“One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Albert Camus wrote, though had he lived to see the New York Mets, he may have reconsidered. This year has been especially Mets-y: after spending most of the season in first place, they collapsed in August, losing nineteen of twenty-five games while falling all the way to third, the playoffs now a long shot at best. For most teams, a disappointment of that scale would be the headline. Not the Mets.
After a rare win Sunday over Washington, second baseman Javy Báez was asked about he and a couple other Mets flashing each other thumbs down after moments of success during games. “It feels bad when I strike out and get booed,” he said, “It doesn’t really get to me, but I want to let [the fans] know that when we’re successful, we’re going to do the same thing, to let them know how it feels.”
At first glance, it’s hard to tell what makes less sense: Báez claiming the boos don’t get to him before acknowledging taking action to get back at the very fans he said didn’t bother him, or admitting such a thing knowing his words would be treated as blasphemy. They were: that same day team president Sandy Alderson released a statement calling the thumbs down and Báez’s admission “unacceptable” and assuring the public it would “not be tolerated.”
A deeper dive suggests Báez’s role in this story may be purely noble. He only joined the Mets on July 31 after being traded to New York by the Chicago Cubs. There’s video of him one week later flashing the thumbs down to his teammates after he hit a single, on the road in Philadelphia. At that point he’d only played two games in New York; in his home debut he hit a home run that sparked a comeback win. The fans chanted “Ja-vy! Ja-vy!” that night. So why was he taking part in the thumbs down bit days later, in front of another team’s fans?
The simplest answer is that Báez is very close with shortstop Francisco Lindor, whom the Mets traded for before the season and signed to the biggest contract in franchise history — ten years, $341 million — and Lindor’s struggles have led to frequent booing. More important than gossipy analysis of player vs. fan dynamics is this whole storyline highlighting an instinctive reaction in sports and society, one we’d do well to observe and avoid: letting the real villains escape justice while their victims turn on each other. Alderson was correct when he wrote about the fans deserving better. He was wrong in directing it at the players and not team owner Steve Cohen.
People buy sports teams for lots of reasons. One they all have in common: they believe owning a team will eventually make them even more absurdly wealthy. Cohen, who bought the Mets a year ago, is the richest owner in baseball, with a net worth estimated at $13 billion. He came to power a hero, succeeding the wildly unpopular Wilpon family and promising to overturn one of the more dysfunctional cultures in the industry. Given that Cohen’s hedge fund, Point72 Asset Management, settled out of court with a female employee who’d sued over unfair pay and a sexist work environment, while another company he owns, S.A.C. Capital Advisors, paid a record $1.8 billion fine for insider trading, that promise may have been overselling things a bit. Maybe more than a bit.
Cohen’s first hire as general manager, Jared Porter, was fired a month later and is banned by Major League Baseball until at least 2023 after sending more than sixty unsolicited text messages and sexually explicit images to a female reporter. Porter’s replacement, Zack Scott, was arrested Tuesday and charged with driving while intoxicated after being found asleep behind the wheel of his car at four in the morning. Given the behavior at the very top of the organization, how worked up should fans really get about a thumbs down? If the fans want to really be appreciated, they should realize the Báezs and Lindors of the world aren’t holding them down. The Cohens are.
For all the lip service paid to fans, particularly with COVID economics reminding sports leagues that the live experience is an important part of what the millions of television viewers tune in to see, the truth is they are the only part of the owner/player/fan troika who never receive tangible benefits from the growth they help to create. In 2002, the Mets’ prior owners, the Wilpons, went from a 50 percent ownership stake to full control after paying $135 million. Last year they sold the team to Cohen for $2.4 billion. He gave Lindor a deal worth more than a third of a billion dollars. When Wilpon took over, the biggest contract on the team was $91 million. The players and owners have seen incredible explosions in money the past twenty years. What do the fans get? Higher ticket prices. Higher cable prices. They get nothing but exploited and are expected to be grateful for it. What if fans organized?
Sports blurs traditional dividing lines between groups of people. It’s an access point to practice the kind of unifications necessary to educate and mobilize groups of people with common interests in justice and agency. Imagine fans demanding a share of the profit they help create. Parking fees, ticket prices, merchandise costs, neighborhood improvements — what if all were subsidized after teams reached a certain profits threshold? In most American sports leagues, teams limit players’ earning power with a salary cap that places an artificial ceiling on incomes, supposedly for the benefit of both sides. Is a profit cap really that unreasonable?
One player showing solidarity with a friend and coworker enduring public booing is not blasphemy. The people deserving of a finger extended in their direction are the owners and managers fans are too often eager to ignore.