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Big budget, big talent: Can the Mets take ownership of New York from the Yankees?

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Billy Eppler, the New York Mets general manager of 4 1/2 months, thinks I’m trying to bait him into tabloid fodder.

We’re sitting behind home plate, along with a smattering of front office staff and beat writers, watching an intrasquad game at the Mets’ Port St. Lucie, Florida, complex. Carlos Carrasco, who was acquired in a trade alongside Francisco Lindor ahead of the 2021 season, versus Chris Bassitt, picked up in the A’s fire sale this offseason.

I tell him that a week ago I was on the other side of Florida to see the New York Yankees, where reporters pressed chairman Hal Steinbrenner on whether he felt pressure to spend more on payroll to keep up with the Mets.

“To Hal?” Eppler clarifies with some incredulity.

That’s right; because people say the Mets are setting the pace for sports in New York City these days.

“I’m not starting that,” Eppler says with a laugh. “I’m not even biting on that.”

OK, maybe he was smart to sidestep any explicit rivalry-making so soon into his career with the Mets, but it wasn’t intended as a trap. Eppler spent years in the Yankees front office, rising to assistant GM during a time when they assured themselves playoff berths by simply outspending the competition year in and year out. For 15 straight seasons from 1999-2013, the Yankees fielded the highest payroll, winning three World Series, losing two more and missing the postseason only twice.

In 2015, Eppler’s last season in the Bronx, Hal’s Yankees outspent the Mets by more than $100 million. But now, Eppler returns to a New York sports landscape that has a new titan at the ownership level. The 2022 Mets, if all goes according to plan, are trying to be the New Yankees.

New York Mets owner Steve Cohen attends a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site at Citi Field,  the home of the Mets, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
New York Mets owner Steve Cohen attends a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site at Citi Field, the home of the Mets, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

An owner willing to spend to win

“First off, it starts with Steve Cohen.”

That’s Max Scherzer — bonafide ace, World Series champion, and the kind of guy who makes a whole clubhouse more competitive. And for as much as he knows about how baseball looks from atop the mound, he also has one of the best 30,000-foot views of the game of any player after taking on a central role in collective bargaining this offseason. Ask him what he likes about this team, and he knows to go right to the top.

In 2020, the Mets ranked 12th in payroll. Behind the Cincinnati Reds. They hadn’t won a postseason game since 2015. But that fall, hedge-fund billionaire Cohen bought the team from the Wilpon family that had long since become a punchline and a punching bag for frustrated fans.

By opening day, they’d added 27-year-old superstar shortstop Lindor and signed him to a $341 million,10-year extension. Their payroll was third in baseball, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees. But inking that deal on the eve of the season marked the highpoint of a summer that unraveled from there — for Lindor and the Mets. After spending 114 days in first place, the team plummeted, eventually missing the postseason entirely.

But if 2021 proved that you can’t guarantee success by spending money, this offseason proved that won’t stop Cohen from trying.

A GM search that initially looked like the latest episode in the long-running errors of occasionally comedic nature emanating from Queens led them to the eminently reasonable and respectable choice of Eppler, coming off a short stint with a talent agency after five ineffective years with the Angels. He then hired the beloved Buck Showalter, who was managing the Yankees before many of the league’s players were even alive.

And while some big-market teams seemed content to wait out the pre-lockout free-agent frenzy, the Mets splurged. In a matter of days, Cohen committed a combined $254.5 million to Starling Marte, Mark Canha, Eduardo Esocbar and Scherzer — whose $43.3 million per year in a three-year deal is the highest average annual value in MLB history.

The rest of the owners responded by adding the so-called “Cohen Tax” to the new CBA — a fourth luxury threshold with higher-than-ever penalties — in an effort to curb the Mets' spending. On the first day that spring training camps were officially open, Cohen nonchalantly told reporters that the tax mattered to him only in so much as he enjoyed the honorific — "It's better than a bridge being named after you,” he joked — and that the Mets’ eventual payroll would probably surpass it.

“When I had a meeting with him, I immediately got the grasp from him that he wants to win,” Scherzer said. “On the teams where I’ve been — in Detroit with Michael Ilitch, in D.C. with Ted Lerner — [it’s] the same type of atmosphere. Those guys are going to do whatever it takes to win. And so the whole organization functions much differently when we feel the presence of the ownership.”

In Detroit, Scherzer and the Tigers made it all the way to the World Series in 2012, coming up just short on the strength of an aggressive push by the late Ilitch patriarch. A few years later, the Lerners made him the second-highest paid pitcher ever, and in 2019, Scherzer helped bring D.C. its first championship.

“So I got that same type of vibe from Steve. He wants to win. He wants to win now.”

