Late last week, after a grim (yet at times objectively comical) slog of a selection process, a long-anticipated announcement was made official. No longer would a certain cash-strapped incumbent administration—one fueled by arrogance and extinguished by incompetence year after year—be in charge. Upon hearing this outcome, many relieved New Yorkers celebrated with happy abandon. And who could blame them? It’s not every day that one gets to learn that the long-beleaguered New York Mets are operating under new leadership.
“Let’s win this thing,” read the caption on a GIF tweeted out last Friday by one of those happy New Yorkers, Mets ace pitcher Noah Syndergaard, after he heard that his franchise had finally, finally been sold by its unpopular owners to an extra-deep-pocketed Mets fan, the intermittently embattled hedge fund titan Steven A. Cohen. The GIF was of Bobby Axelrod, the charismatic criminal trader played by Damian Lewis at the heart of the prestige-soapy Showtime TV series Billions. In it, “Axe” wears a dark, tight crew-neck sweater, looking and acting not much like one of the IRL guys upon whom his character is based: the nondescript, evasive, 64-year-old Cohen, whose newly successful $2.4 billion bid for the Mets (and reported $14 billion net worth) makes him one of the filthy-richest owners in all of professional sports.
When replies made it clear that the timing of Syndergaard’s tweet was a little bit confusing, given everything else going on in the world at the time, the pitcher followed up with another message on social media: “To clarify,” he wrote, “this is [a] Mets winning related tweet.”
Election-related confusion aside, this wasn’t the first time Syndergaard, like just about everyone else who has ever seen Billions, had drawn such a parallel between the actual and fictional financiers. “I couldn’t be more excited having the real life Bobby Axelrod leading the charge,” he’d already said to the New York Post a week earlier, when MLB owners approved the Mets sale in a crucial step toward the deal’s eventual completion.
Perhaps no one told Syndergaard, in the interim, that comparing his new boss to a quasi-fictional quasi-prestige-TV protagonist—particularly one whose story arc is based around various illegalities and moral implosions—might not be the best welcome wagon, however hospitably the gesture was intended or how accurately it was deployed. Or maybe someone did, and he admirably didn’t care. Or perhaps he just sensed that it wouldn’t matter to Cohen what he said.
Cohen is a guy who for years went toe-to-toe with the Securities Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s office and emerged remarkably unscathed. His shopping lists include things like “the latest priceless Picasso.” His bid for the Mets won out over other hopefuls like A-Rod and J.Lo, despite attempts by forces ranging from the owner of the Philadelphia 76ers to the Mayor of New York City to derail a deal. His first two moves as owner were swift and decisive: He reinstated all the rank-and-file stadium workers’ pre-pandemic compensation, and he cleaned house in the front office, letting go of general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and his staff.
Cohen’s life path from a precocious, crowded childhood to a rare moonshot at Mets ownership has been marked by so many big characters and odd twists and turns along the way (not to mention those various illegalities and moral implosions) that not only are one goofy player’s tweets irrelevant, they’re not even original. Cohen has heard it all before, both on domestic soil and abroad.
A few years ago, he said in a 2018 interview at the 92nd Street Y, “I was in China looking at private companies, and every CFO wanted a picture with me.” The reason? “Because they wanted to bring it to their wife and say: That’s the Billions guy,” Cohen said. With any luck—or, as has long been the case throughout Cohen’s career, with his timing—he may one day be known as the baseball guy, too.
Thirtyish years ago, Cohen was but a brash late-’80s Wall Street trader invoking the past glories of a different New York baseball team in order to scrounge up more responsibility from one of his workaday risk-averse bosses. “I’ll give you the classic line Steve gave me when, you know, I wouldn’t let him trade IBM or some other stock,” a former colleague told Vanity Fair in 2010 about a young Cohen’s early gumption. “He said to me, ‘Would you bat Mickey Mantle seventh?’ So I said, ‘I guess not,’ and changed the rules.” Cohen has been dodging and massaging and breaking and rewriting and sidestepping and loopholing and also very performatively following the rules ever since, on his way to amassing a fortune that is larger than those of the next three wealthiest MLB owners combined.
