Editors’ Note: Two weeks after this story went to press, the Mets signed Jacob deGrom to a lucrative five-year deal and named rookie first baseman Peter Alonso to the Opening Day roster. He is currently sixth in the National League in home runs as of April 26.
The sky this morning over Port St. Lucie, Florida, home of the New York Mets’ longtime spring-training complex, is a perfect porcelain blue, vast with infinite possibility. And yet somehow, on just the second day of the very first week of camp, it is already falling.
They celebrate Groundhog Day a little differently around here: Every year at about this time, the Mets emerge from hibernation to see which player will be the first to need an MRI. This year’s lucky winner is newly acquired third baseman Jed Lowrie, whose balky knee began to balk before he even set foot in Florida. As a result, everyone here in Port St. Lucie, from the fans to the Mets’ front-office staff, is walking around with a slight hunch in their shoulders, as if they’re waiting for the first shard of plummeting porcelain to conk them in the head at any moment.
It’s been like this since the birth of the franchise. The Mets, perhaps more so than any other team in professional baseball, have a gift for losing. The team’s 120-loss inaugural season, in 1962, is a Major League record that has stood for nearly six decades and that no amount of performance-enhancing drugs could ever erase. They haven’t won a World Series since 1986, while their crosstown rivals, the Yankees, have won five. Everyone gets sick, but only the Mets could lose a pitching ace (briefly) as they did last year to Coxsackievirus, which is primarily transmitted by children drooling on one another. They lost another ace (permanently) to a shoulder condition that required doctors to remove one of his ribs. The list goes on for miles.
This year’s team is objectively not bad— they might be very good, maybe even World Series good—but Lowrie’s knee is taken as an omen.
Day two! It should be impossible to lose a starter this fast, and yet. It should be impossible for an “and yet” this fast, and yet.
But then, from the bowels of First Data Field’s temporary executive offices, a hero in a lavender polo, blue slacks, and Nike trainers emerges, a laminated pitching schedule folded and jammed in his back pocket. He strides through the Mets’ batting cages and down the right-field line of a practice diamond. A low chain-link fence separates him from diehard fans in Noah Syndergaard jerseys. He seems—what is the word?—optimistic. And the Mets fans seem—what is the phrase?—happy to see him. He is the team’s new general manager, the new architect of the new Mets, and though he has had the job for only some three months, he is officially a rock star here in Port St. Lucie.
“We love you, Brodie,” someone actually shouts.
“I’ve never seen this place as crowded as this,” says a beaming senior in a Mets cap. “You did this.”
With his name, his pedigree, and his gleaming silhouette when backlit, Brodie Van Wagenen gives the first impression of someone who got screwed out of his share of Facebook. Son of a former pro golfer, Stanford-educated, and, until last fall, one of the most powerful agents in baseball, he lives in posh suburban Connecticut with his gorgeous wife and three gorgeous children. Even his hair is confident. It looks snapped on and welded into place, but also efficient and unfussy; I stared at it for three straight days, and it never once moved, no matter how humid it got outside, and we were in Florida.
“Brodie’s not afraid—that’s the best thing about him,” says Todd Frazier. “I told him, ‘‘Don’t go changing now that you’re on the other side.”
The Mets have been a family business for so long now—nearly 40 years—that their identity is almost indistinguishable from their owners. Fred Wilpon, the genial 82-year-old patriarch adored by every Mets employee and loathed by every Mets fan, is a constant presence here at the complex. With his rumpled untucked dress shirt and ball cap, he’d resemble any other snow-birding fan if not for the golf cart that whisks him around. Van Wagenen was hired by Fred’s son Jeff Wilpon, who runs the team and who believes that, in his new GM, he’s finally found someone who can turn things around. No more doom and gloom. No more years of slapstick interrupted by blips of winning. No more Coxsackievirus. “I told Brodie I want a 10-year run of sustainability,” Jeff says, wedging himself into a sliver of shade near the third-base line, “where we’re good for 10 years in a row, .500-plus every season.”
