right people in place to do the work. Cohen has also beefed up hiring in certain areas, with the analytics department in particular benefitting. Scouting and player development are other areas of focus. What this article documents is significant far beyond the success the Mets are enjoying on the field in 2022. There truly is an infrastructure being built that should help the club achieve Cohen's stated goal of fielding a competitive team year in and year out.

I suspect what irked Steve Cohen about the piece was all the rehashing of his history in ruthlessly building the fortune that allows him to be "Uncle Steve" to some Mets fans. I've never positioned myself as a defender of the billionaire class and have no desire to start now. Once the Mets went up for sale, it was inevitable that the new owner would either be a very wealthy person, a group that included very wealthy people, or a corporation. There are no choirboys and girls in that group. My hopes for the owner were essentially answered by Cohen's purchase because I only cared about having someone in that position that would demand more from the club and give his front office what they needed to answer that demand.

Steve Cohen isn't a perfect person, and he's not my uncle. But he's a hell of a good owner. Cohen stands in such stark contrast to the Fred and Jeff puppet show that preceded him, and that's what really matters to fans like myself. I'm glad that Steve Cohen was in that locker room last night celebrating what his club accomplished. He's given the Mets exactly what was needed, and he deserved to bask in the glory of it all.

And thanks to Sandy Alderson, too. Sandy had a tough job as GM under the Wilpons. Still, he made some missteps in those years. Sandy deserves quite a lot of the blame for hiring Mickey Callaway when even a moderately rigorous vetting process would have stopped any sane man from making that hire. Then, upon his return as team President, Alderson compounded that error by sanctioning a pursuit of Trevor Bauer, who already had about a zillion red flags about his attitude towards women. For all of his obvious intelligence, Sandy seems quite tone-deaf to how things have changed over the last few decades in what's acceptable in the treatment of women in baseball.

But I still feel thankful that Alderson came back and made Steve Cohen's bid to buy the Mets more palatable to the bunch of stiffs who run MLB. And I appreciate the professionalism that Alderson sought to instill in the organization upon his return, as documented in the article cited above and in other sources. Although it did feature quite a bit of the tired, oft-repeated same-old dirt on the Mets and Cohen, I couldn't help but feel even better about the Mets beyond this season after reading Ms. Apstein's article.

Being a long-time Mets fan makes it hard to believe that going to the playoffs is anything more than a once- or twice-a-decade unicorn season. But the Mets remaining as a contender year in and year out seems real to me at this point. If playing meaningful games just about every September becomes something that we Mets fans come to take for granted, that's fine by me. We've definitely earned that.

Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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