WEST PALM BEACH, FL - MARCH 25: New York Mets infielder Francisco Lindor signs autographs for fans before an MLB spring training game between the New York Mets and the Houston Astros at The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on March 25, 2022 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
WEST PALM BEACH, FL - MARCH 25: New York Mets infielder Francisco Lindor signs autographs for fans before an MLB spring training game between the New York Mets and the Houston Astros at The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on March 25, 2022 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A star shortstop determined to prove himself to fans

A 2.7 WAR season is nothing to scoff at, but they’ll do it anyway in New York if you’re the $341 million man whose winning smile was supposed to be emblematic of the Mets’ future. Last year, Lindor learned how hard it can be to live up to the expectations created by a record-setting contract, and how little patience is left in a borough that has been waiting 35 years for another title while their proverbial big brother racks up rings.

“My expectations were to be in the playoffs, to win in the playoffs,” Lindor said recently. “I thought we had a good team last year. We” — and then he corrected himself — “I just didn't perform.”

Lindor stops short of ascribing an inverse causal relationship between expectations and performance. How heightening the former could impede the latter. Maybe he worries that’ll sound like an excuse to an unforgiving fan base that didn’t much care for his production or his attitude in the worst moments of last season. But just in case, he demurs on even acknowledging that the hope is only heightened this year.

“We’ve got better players than we had last year, but still the goal is to be in the playoffs no matter what.”

You’ll hear a lot of that around spring training camps — self-serious accountability toward greatness. It costs nothing to project optimism ahead of opening day. Maybe it’ll even sell a few more tickets.

“What, do you go into the season expecting to get your butt handed to you?” Showalter says, echoing and lightly mocking the platitude. “You always think about the best-case scenario.”

That was while we’re out on the field, watching batting practice. But back in his office, just before a game against the Houston Astros, he cops to the cliche.

It’s not true, is it, that all teams start the season with the same expectations?

“Of course not,” Showalter smiles. “It’s just a good thing to say.”

A manager cool to N.Y.’s heat

Hired after the lockout began, the 65-year-old manager with meticulous attention to detail and a curious mind has had only a condensed spring training to get to know his team. He says you can’t force that kind of thing. So far it’s been a lot of listening, asking players how they handled certain in-game situations on other teams, or here before him. When he does talk, it’s about the details — not missing signs, showing up on time, the minutiae of rundown rules and remembering to always pick up your teammate.

Soon, he’ll invite the three players with the most service time into his office, set out a blank notebook and ask them how they want the clubhouse to function this season so they can police themselves.

Which is not to say he doesn’t come with wisdom. Something he heard Yankees pitcher David Cone say to the media several decades ago stuck with him. New York fans live and die by their baseball teams. And what Cone recognized was that, even at their most jaded and judgmental, they can’t wait to cheer for you.

“They’re waiting to embrace you,” Showalter told Lindor recently. “You got to give them something to embrace.”

New York, he tells players, is all about survival.

“Pressure is a privilege,” Eppler says.

“Play better,” is Showalter’s universal solution.

“We’re just big kids playing baseball,” Scherzer says of letting it all get to you. “If you think about it more than that, you start frying your brain.”

But just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“The thing that I have the most respect for,” Showalter says, “is teams and coaches that win when they’re expected to.”

JUPITER, FLORIDA - MARCH 21: Manager Buck Showalter #11 of the New York Mets looks on from the dugout in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins in the Spring Training game at Roger Dean Stadium on March 21, 2022 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
JUPITER, FLORIDA - MARCH 21: Manager Buck Showalter #11 of the New York Mets looks on from the dugout in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins in the Spring Training game at Roger Dean Stadium on March 21, 2022 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

The manager considers his career for a moment, and how he got so comfortable with the ruthless New York media.

“Maybe it’s ‘cause I know I’m not getting out of this alive,” he jokes, but of course it’s not really. “But while I’m here, I know how lucky I am.”

I don’t realize until later that I’m not sure if he means in the skipper’s seat for the New York Mets, or, like, life in general. Before I can think to ask, Showalter, who has managed for 30 years and never won a championship, is saying something else.

“My goal is to win the last game that we play in the World Series, then come into my office, shut the door and listen to them celebrate,” he says. “That’s the best-case scenario for me.”

A GM up for a challenge

Ten years after Showalter last managed the Yankees, but long before today, Eppler was flying back to the city from visiting his family in Southern California for the holidays. He was new to working in the Yankees front office and could hardly call himself a New Yorker yet. But as his plane descended, he looked out at the gloomy, gray city below him.

Early January in New York is not a pretty time. Sunsets before 5 p.m., muddied snow lining the streets.

It’s that moment that comes back to Eppler when thinking about why he ended up back here. Leadership has always been appealing to him, the chance to foster the careers of players and personnel, setting them up for success. He calls it the long game, doing his best to benefit the younger generation, so he can look back someday, “and feel like people were better because I got to be around them and help them.”

But here here with the Mets? Maybe it’s obvious: all the talent; all the money; the fact that it can feel good, if you let it, to know people expect you to win. And that moment, looking out the plane window at the city some 17 years ago.

“It just looked tough, for lack of a better word,” Eppler says. “And it inspired me — as somewhat of a challenge and somewhat of like, I belong here.”