Van Wagenen’s job is to sell a paradigm shift. The team is loaded with talent, and it finally seems to be emerging from a decade long financial purgatory that began when the Wilpons’ fortune vanished in the rubble of their buddy Bernie Madoff’s house of cards.
In Van Wagenen’s previous life as co-head of the baseball division at Creative Artists Agency, he saw teams—(“I won’t name them”)—where people would walk into the office every day, sigh, and slump their shoulders. “You can see in their body language that they lost before the day even started,” he tells me later. They’re waiting for the sky to fall, and that’s no environment for success. “I think there was some perception from the outside world that that was the Mets.” (Yes, there was. Just a bit.) “I don’t operate that way.”
Van Wagenen begins to move faster down the right-field line, high-fiving fans along the way. “Hey, which move did you like best?” he asks the crowd. Was it his daring trade for Mariners second baseman Robinson Canó, one of the league’s best three-hole hitters? Or maybe signing the All-Star-caliber catcher Wilson Ramos? If you ask stat nerds, the answer is getting MLB’s best closer last season, 24-year-old Edwin Diaz.
But for Mets fans, Brodie Van Wagenen’s best off-season move will be the one he has not made yet. And as he wades into a throng of fans gathered at the nexus of the complex’s four practice fields, he knows that it’s only a matter of time before someone throws it in his face. And then it comes: “Hey Brodie! Sign deGrom!”
Jacob deGrom. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. The Mets’ best player. Two years away from the open market and, possibly, a contract way bigger than the Mets can afford. DeGrom’s contract is the biggest question mark hanging over the franchise, and it’ll loom all season if it doesn’t get resolved before the team heads back north.
Complicating matters, deGrom is Van Wagenen’s former client. And not just any client—an overlooked jewel, someone Van Wagenen believed in before anyone else did and was there every step of the way as he grew into one of the game’s most dominant starting pitchers. DeGrom was Van Wagenen’s biggest client. Now he’s his biggest problem. It’s weird for deGrom, too. Agents know all sorts of sensitive stuff about their clients—good stuff, bad stuff, medical stuff, money stuff—and now, for the most important, most delicate negotiation most important, most delicate negotiation of deGrom’s professional life, the GM across the table knows all of it.
Van Wagenen has put off extending deGrom’s contract because, in cold economic terms, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to do it right now. DeGrom is 30, with two full seasons still left under team control. It makes all the sense in the world for the Mets to hold off on giving him the monster deal that he wants until he’s a year or two older and maybe not coming off one of the best pitching seasons in baseball history—when his value, in other words, may be a teensy bit lower than it is right now, or possibly much lower.
But deGrom and his new agent have cards of their own that they can play, though they’d be risky to deGrom’s sky-high standing with Mets fans. He could announce that, unless the Mets re-sign him, he’ll limit his innings this season whether the team wants him to or not. He could let a cloud of angst and uncertainty hang over Citi Field all year, in hopes that the front office caves to settle the clubhouse. He could have another sensational season and drive his price even higher.
Mets fans, of course, could give a crap about any of this. Sign deGrom, Brodie. No excuses. Get it done. On the third-base line, a grouchy senior citizen starts rubbing Van Wagenen’s shoulder a little too intimately for the standards of public decorum, then leans in, as if to confide in him. “You know what’s going to happen?” the guy asks. “The Yankees are going to grab him.”
DeGrom is far from Van Wagenen’s only concern. He has an entire team to worry about now. That night, the front office announces Lowrie’s MRI, and Mets nation flinches. Oh no. Here we go again. A week later, third baseman Todd Frazier will require a cortisone shot for a re-injured oblique, a bad sign for a muscle hitters use every time they swing. And just two days after that comes the Mets’ pre-March coup de grâce: After the wife of Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo tells him that he should learn to cook something besides pasta—seeing as how he’s now 25 and a grown-ass man—he misses a day of camp because he was puking and shitting his guts out from eating raw chicken that, like a big boy, he’d prepared himself.
