From the Pariah of Wall Street to the Beloved Billionaire Who Owns the New York Mets

From a New York Times story by Matt Flegenheimer and Kate Kelly headlined “Steve Cohen’s Amazing, Maddening, Money-Losing Big to Own New York”:

Around early 2020, before the New York Mets were his, Steven A. Cohen received an unexpected request: Justin Verlander, then the Houston Astros’ ace, wanted to speak with him.

The subject was not baseball.

“He was wondering about hedge fund investments,” Cohen, a hedge fund billionaire, said in an interview, wandering between practice fields in a semi-tucked golf polo at the Mets’ spring facility. “I met him through a friend. ‘Sure, I’ll help you out. I’ll help you think about it.’ Why not?”

Much about Cohen’s life had changed by then, and much more would be changing soon. Seven years earlier, he had been a financial pariah, his firm held up as an emblem of Wall Street malfeasance amid insider trading violations and nearly $2 billion in attendant fines. The stakes of this conversation — which Verlander recalled as a “kindness of his heart” gesture by Cohen with “probably pretty dumbed down” general guidance — were ostensibly smaller, destined to engender more good will than scrutiny, with Cohen primed to join Major League Baseball’s ownership ranks in short order.

But the two kept in touch. In December, Verlander became Cohen’s prized acquisition in another extravagant Mets off-season, his $43.3 million salary accounting for roughly one-eighth of the team’s record-melting 2023 payroll.

Those earning the rest have not hesitated to work their new connection, either. “There may have been other players that are interested,” the owner said, performatively coy.

And Cohen, friends say, has always relished being the man to see.

“A lot of these guys get paid well, right? And they’re looking for advice,” he said. “Kind of in my wheelhouse, right?”

People own teams for all sorts of reasons: boredom, passion, civic mission, macho flex. Images can be retouched, stories recast. Winners write history, and can rewrite it.

Entering his third season in charge, Cohen has become perhaps the most significant, contradictory, beloved, resented, limit-testing new owner in American sports.

He is at once an extreme version of a type — the munificent steward, willing to lose money in a show of how much money he’s made — and a model all his own, his tenure rocketing toward something that can feel like a referendum for the man, the Mets, their city and the sport itself.

Cohen, 66, has carried off a remarkable reversal in public standing, migrating over the past decade from a reclusive avatar of scofflaw capitalism to an avuncular Twitterer who could probably be elected Queens borough president by acclamation.

The Mets have swiftly shed their ingrained identity as lovable losers, their ownership shifting from the cost-conscious, Madoff-swindled Wilpon family to a white-collar boundary-pusher long appraised as neither lovable nor a loser.

New York has made room in its political class for a burgeoning macher, with Cohen donating prodigiously to key officials as he imagines transforming the neighborhood around Citi Field into a casino-cum-entertainment hub.

And baseball is grappling with the ramifications of Cohen’s runaway spending in the nation’s most capitalistic major league, where no salary cap constrains him and only one team thought to buy Super Bowl ad time just because it could.

“You can’t not take notice of it,” Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, told reporters in December.

“He will revolutionize this game,” Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and a close friend who sits on the Mets’ board, said, comparing Cohen to Jerry Jones, the revenue-minded Dallas Cowboys owner.

“Keep spending,” Joe Kessler, 61, a retiree from Bayside, Queens, told Cohen in January at a community event at Citi Field, where the Mets were finishing construction on the league’s largest scoreboard.

“If I spend any more,” Cohen replied, according to Kessler, nodding at rival owners’ frustrations, “they’ll find me rubbed out somewhere.”

In dozens of interviews with allies, adversaries, current and former employees and players, the Cohen rendered is by turns paradoxical and straightforward: He can be brusque and solicitous, open-minded and closed off, faithfully process-driven but seemingly convinced of his own destiny in any venture. Here is a man who has everything, except total control over his public legacy, betting that his savvy and financial muscle can bend an unfamiliar world to his whims because winners win, and what is Steve Cohen?

Those who know him say his view of subordinates can be similarly binary — morons and moneymakers, doers and duds — producing sometimes savage encounters in the workplace. Business associates have been routinely berated in front of peers, their intelligence insulted in a hail of expletives. “That’s your best idea?” he has asked his traders, peppering profanities. “Are you stupid?”