As a kid growing up among seven brothers and sisters in Great Neck on Long Island, Cohen developed a penchant for card games and a love for the patterns behind them. He frequently lingered outside a neighborhood brokerage house, watching the ticker tape in the window scroll by. In college, he took so much money from other people during poker games that it became hard for him to find anybody to play with. By 1986, Cohen was pleading the fifth during an SEC investigation into a suspiciously prescient trade made at his first employer, a rite of passage indeed, and in 1992, he started his own hedge fund, naming it SAC Capital Advisors, after himself.
The shop grew from $20 million in assets under management to more than $16 billion by 2008, and earned a reputation for being molded in the image of Cohen, who sat in the middle of the trading floor with a “Steve Cam” on his desk that broadcast his every fidget to employees. Like Cohen, the traders at SAC were brilliant, cutthroat, perhaps a little too tapped in to the flow of market information.
After years of trying to bring down SAC for suspected trading on material nonpublic tips, federal regulators—including the then-crusading district attorney Preet Bharara —were ultimately successful, sort of, in 2013. Per the terms of a settlement, SAC Capital admitted to wrongdoing, paid a $1.8 billion fine, and was barred from managing outside money. Cohen, personally, was not charged. (One SAC trader, Mathew Martoma, is still in prison, serving a nine-year term.)
Cohen unwound the old firm and launched a new fund, Point72, to trade his personal billions. In an attempt to go over-the-top with the compliance, the firm began working with Palantir to monitor employee behavior. (Recently, Point72 settled with an employee who sued over gender discrimination.) An attempt by the SEC to ban Cohen from the industry over the earlier insider trading allegations was whittled down to a two-year suspension, and in 2018, as soon as the sanction on taking outside investments was lifted, he took a whole lot of money.
“It was actually not hard,” Cohen recalled in 2018. “I only did, like, 10, 15 meetings. It was really easy. I made one trip overseas to one client, my staff did an amazing job, and we’ve raised, probably, I don’t know, $5 billion? Something like that, fairly quickly.” By this past August, Point72 was estimated to be running more money than SAC ever did.
And this wasn’t the only thing that Cohen has made sound like a cakewalk. In the same conversation, he described the early years of SAC: “It was a lot less crowded, the hedge fund industry,” he said. “There was a bull market from 1992 to the year 2000. … It was incredibly easy, and there wasn’t a lot of competition, so our returns were great.” (Bull market or not, “incredibly easy” is quite the flex.) But even Cohen couldn’t play down the process of buying the Mets, which turned out to be more hectic than he envisioned.
For a billionaire, buying a sports team, particularly one in a major market, is a lot like winning a championship. The opportunity to even compete for one comes along so rarely—once or twice in a lifetime, if you’re lucky and good—that if you can’t take advantage, you know that the stars may never align in quite the same way again. (Just ask David Einhorn.) In 2011, Cohen tried and failed to buy the L.A. Dodgers, and a year later he settled for making a small investment in the Mets: $20 million for a 4 percent stake in the team.
To look at it another way—one highly relevant to Cohen’s interests—buying a sports team is like acquiring a bespoke, immersive piece of art. If there’s anything Cohen loves as much as staring at a Bloomberg screen, it’s his art collection, which is considered one of the world’s best. He purchased a shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, a Damien Hirst work that ultimately decayed and had to be repaired. Once, he had the art dealer Bob Mnuchin—that other Steve’s dad—bid $91 million on a steel Jeff Koons balloon animal dog sculpture at an auction on his behalf. He has an eye for big, bold work, but he also has a knack for the competitive dance of procuring it. In 2006, right before Cohen was set to buy a Picasso from Steve Wynn, the Vegas magnate accidentally elbowed a hole in the work, necessitating minor surgery. (On the painting, not Wynn.) Seven years later, Cohen finally bought it.
When word came out last winter that the team’s majority owners—the annoying alliance of Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz—were thinking of selling, Cohen made his interest extremely known. By February of this year, a deal was ironed out, only to get crumpled up when Cohen learned that the Wilpons sought to maintain a worrisome level of control even after the handoff, baking in a five-year post-sale period in which they’d remain active within the organization, a truly cursed scenario to contemplate. “I gave it my best shot,” Cohen said at the time, and walked away.