Welcome to the Mets, Brodie!
An earthquake struck the baseball world on October 25 of last year, leveling a century of tradition: The Mets hired an agent to be their general manager. It wasn’t a first for pro baseball. Pitcher turned agent Dave Stewart took over as Diamondbacks GM in 2014. And there are examples in other pro sports, most notably in the NBA, with agent Bob Myers having gone to the Golden State Warriors in 2011 as an assistant GM. Still, hot takes poured like tears of fire from the burning eyes of sports columnists over Van Wagenen’s hiring. Blind quotes flew. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted that “the disaster potential is staggering [and] unnecessary,” while USA Today called the move “one of the strangest and most perplexing hires in Major League Baseball history.” Scott Boras, another MLB power agent, took a shot, telling the New York Post, “I would never violate the trust that I have with any player” by joining a team.
It was an insurmountable conflict of interests, you see. Or at least that was the thinking, since the Mets now had all sorts of insight on Van Wagenen’s former clients and their teams. Add in the fact that this was New York City, the world’s biggest media market…
“It was the perfect storm to create a lot of dialogue,” Van Wagenen says as we sit in his makeshift office at First Bank Field. He’ll be here for only six weeks, so there’s no point in settling in. Across the room, there’s a desk with nothing on it. Over his shoulder hang fading posters of ’86 Mets icons Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez. We sit and chat for about an hour, and at one point Fred Wilpon pokes in his head to inquire about his GM’s schedule for the morning, then bolts out the door the moment Van Wagenen alerts him that my voice recorder is on.
This might be the trickiest part of Van Wagenen’s job: being out front every day, answering the questions, taking the punches, so that the Wilpons don’t have to. They have chosen well. Van Wagenen doesn’t exactly evade questions but answers them with platitudes that are just specific enough not to sound like platitudes, and with ninja-level use of the passive voice. Here’s how he describes the freak-out over his hiring: “I think there was an expectation on my side that that was going to be how it was going to be—that it would be loud, that it would be a point of discussion, maybe even debate.” Try arguing with that!
The debate in question mostly owed to the fact that everyone who didn’t think that Van Wagenen’s hiring was a horrible idea thought it was a stupid one. A baseball agent running a baseball team? How is he going to manage an entire farm system? Hire someone? LOL. Had a more innovative and successful team made the move, the choice might’ve been hailed as bold and clever. But this wasn’t another team. This was the Mets being the Mets, and we’ve all seen this movie before, haven’t we?
Maybe so, but when previous Mets GM Sandy Alderson stepped aside last summer, following a relapse of leukemia—a tragic version of the Mets’ injury-riddled on-field farce—Jeff Wilpon knew that he wanted to try something different. He had negotiated opposite Van Wagenen for years and had grown fond of him for his directness and depth of knowledge. He was also piqued by the advantage Van Wagenen’s past job experience might afford the team. “If you think about it,” Wilpon says, “an agent is in a unique position—not only to see the people he’s worked with but across all 30 organizations, to know how they operate.” Van Wagenen, meanwhile, was in the unique position of representing nearly a quarter of the Mets roster, including deGrom and Syndergaard, the team’s other star pitcher.
Last July, Wilpon baited the hook by asking Van Wagenen for help brainstorming outside-the-box GM candidates. He was fishing, hoping that Van Wagenen might nominate himself, Dick Cheney–style. But it wasn’t until the season started winding down that Wilpon sprung the idea on him. “I never saw it coming,” Van Wagenen says, “that there could be a bait and switch and we’d be talking about me.”
Their discussions got serious in October, during a breakfast meeting that Wilpon figured would last 45 minutes but went two hours, followed by a phone call later that afternoon. “The thought process was really simpatico,” Wilpon says. “That’s when it really clicked.” Howie Nuchow, co-head of CAA Sports and Van Wagenen’s former boss, says he wasn’t surprised that Van Wagenen would make the jump. “He was always a leader,” Nuchow says. “He was a baseball agent, but he had a mindset of somebody who ran things. It wasn’t like he was just doing contracts with us. He always had bigger thoughts.”