At minimum, Cohen’s overlapping roles now can produce some surface tensions in his days. He is an inveterate ticker-reader who could not stop gushing about the preseason “vibe,” an obsessive trader who recently started working from Citi Field on Thursdays so he could join team meetings a few hours after the market opens.

He is a famed bottom-line watcher outwardly unbothered by the hundreds of millions of dollars he stands to lose this season on the team, to which several executives from his hedge fund, Point72, now dedicate part of their time.

“He does a great job,” said Buck Showalter, the seen-it-all Mets manager, “of eliminating excuses.”

Even Cohen’s speaking manner betrays a certain wear-you-down relentlessness. He often begins sentences with “listen” and ends them with “right?” — a tic that conveys his wishes clearly: Hear him out and kindly agree with him.

But across nearly two hours in Port St. Lucie late last month, trailed by Christie and two communications aides, Cohen insisted that age and perspective had dulled his edges, straining to project an emotional evolution, to a point.

“I’ve mellowed,” he said. “You just get older, and things that used to bother you don’t bother you as much.”

He stopped to wish Verlander a happy 40th birthday and grinned through a vigorous shoulder massage from his star shortstop, Francisco Lindor. He razzed a staff member who wiped a seat for him (“Do I have to tip him?”) and let his Long Island show while observing a trend of A-listers in Mets gear.

“Ree-YEAHHH-na, there was a picture of her,” the son of Great Neck, N.Y., said. “Always a good sign, right?”

At times, Cohen reached for generic modesty, never mind the fans on site wearing shirts with his headshot beneath a photoshopped crown. “It’s not about me,” he said.

He allowed, more often, that it was about him at least a little.

“You know what I hear over and over again? I’ve never seen this: They come up and thank me,” Cohen said. “I’ve never seen that with owners.”

He had a theory.

“Listen,” he said. “I just think I’m new, I’m different. Right?”

The Manager-Made Lasagna

Some snapshots from Cohen’s long Mets arc can resemble any die-hard’s: a precious day at the Polo Grounds with his father, a garment manufacturer from whom Cohen has said he craved more attention as the third of eight children; slumming it with friends in the Shea Stadium upper deck, then swiping better seats as they emptied.

Other episodes were more bespoke, fantasy-camp-style indulgences to accompany Cohen’s growing fortune. For some $400,000, he acquired the baseball that squirted through Bill Buckner’s legs on the way to the Mets’ 1986 World Series title. For considerably less, presumably, he and his wife, Alex, won a charity auction around 1999 requiring Bobby Valentine, then the Mets’ manager, to prepare lasagna for 20 people at the Cohen estate in Greenwich, Conn., Valentine recalled.

And when Cohen’s young son seemed primed for batting lessons many years back, the family hired Art Shamsky, from the 1969 World Series champions, for private sessions in Central Park, where Shamsky hauled a hitting tee that often felt decorative.

“He just wanted to run after squirrels,” Shamsky said of the boy, who now works in cryptocurrency.

Cohen’s jaunt through Mets history elides his baseball trajectory some. He has said he used to pull for the Yankees, too.

“They were terrible,” he has said of the Mets’ leaner years, adding: “It was more fun to follow the Yankees.”

More recently, a little over a decade ago, there was the small matter of Cohen trying to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has described the failure as a long-term blessing with an uncomplicated lesson: “Bid more.”

Yet Cohen’s efforts were also shadowed by mushrooming scandals at his business, S.A.C. Capital.

Through the volatile, opportunity-rich 1990s and early 2000s, Cohen and his hedge fund developed a reputation for almost preternatural market timing, appearing to find the right side of every trade, with average annual returns nearing 30 percent.

Competitors spoke of Cohen the way baseball watchers assessed titans of the steroid age: Yes, he was talented. Yes, everyone hustled for an edge, often in the ethical murk. But S.A.C. could seem especially tethered to the period’s excesses, an inspiration for the legally dubious firm on the television series “Billions.”

For years, prosecutors aggressively pursued S.A.C. — “a veritable magnet for market cheaters,” they said — indicting and convicting employees found to have engaged in illegal trading. Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan at the time, eyed Cohen with particular resolve. (Bharara did not respond to requests for comment.)

Though Cohen was never personally charged, S.A.C. pleaded guilty to insider trading infractions in 2013, becoming the first large Wall Street firm in a generation to admit to criminal wrongdoing. Cohen paid a total of $1.8 billion in fines. During a mandated hiatus from managing public money, he transitioned to a “family office,” Point72, that would manage much of his personal fortune, estimated today by Forbes to exceed $17 billion.

