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Why Steve Cohen is good for baseball

The rare situation where the richest guy in the room may have the moral high ground

Hong Kong Dollar, Chinese Yuan and US Dollar Banknotes As Currency Peg Intervention From HKMA Continues Into Third Day

According to Investopedia—which seems like the perfect source for our times—New York Mets owner Steve Cohen has a net worth of roughly $17.4 billion. This places him just inside the top 50 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans.

Right now, the Metropolitans have a projected 2023 payroll of $376 million (per FanGraphs). To put that number in context, it is:

$322 million more than the bottom-feeding Oakland Athletics

$225 million more than YOUR Minnesota Twins

$105 million more than the next-closest New York Yankees

Florida Supercon 2014
Not actually Steve Cohen—but basically Steve Cohen
Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

At first glance, this reeks of baseball marketshare and personal wealth entitlement. Cohen is making a mockery of the national pastime and must be stopped at once, right? Wrong. Okay, maybe right—but Cohen is actually exposing MLB’s under-the-table ownership collusion in a way that may actually be good for the sport in the long run: by showing just how much a workable salary cap (or floor) is needed.

A few years ago, I wrote that MLB’s luxury tax might actually be working. I was wrong. Though the financial penalty—ultimately shared with the rest of the league—has, at times, motivated some big spenders to take an offseason off to reset their pay-in amount, it has done little to stabilize baseball’s financial playing field. Why? Well, I used to blame the teams on top of the totem—but now I put more of the onus on the smallest pillars.

There is quite clearly a group of MLB owners that will not spend to improve their franchises even when other teams in the league are literally giving them money to do so. These owners may not wear smoking jackets while sipping bourbon and puffing on cigars in a secret sub-basement (although would you really put it past them?), but they are colluding all the same.

Then, of course, you have Twins ownership—and those of a similar ilk—sort of “caught in the middle”. These owners at least do something with the money they earn or are given, yet there is never much incentive—intrinsic or extrinsic—to push beyond 51% of annual gain from a strictly business perspective. So, some good players are signed but transcendent talents (coughCarlosCorreacough) are largely left for the experienced anglers.

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox
Inevitably some team’s airport security will poke and prod C-4 enough to deem him worthy—and it turned out to be the Twins—lol.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

(Update: although the luxury tax may have contributed in a small way to Correa’s return to the Twins Territory, it took a metal plate in his leg and two clubs passing on him for it to happen—not exactly a grand victory for parity in the long run.)

Recently, I admitted that the NFL has passed MLB on my favorite-sport perch. Besides the reasons in that article, another is the parity in the former and the lack of it in the latter. This is because football has a salary cap that works and baseball has a luxury tax that is a joke.

As much as I hate to let the fattest financial cats off the hook, they are not the problem right now. In the inverse of the classic line: “hate the game—not the player.” Baseball’s biggest competitive balance issue stems from a cadre of owners unwilling to invest the profits they are often literally handed and absolutely no system in place to force it upon them.

So, when the New York NL club comes to Target Field in ‘23, I’ll step right up and greet the Mets. Steven Cohen seems farcical—but his flaunting of MLB’s salary structure may be the impetus for real change. Perhaps enough to get baseball back atop my sporting pastimes.