Just three months into Van Wagenen’s tenure with the Mets, the hysteria over his hiring looks dopey in retrospect. Baseball has survived just fine so far. Yet, at the same time, it was a really big switch. Agents don’t make trades, or hire managers, or manage owners. They try to make player contracts bigger and longer, and they butt heads with general managers who try to make them smaller and shorter. Agents have to keep their clients happy. Van Wagenen, in his new job, is trying to keep everyone happy, without crossing any lines that could ruin a relationship.
Jeff Wilpon doesn’t dismiss the ethical hurdles of the situation. “I don’t think it’s overstated,” he says. “It’s got to be respected. One hundred percent.” Players don’t disregard the pitfalls out of hand, either. Outfielder Michael Conforto tells me that, so far, he has nothing but praise for Van Wagenen’s candor and availability—a marked departure, Conforto makes clear, from years past. All the same, if it were his agent who’d switched sides and was now the GM, “I would have some questions,” he says.
Van Wagenen had plenty of questions, too, but most of them had to do with money. His own, for starters. Being a high-powered agent at CAA pays a lot better than being a GM for a pro baseball team. “There was a degree of economics,” he tells me delicately, but with a knowing smile, “that I would need to make sure I was comfortable with.”
And then there was the question of the Mets’ money—specifically the ongoing, decade-long question of whether there is any. “I needed to be able to have an understanding and an agreement that I would be able to do the job [with] the vision that I had for it,” Van Wagenen continues. “I wanted to be able to tell ownership the truth. I want to be able to tell them, from an outside perspective, how the fans feel. How players feel. How other teams view the Mets.”
What other teams saw last season was a talented but top-heavy team that fell apart, (again) the moment injuries struck (again). There are only two cures for the injury bug: prevent as many of them as you can, and build a deep bench for when they happen anyway. Both cures are very expensive, and, though the Wilpons’ bank account has shown signs of recovery from the Madoff nadir, this ain’t the Yankees. And no one knew that better than the agent who already had six clients on the Mets.
“I was not immune to the narrative that existed in the marketplace,” Van Wagenen says, effortlessly conceding that he knew the franchise was a dumpster fire before he signed on. “So I wanted to make sure that they were aware of the narrative, and that they were willing to change it, and that they had conviction to change it.”
The Wilpons had to be prepared to spend a lot—on payroll, on training and medical staff, on a robust analytics department. And on keeping the team’s best players, like Jacob deGrom. How could Van Wagenen be sure the family would follow through? At some point, he says, you have to take a leap of faith. And besides, he adds, “if somebody’s going to tell you in a room, ‘Here’s your budget,’ it’s not very easy to renege on that budget. And they have lived up to it.”
That Van Wagenen got what he asked for is great news for Mets fans. Then again, they may be wondering what took so long—why, three years into a catastrophic run of injuries, the medical staff still wasn’t maxed out, or why, 16 years into the Moneyball era, the Mets still didn’t have a full analytics department. Fans assume that they know the answer— Madoff, duh—but Jeff Wilpon’s answer may frustrate them even more. “I’m a somewhat reactionary guy,” he explains. “We could’ve done it if it was asked for. It wasn’t asked for.”
Where the hell did Van Wagenen go? Dammit. You glance down for one second to scribble something in your notebook—today’s polo: orange, official Mets color—then you look up and he’s gone. The complex’s four practice fields meet at the center like a cloverleaf, giving Van Wagenen quick access to each. The problem is, he’s the fastest non-player here this morning, which is maybe not saying much considering that oxygen tanks outnumber the All-Stars, and we’re at the one place on Earth where an irradiated orange polo does not stand out.