At times, Cohen’s circle seemed to view baseball as a reputational balm. As congressional leaders scrutinized trading activity at S.A.C. in 2011, according to the 2017 book “Black Edge” by Sheelah Kolhatkar, one company emissary to Washington sought to assure Senate aides that Cohen was “civic-minded” by remarking that he was considering a stake in the Mets. (In 2012, Cohen became a minority owner.)

Publicly, Cohen has spoken little about those years. “You always go to your friends,” he said tersely in the interview.

One friend came to understand his circumstances better than most. Christie steered through his own public crisis, just after Cohen’s, over associates carrying out apparently retaliatory lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. The former governor said the dual controversies became “one of the bases of the friendship.”

“He was going through some really difficult moments,” Christie said. “You can have conversations in a way that you just can’t have with other people who haven’t experienced that kind of public scrutiny.”

Before Cohen offered him any advice, Christie recalled, he asked a question: Did you do it?

“That’s something only a friend can really ask,” Christie said. “And I said no. And he goes: ‘Well, then screw it. Hang in there and just fight through it.’”

‘Potentially Strategic Humility’

There was no shortage of luminaries at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s January inauguration celebration inside Gotham Hall in Manhattan: friends, donors, barons of real estate.

So it did not go unnoticed where Hochul beelined first, an attendee said. She wanted to see Steve Cohen.

“I didn’t notice that,” Cohen said, smirking slightly. “She’s very engaging.”

To New York politicos, the image was notable for a few reasons.

Hochul is a central figure as Cohen pushes to develop the publicly owned land around Citi Field — much of which is currently used as a parking lot — angling for one of three coveted casino licenses for the region.

Not so long ago, a prominent Democrat might have hesitated before racing toward Cohen for all the room to see.

And if Cohen’s donation history does not radiate New York liberalism — with checks to the Trump inauguration and Christie’s 2016 super PAC — he and his wife combined to contribute more than $130,000 to Hochul.

“He’s a businessman,” said John Catsimatidis, a fellow billionaire political fixture. “Tell me who’s in power, and I’ll tell you who Steve is endorsing.”

A few years back, when the Mets became available to Cohen, some New Yorkers had longer memories than others.

Bill de Blasio, the mayor then and a professed billionaire basher, made clear publicly and privately that he would prefer to nudge the sale toward a rival group that included Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez.

Jessica Ramos, a state senator from Queens, wrote a lacerating opinion essay in July 2020 (“Mets Fans Deserve Better Than Steve Cohen”) reminding locals of his legal entanglements, including a lawsuit alleging that his workplace was hostile to women. (The suit was settled in 2020 under terms that were not disclosed.)

But when Cohen-averse operatives tried to kill the deal, leaning on labor and community leaders they hoped would help, they found themselves outmaneuvered.

“Everywhere we turned, Steve Cohen had already been there,” said Peter Ragone, a longtime adviser to de Blasio. “It was like, ‘No, we already made a deal with Steve Cohen.’”

Completing the $2.4 billion sale, Cohen announced he would donate $17.5 million to small businesses hobbled by Covid-19.

Any latent resistance inside Major League Baseball likewise dissipated: Twenty-six of 30 teams approved.

Today, even Mets fans who might have grimaced at Cohen’s biography have welcomed him with a clean conscience.

“That’s like saying, ‘Are you sure you want to get on the Carpathia?’” said David Bitkower, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, invoking the British ocean liner that rescued survivors from the Titanic. “‘The captain has some tax issues.’”

The political opposition has also quieted. In the borough where, just a few years ago, progressives like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez helped scuttle a planned Amazon headquarters, lawmakers have shown little interest in taking on a billionaire who is popular with many residents.

Ramos, declining to reprise the most blistering arguments from her essay, paused recently when asked how Cohen had performed. “Are you asking the senator,” she said, “or are you asking the Mets fan?”

De Blasio commended Cohen’s “humility” in their dealings after the purchase, including his help in making Citi Field a Covid vaccination site.

“Even if it’s potentially strategic humility,” he said, “it’s still humility.”

Last year, Cohen hosted de Blasio’s successor, Mayor Eric Adams, to discuss development ideas at Citi Field, earning the attention of other prospective casino bidders. Cohen, who in 2021 gave more than $1 million to an Adams-boosting super PAC, has also visited Zero Bond, the private Manhattan club where Adams has been a regular. (Cohen’s daughter has served as the space’s curator.)

