In the Deal to Sell the Mets, a Snag Fits a Familiar Pattern
[Update: M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday that he did not expect the sale of the Mets to Steve Cohen would be completed.]
For years now, fans and followers of the Mets — and even residents of the New York region with no interest in baseball — have grown accustomed to seeing team agreements that seemed like sure things change significantly at the last minute.
So when word began to circulate on Tuesday night that a deal to sell the team to Steve Cohen, a billionaire hedge fund owner, was in danger of collapsing, there was a certain familiarity to the reports.
Cohen, who already owns a small stake in the team, has been negotiating with the Wilpon family, which controls the Mets, to acquire 80 percent of the team in a deal that would value the franchise at around $2.5 billion.
According to three people who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, the deal was moving toward a conclusion when it hit a snag. The dispute centered on the Wilpon family’s desire to retain control of the team after surrendering majority ownership, as well as on the schedule of payments Cohen would make, according to two of the people.
In December, when the Mets announced that the sale was being negotiated, they said Cohen had agreed to allow Fred Wilpon, the managing general partner, and his son, Jeff, the team’s chief operating officer, to keep their titles for the next five years, though the expectation, at least for Cohen, was that the roles would be largely ceremonial.
Despite the recent snag, the people cautioned that the deal could still go through. While the dispute is very real, they said, both sides could also be jockeying to gain leverage in a final deal.
When asked if the deal was in trouble, the Mets released a statement that cited “a mutual nondisclosure agreement” and declined to comment.
Jonathan Gasthalter, a spokesman for Cohen, also declined to comment.
Cohen, the owner of Point72 Asset Management, has been a minority owner of the Mets since 2012 and controls 8 percent of the team.
Mets fans largely reacted positively to news that the team could be sold. They have complained for years about the fact that the team plays in the country’s largest market yet operates with a payroll more befitting a mid-market franchise. There have been on field-successes under the Wilpons. Most notably, the team won the World Series in 1986 when the family owned a minority stake, and later reached two others. But in the 33 seasons since the family gained a 50 percent stake (they became controlling owners in 2002), the Mets have made the playoffs just six times.
During that time, the Wilpons have earned a reputation for requesting last-minute changes favorable to them in negotiations with their own partners, local government officials and even players they have tried to lure to the franchise. Just when a deal appears to be done and it is time to shake hands, the Wilpons reach for a little more.
It is a tactic common in real estate development, the business in which Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, his brother-in-law, made their fortune together.
In 2002, during the final weeks before the Wilpon family took full control of the team from their original partner, Nelson Doubleday, the deal descended into a legal dispute, with each side accusing the other of bad faith and changing apparently settled terms of the deal.
In 2011, the Wilpons went so far as to announce a pending sale of a significant share of the team to David Einhorn, a billionaire hedge fund manager like Cohen, but then backtracked four months later. The Wilpons instead decided to sell smaller stakes in the team, one of which Cohen bought.
Einhorn said afterward that the Wilpons had negotiated in bad faith. “I received a new round of comments on our definitive agreement,” he said. “I was very surprised to see that many of the provisions of the deal, that were in place since May, had been changed.”
The Mets disputed Einhorn’s assertions, saying the deal fell through because he expected to be preapproved by Major League Baseball as the team’s future controlling owner — a guarantee that the Wilpons insisted would be forbidden by M.L.B.
A deal with public officials in New York to build a minor league ballpark at Coney Island in the early 2000s almost fell apart in the final stages when the Mets tried to change the way attendance would be counted, city officials said at the time.
The Mets are also known for making last-minute demands in negotiations for players.
A trade for Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez in 2015 was killed after the Mets’ medical review deemed Gomez a risk because of a hip problem, a claim disputed by the Brewers and Gomez’s agent. A Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report at the time said the Mets had backed out of the deal after the Brewers balked at their trade partner’s request for more money to be included.
Jae Weong Seo, who played for the Mets in the early 2000s, was forced to accept a reduced contract after the team said its medical staff had found irregularities in tests.
The deal with Cohen, according to about a dozen people who are directly involved with the Mets and the Wilpon family, has been driven by a desire to cash out by some family members who have concerns about the direction of the franchise, which is carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, if it were to be controlled primarily by Jeff Wilpon once his father and uncle step aside.
The Mets have endured some turmoil since the sale negotiations were first announced. The team parted ways with Manager Carlos Beltran last month — less than three months after hiring him — because M.L.B.’s scathing report on the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal named Beltran as one of the players who cheated.
An initial clue about a rift between the Wilpons and Cohen surfaced a few days later, when the team announced the hiring of Luis Rojas as the manager. Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen said Cohen had not been consulted on the choice.
Now, as pitchers and catchers prepare to report for spring training on Monday at the Mets’ complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., it is unclear whether Cohen will ever have a say in team-related matters.
Kate Kelly contributed reporting.