This is how it goes with Van Wagenen over my three days in Florida: We chat for a few minutes, I look down, he vanishes, I find him, we chat for a few minutes, he vanishes.
That morning, I find him standing behind the batting cage at another field, where he’s observing a minor-league pitcher’s delivery from the mound. As I watch him watch, I overhear a player and a blonde woman in front of me discussing Van Wagenen, and, soon enough, I realize that the player is third baseman Todd Frazier, one of Van Wagenen’s former clients, and the woman is Van Wagenen’s wife, Molly. I wasn’t eavesdropping exactly— the sound just floated into my ears as I stood there, then I wrote it down. The point is, they didn’t know I was there, which means we can take Frazier’s delight as fairly sincere.
“I told him, ‘Don’t go changing now that you’re on the other side,’” Frazier said. “He’s around—he wants to talk to us, we want to talk to him…. I remember when I saw the first article about it, I was like, Wow! Crazy how things work out. He’s not afraid—that’s the best thing about him. He’s not afraid.”
Molly arrived in Florida last night and this is her first day at camp, but she already knows everyone. Tim Tebow, an ex–Brodie client, now an outfielder in the Mets’ farm system, wraps her in a hug the moment he spots her, and they make dinner plans. Jeff Wilpon, the Van Wagenens’ neighbor for the month, asks how she likes the house they’re putting her up in.
This is different for the Van Wagenens— having a home base. In years past, Brodie would hit 30 spring-training camps in 20 days. Molly sat out those trips. Now the couple and their three children finally have a team to root for. Until now, the kids just pulled for their dad’s clients. “My daughter turned 16 this past summer, and she was so excited,” Brodie says. “She said, ‘Dad, I can, after school, drive to the stadium, do my homework in your office, and then watch the game every night!’”
This is the first time Van Wagenen has had a favorite team, too, since he was growing up in Los Angeles. He was raised a Dodgers fan and played baseball for a couple of years at Stanford until he screwed up a shoulder striking out during his junior year. He suddenly had to find a new route to the major leagues now that his path as a spray-hitting right fielder was out of the question. Fortunately, Van Wagenen picked an excellent time to be at Stanford and next door to Silicon Valley: the late 1990s, the dawn of the internet era and the start of the disruption generation, in sports and everywhere else. “There was a mindset of innovation” and entrepreneurialism, he says. “There was an intellectual curiosity that permeated through campus and through the area.”
One of Van Wagenen’s first jobs post Stanford was at a digital startup, Athlete Direct, which built home pages for players. At age 25, he was negotiating deals for some of the biggest superstars in the world, sitting across the table from veteran agents twice his age. When Van Wagenen switched over to player representation, first at IMG and then at CAA, he didn’t forget the lessons he’d learned in Silicon Valley. He wanted to get away from agents being “so transaction-oriented,” he says, and instead “have our work rooted in fact, in analysis, in projections.” In doing so, he shed the image of the sports agent as a hustling used-car salesman peddling lemons to dumbass owners.
The question now that he’s on the other side is whether he’ll be able to balance the concerns of players, of the Mets, and of fans—new territory for someone who, as an agent, had to abide only by a player-first philosophy.
So far, he seems to have struck a good balance, in taking a wide-and-deep approach in regard to the Mets’ off-season strategy. He pulled in All-Stars Canó (former client), Lowrie (former client), and Ramos, and he also brought back former Mets closer Jeurys Familia. And Van Wagenen promises he’ll call up Peter Alonso, the best first-base prospect in baseball, from the minors if he keeps crushing the ball like he has this spring. The catch with Alonso is that, for arcane contractual reasons, the Mets can save a full year of control at the end of his cheap current deal if they stash him in the minors until late April. Lots of teams do this sort of thing because, in brass tacks, it makes sense for them. But players and fans really, really hate it. And so does Van Wagenen.
“If he is deserving to be on the team, he’ll be on the team—you can quote me on that,” he says. If Alonso turns out to be a big impact player, “then that’s good for the Mets, and we’re going to win a lot of games,” Van Wagenen adds. Having to negotiate Alonso’s contract a year early “would be a high-class problem that I would look forward to.”