Already, the men have found occasion to collaborate. Pressured last year to lift vaccination requirements for pro athletes based in the city after Kyrie Irving, then with the Nets, refused to comply, Adams was inclined to change the policy but appeared sensitive to criticism that he was caving to one player. Cohen was positioned to help them both: The mayor announced the ban’s end not at the Nets’ home arena but at Citi Field — where, as it happened, several unvaccinated Mets would have been sidelined, too.

“Cohen is the de facto king of New York,” said Neal Kwatra, a veteran political strategist, before sizing up the owner’s former tormentor. “Bharara is doing podcasts.”

Told of the remark, Cohen smiled.

“It’s funny,” he said, “how the world turns.”

Uncle Steve and Tía Alex

Of all the Mets’ throwback indignities — late-season collapses, less-than-amazin’ talent, little-sibling status in its city — the Bobby Bonilla contract stands apart.

Every July 1, Bonilla, 60, who last played in 2001, collects a seven-figure check. Rather than pay out the remaining $5.9 million on Bonilla’s contract, the Mets agreed to send him nearly $1.2 million annually from 2011 through 2035, the sort of maneuver that became synonymous with the franchise’s mismanagement and small-time wheeler dealing.

Cohen sees it differently — or, at least, sees himself differently. Since taking over, he has invited Bonilla to return for a ceremonial check handoff, a would-be visual both organizationally self-effacing and personally swaggering in its message: These Mets are good for the money.

In ways large and small, Cohen’s functionally unlimited resources have rewired more than a half-century of Mets self-perception, even if last year, like so many before, ended in disappointment: a quick playoff exit after a 101-win season. (Some fans also cite a devastating preseason injury this month to the standout closer Edwin Díaz, who crumpled during a postgame celebration at the World Baseball Classic, as evidence that the team’s hard-luck fate persists.)

The most conspicuous shift has been in free-agent dollars. The team’s projected 2023 payroll is around $370 million, by far the highest ever in the sport. That is before an expected luxury tax bill of roughly $100 million, another record. The Yankees, the next closest team in total player outlay for 2023, are some $160 million behind.

Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner in his second season with the team, said he did not initially expect New York to be his destination. Then he spoke to Cohen.

“Steve at one point said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to win and we’re going to do whatever it takes,’” he said. “I said, ‘Whatever it takes?’ He sat back here and said, ‘Whatever it takes.’”

Brandon Nimmo, the outfielder with a new $162 million contract, said Cohen defaults to a four-word refrain whenever Nimmo mentions his impervious spending: “Brandon, it’s just money.”

To former business associates, Cohen’s template is familiar: outsize compensation and clear expectations.

“He was flexible on signing bonuses,” Nick Tiller, who spent 12 years working for Cohen, said of his contract negotiations.

Cohen has said he considers the free-agent splurging a temporary measure while the team rebuilds its farm system, hoping that future off-seasons will prove a little less interesting.

This has not dissuaded fans from calling him Uncle Steve, the successor to a New York original.

“I would compare him to Steinbrenner,” said Richard Koshel, 81, a former Brooklynite now living in Florida who was visiting the spring facility in a Tom Seaver shirt. “Only he has more money.”

The agent Scott Boras has floated the nickname Steve Kong. Cohen does not approve (“wasn’t even clever”); vendors printed shirts where he hangs from the Empire State Building, anyway.

Amassing high-end assets has been something of a pastime for Cohen, a noted art collector. Purchases have included works by Monet and Manet; Damien Hirst’s shark submerged in a formaldehyde tank; and Picasso’s “Le Rêve,” for more than $150 million, even after the prior owner, Steve Wynn, put his elbow through it.

But Cohen rejects that the Mets are a vanity project, as even many admirers suspect, framing his aims (not entirely convincingly) as entirely altruistic: “I can make millions of people happy.”

One popular change came last August when Cohen revived Old-Timers’ Day, dormant since 1994. He walked the clubhouse beforehand among his guests.

“He just came in and grabbed a chair and started talking,” said Dwight Gooden, the electric and troubled 1980s Mets ace, who had been sitting with his former teammates Keith Hernandez and Ray Knight. “One of the guys.”

Players and staff members have also credited Cohen’s wife with improving ballpark morale. The daughter of a rabid nonagenarian Mets follower, Alex Cohen is known to patrol the pregame promenade handing strangers better tickets. Fans call her Tía Alex, at her social media suggestion, in a nod to her Puerto Rican heritage.