A few months after the initial deal with Cohen fell apart, the Mets were back on the market this summer, and this time several competing ownership groups formed. One of them was a motley consortium of folks, led by J.Lo and A-Rod, that included Brian Urlacher and Bradley Beal. Another party was represented by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, owners of the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia 76ers. And even after it became clear that Cohen was still the front-runner to buy the team, and that he didn’t need an army of small investors in order to do so, the tabloids never stopped trying to stoke the flames of competition, suggesting that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio might use a clause in the Mets’ land lease to block new team ownership on the grounds that his history at SAC made him responsible for a felony, even if he’d never personally been convicted.
It was, ultimately, as with all things Hizzoner, a frivolous diversion, though it did yield some highlights, such as Mike Piazza weighing in with messages of support for Cohen, and also the wild, delightfully conspiratorial tone of this piece in the New York Post. By the end of last week, the deal had been approved by the city, the league, and the lawyers. Cohen, the man who already had just about everything, finally got one of the last things he still wanted.
As a Mets fan, it was an odd feeling, rooting for this man of questionable ethics to take over the franchise, but the status quo was definitely no more appealing. The Wilpons had not only lost money with Bernie Madoff, a predicament that reared its head every time the franchise sat out another free agent frenzy, but also with an even more absurd Ponzi schemer, Bayou’s Sam Israel III. The very notion of Steve Cohen being both able and willing to back up the Brink’s truck in pursuit of the best talent—at the same time that competing franchises are tightening the pandemic purse strings—may not have been noble, but it sure was enticing.
Or, should I say, is enticing. The current free agent market is loaded with talents ranging from infielder DJ LeMahieu to outfielder George Springer, from pitcher Trevor Bauer to catcher J.T. Realmuto. Last season, the Mets’ payroll was $174 million, and if Cohen wants to, he could increase that significantly. (The luxury tax threshold is $210 million.) When the deal finally went through, he hinted in a statement that he’d be looking to do just that.
Of all the things that happened during the Mets’ quest for a sale, from the failed transaction earlier this year to the revelation that Alex Rodriguez considers Jerry Reinsdorf to his “own personal rabbi,” by far the best and strangest has been Cohen’s sudden presence on Twitter. (As of Tuesday morning, he was still unverified, but promised that “We have called Twitter. They have been busy dealing with the election but promised to get on it.”) After sharing the news about the sale with a message punctuated with extreme Dad syntax, Cohen asked Mets fans if they had any requests or ideas.
Did they ever: Fans asked for ferry service from central Jersey, the revival of Old Timers’ Day, better kosher food offerings, and—in the case of one guy who let Cohen know that he’d been banned from Citi Field for tweeting derisively about one of the Wilpons—for reinstatement. The fan posted a photo of the official letter he’d received. “That’s amazing,” Cohen replied, adding that he’d look into all of it.
It is. Here’s the letter of proof. From 2016. pic.twitter.com/iPt26jT5vA— Buck Tuddrussel (@SwampMule4) November 1, 2020
For anyone who followed Cohen during the heights of his aughts notoriety, even this mild exchange was fairly mind-blowing, coming from someone who, for decades, almost never granted interviews or interacted with anyone not wearing a fleece vest. (Well, except for that one time in 1992 that he inexplicably appeared on the Spanish-language talk show Cristina with his wife, Alexandra, who publicly chastised him for still sleeping with his ex!!) When Vanity Fair profiled Cohen in 2010, the magazine made a big deal about being just the second publication to have interviewed him.
It was a far cry from this Tuesday, when Cohen was in an unfamiliar position: available for questions. Appearing in a virtual press conference with newly-back-again team president Sandy Alderson, Cohen told reporters that “I’m not in this to be mediocre; that’s just not my thing” and gracefully dodged a query about what Wilpon decisions he had disagreed with in the past. Asked whether he considers the franchise to be more of a business, like Point72, or a hobby, like art collecting, he said “I’m not trying to make money here … it’s about building something for the fans.” He admitted that if the Mets aren’t able to win a title in his first three to five years, he’d find that “slightly disappointing,” and he likely wouldn’t be alone in that assessment. Cohen has long operated in an industry that values time horizons and track records, but for the first time his every move will be open for public review. The Steve Cam has seen a lot over the years, but nothing like what’s to come.