Mets, Steve Cohen can’t buy rings but can buy relevance — and that’s worth a lot

On the day in March when Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association settled on a new collective bargaining agreement, New York and national reporters, huddled in the lobby of the league offices in midtown Manhattan, scrambled to book travel. Spring training, indefinitely delayed by the lockout, was mere hours from opening, and nearly everyone wanted to be in Port St. Lucie, Florida: spring home of the New York Mets.

Months before, ahead of a certain work stoppage — the owners did, indeed, lock out the players as soon as the previous CBA expired — the Mets had emphatically debuted a new era. The year before, the team had been purchased for a record price by a billionaire who made the other billionaires look like mere multimillionaires. The hope was that Steve Cohen would be different from the Wilpon family, who for two decades were synonymous with the team’s ineptitude and financial limitations.

Cohen has turned out to be different from anything MLB has seen before.

A 2021-22 offseason spending spree generated significant interest in the new New York Mets. Media descended on their spring training camp as quickly as possible, following Cohen around the facility as he jovially greeted employees and joked about how unfazed — and, in fact, flattered — he was by the new CBA’s targeted attempt to curtail what other MLB owners feared would be a uniquely aggressive approach to payroll in Queens.

Nine months later, it looks like the vastness of last winter was Cohen merely testing the waters. This time around, he smelled blood and acted accordingly. We’re not even into the new year, but it’s already eminently clear that no matter how you approach it, the story of this offseason again starts and ends in New York. Once again, despite a Superman-sized coronation in the Bronx, the Mets are challenging the Yankees for “Main Character of MLB” status. And Cohen himself has emerged as a standalone hero to Mets faithful and a villain for the other 29 fan bases.

Sure, flags fly forever — as dust-collecting reminders of greatness come and gone. Relevance, however, is real-time glory. It’s fickle and fleeting if you don’t work to sustain it. But in some ways, doesn’t that make it all the sweeter?

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The heady 24 hours of baseball-Christmas-come-early in New York started at 10 am ET Tuesday in the news conference room at Citi Field, as the reigning American League Cy Young award winner, Justin Verlander, donned a Mets uniform for the first time and considered what gave him the confidence to come to Queens as a man on a mission to collect more rings.

“Steve,” he said simply, referencing Cohen.

Exactly a day later, Derek Jeter watched from the end of the dais as reigning AL MVP Aaron Judge was introduced not just as a Yankee for life but also as the 16th captain of the historic franchise.

“There’s a lot of unfinished business here,” Judge said of the city.

In between, a bombshell blew both of those significant but largely ceremonial developments out of the water. Carlos Correa — whose introductory news conference in San Francisco had been suspiciously postponed after the team reportedly flagged a medical concern in his physical — was not going to be a Giant after all. He is going to be a New York Met.

The rapid unraveling and reestablishing of a $300 million deal to take a superstar from being the central pillar of a careful franchise looking to restart spending and instead make him the final piece in an indulgent effort to buy unbeatable respectability by a team that had been the butt of the joke — not to mention, moving him across the country — is a wild tale worth engaging with fully. But in short: The Giants stalled, Correa’s agent, Scott Boras, gave them a deadline to commit, they failed to meet it, and Cohen swooped.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning (even wee-er on the West Coast), the Mets and Correa agreed to a 12-year, $315 million deal to have him play third base while his friend, countryman and fellow $300-plus million man Francisco Lindor stays at short. For the Giants, this represents a stunning failure of an offseason that started with sky-high (or, at least, 6-foot-7) hopes and — from the outside, anyway — looks like a red flag for future free agents. For the Mets and Cohen, it’s a coup and the coup de grâce of an offseason already notable for historic spending.

Much of Cohen’s spending had been to retain or rebuild the 101-win 2022 team. The Mets re-signed closer Edwin Diaz, outfielder Brandon Nimmo and reliever Adam Ottavino. Verlander takes over Jacob deGrom’s spot as Max Scherzer’s co-ace, while Kodai Senga and José Quintana replace Chris Bassit and Tajuan Walker in the middle of the rotation. All of that, plus reliever David Robertson and catcher Omar Narváez, put the Mets’ payroll well over the highest competitive balance threshold before the Correa deal. So what’s another $26.25 million in average annual value?

Correa, the kind of cornerstone player who was supposed to reverse the fortunes in San Francisco, is the addition to a stacked lineup that no one saw coming. No one, that is, except Cohen, who told the New York Post, “We needed one more thing, and this is it.”

The cherry on top of a multi-scoop sundae assembled by a hungry kid who got hold of a credit card will push the Mets’ 2023 payroll to around $384 million, the highest in baseball history. Add the taxes accrued by the different CBT tiers, and the total outlay, according to Spotrac, it is around $500 millionalmost $200 million more than the Yankees, who have the next largest bill.

We’ll see that number a lot over the next 11 months, but beyond the newsworthiness and sticker shock, let’s consider why it matters. It’s an important reminder of why the union fought so hard during negotiations this past year to keep what is often considered a soft cap from hardening. It’s a stark testament to how a baseball-minded billionaire — Verlander noted approvingly that Cohen does not view the team as an investment — can reshape the landscape of the league on a whim. It’s the source of some Mets fans’ existential crisis as they reckon with their new role rooting for Goliath.

But also: Despite what they might say, you can’t buy rings. You can only buy odds and expectations. And relevance.

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“The longer I’ve played this game, the more I realized talent isn’t everything. The playoffs are a crapshoot,” Verlander, a man who won a world championship a month and a half ago, said Tuesday. “This is a funny game.”

Maybe not “ha ha” funny, but Yankees manager Aaron Boone did guffaw just a bit when asked Wednesday on the YES broadcast of Judge’s news conference whether this re-signing closed the gap with the Houston Astros — who eliminated a 99-win Yankees team already led by Judge before storming to a World Series victory.

The Yankees outbid the Giants (who else?) in offering Judge a nine-year, $360 million contract, making him the highest paid position player on an annual basis in baseball history. Boone replied that he “love[s] where we’re at on paper right now, but it’s December.”

Given their druthers, baseball teams would rather you talk about them in October or early November. Fans would prefer that, too. The Yankees are proof that high payrolls and promising regular seasons that don’t end in parades get old after a while. Frustration mounts, and resentment towards the team’s architects festers.

But to be the darlings of December, to get your guy and their guy, too, to host the news conferences instead of leaking reports about second-place offers, to be the recipient of antipathy from 29 fan bases and the subject of glowing articles — that’s pretty good as far as guarantees go. That’ll make the media come to your camp and the crowds show up on Opening Day.

Baseball is a long season. It helps to have an overabundance of hope at the outset.

Shortly before news that Correa was going to the Giants broke last week, there were reports that the Mets might make an 11th-hour offer. For a few hours, Twitter had a field day. This Cohen guy was a dream come true who would stop at nothing to turn the Mets into a private All-Star team just to see his fans smile.

I and many others thought it was just a negotiation ploy. Cohen would remain a recurring character on baseball Twitter because he is a singular extreme and because he is occasionally online. But c’mon, he’s not a fairy god uncle or a boogeyman or actually made of money.

And then this?

Mets fans woke up Wednesday morning to find that the sports world was talking about how good it must be to be them. Next summer, there will be no better baseball city than New York. Pump fists if it all works out, and point fingers if it doesn’t.

For now, though, just enjoy it: This is the fun part.

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