She has given her number to the mothers of younger Mets newcomers, lest they worry about their sons. She helped design a family room so appealing, players say — with toddler-sized toilet seats and a computer area for distractible adolescents — that children prefer it to the game. She has driven a golf cart through the parking lot to greet tailgaters, once dispatching staff to help a man who neglected an essential utensil.

“She’s like, ‘How are you going flip those burgers?’” said Sue Lucchi, the senior vice president of ballpark operations. “She made a phone call and here comes somebody coming out to the parking lot with a spatula.”

Using language often applied to political spouses, Steve Cohen called his wife “the secret weapon,” attaching a request as she stood within earshot beside a practice field, near enough to abide his bit.

“Listen, do me a favor,” he deadpanned. “The article is about me, not her.”

“He’s very particular about that,” she said.

A Tax Named Just for Him

The provision in last year’s collective bargaining agreement was not subtle: a new luxury tax threshold, nicknamed the Cohen Tax, intended to discourage unbridled spending.

Cohen took it personally — as a point of pride. “It’s an honor,” he told Nimmo, according to the outfielder. “Wouldn’t you want a tax named after you?”

For other clubs, the world Cohen has created, or at least accelerated, can be difficult to explain to fans, who wonder why their rich-but-not-Cohen-rich owners cannot afford better players.

“Every team has a budget,” John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, told Boston Sports Journal via email last month, with a parenthetical caveat in the middle: “(maybe not the Mets).”

In person, Cohen said other owners had been cordial, noting that he had hosted some for introductory dinners. “Small-market clubs,” he said, “big-market clubs.”

But then, most owners do not oversee expansive hedge funds.

Cohen is adamant, if vague, about the value the Mets derive from this. The analytics department, expanded fivefold since he bought the team, has been aided by a Point72 data executive. Cohen’s chief technology officer and head of human resources have assumed equivalent responsibilities with the team. He talks up the “risk-taking mentality” that hedge fund thinking imposes on a risk-averse sport.

Though Cohen has said he dissects his losses more than his wins in business, he is quick to interrogate baseball decisions that turn out well, according to Billy Eppler, the team’s general manager: “Did this happen because we were lucky,” Cohen has asked, “or because we had a good process?”

As an executive, Cohen has rarely been known to spare the feelings or calendars of business subordinates, filling weekends with calls and summoning charges to his Connecticut home for 20-minute breakfast meetings in the name of efficiency. “I’ve got to eat,” he has reasoned.

At S.A.C., a desk-side “Steve cam” transmitted his daily happenings to others in the operation. Details as granular as the thermostat setting have captured his interest. (Cohen has been said to prefer a temperature around 68 degrees for optimal productivity.)

With the Mets, Cohen seemed to recognize that a different approach would be required.

Team officials insist Cohen does not dictate day-to-day personnel decisions like a Steinbrenner or the Cowboys’ Jones, though he has engaged directly with agents like Boras on major deals. (The team’s brief agreement with Carlos Correa, waylaid by a physical, was hashed out in a back-and-forth session with Boras while Cohen was in Hawaii.)

While he texts regularly with some players and has hosted many for dinner, Cohen said twice in the interview that he was sensitive to appearing “invasive.”

Lindor, the shortstop, said Cohen initially asked how often he should show his face. “As a new owner, should he be around every single day?” Lindor said. “Should he not be visible?”

Cohen has also pulled back some since a Twitter-adventurous first year as owner, calling the site a “cesspool.” As the team slumped in August 2021, he memorably vented that it was “hard to understand how professional hitters can be this unproductive.”

When Cohen has gone quieter, some players have gone to him. As he struggled in his first Mets season, Lindor said he turned to his boss for counsel.

Life is long, Cohen suggested. Time passes.

“It’s just, ‘Hey, I have bad days, too,’” Lindor remembered. “‘If people judged me based on what I did every single day, you know, I would be probably one of the worst guys in the world.’”

Matt Flegenheimer is a reporter covering national politics. He started at The Times in 2011 on the Metro desk covering transit, City Hall and campaigns.

Kate Kelly covers money, influence, and policy as a correspondent in the Washington bureau of the Times. Before that, she spent twenty years covering Wall Street deals, key players and their intersection with politics. She is the author of three books, including “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh.”


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