Van Wagenen’s new team-first approach was perhaps most fully on display in the saga of right fielder Bryce Harper, the prize of this season’s free-agent market. Harper had been with the Washington Nationals since 2012 and is the kind of slugger that Mets fans desperately wanted the team to sign, inevitably to a franchise-crippling long-term contract. But Van Wagenen had zero intention of offering Harper such a deal. “We didn’t want [Harper] or need him, according to Brodie and the baseball staff,” Jeff Wilpon says, though, sure, “there’s totally a temptation.”
All winter long, Van Wagenen insisted that he was sitting out the Harper sweepstakes, but with every day that the star remained unsigned, hope grew among Mets fans that the new GM was just waiting to see if Harper’s market would soften. He wasn’t, and it didn’t. When the Philadelphia Phillies signed Harper in February to a 13-year contract worth $330 million—including no opt-out clauses for either party and a no-trade clause for Harper, joining them at the hip for more than a decade—it vindicated Van Wagenen’s approach more than any trade or signing could have.
Thirteen years! For a known sulker who plays baseball’s most plentiful position—corner outfielder—in a city filled with sports fans whose hobby is getting drunk and punching people. As one Philly sportswriter tweeted, “There are children…who aren’t even born yet who will throw batteries at Bryce Harper before the end of this contract.” Yep.
Even Mets fans seemed to grasp the enormity of the iceberg Philly had just steered straight into. You can’t build a consistent, 10-year winning team if you hand 20 percent of your payroll to a surly right-fielder whose skills will be in rapid decline for the last, oh, seven or eight years of the deal. For Van Wagenen, it was an easy call. Then again, Bryce Harper was never his client.
Jacob deGrom sits alone in front of his locker in the Mets clubhouse and tucks into a paper plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, blissfully unaware that things are about to get super awkward. His locker is the center stall in a group of five, positioned conveniently near the showers as well as various escape routes from loitering reporters. Van Wagenen brings me over and introduces me to deGrom and explains that, if now’s a good time, I have some questions about his former agent and their history together. “Thanks,” deGrom says to me, smiling politely, “but I’ll pass.”
DeGrom is dry and laconic and calm as a pond, and so many people have given me the stock dad joke when I ask them about Van Wagenen (“never heard of him,” heh) that for a moment I think he’s messing with me. He is not. But Van Wagenen, who knows deGrom much better than I do, realizes it first. “He’s not going to ask you about the contract,” Van Wagenen assures him, incorrectly. (I was totally going to ask about the contract.) DeGrom is unmoved. He either doesn’t believe his GM or doesn’t care. He looks at me again, smiles again, and says again, “Pass.”
This time I get the message, and in the very long, very pregnant moment it takes me to put away my recorder and absent myself from the situation, a whole complex, constantly shifting power dynamic reveals itself. Van Wagenen is deGrom’s boss, so technically he can tell deGrom what to do—technically, he can command deGrom to talk to me. But there is no way in hell he’s going to do that. Van Wagenen may have the checkbook and the big job, but deGrom has all the leverage. And Van Wagenen isn’t going to force his Cy Young winner, at a moment of peak uncertainty, to serve up some polite quotes about the man who used to negotiate for him and is now negotiating against him.
Van Wagenen insists their relationship remains strong, and after I slink away, the two kibitz amiably for a while. But there’s no use pretending things are the same. Not that Van Wagenen doesn’t try. “I honestly haven’t seen a difference in my interaction with them,” he said of his players a couple of days earlier, in his office. “Now, they may have different thoughts about it. You’d have to ask them.”
I don’t get the chance to ask deGrom, but he gave me the answer all the same: There is distance now. There has to be distance now. It’s a job requirement. It’s an ethical duty. It’s not because they dislike each other (so far as we know) or because they’re adversaries. It’s because they’re human, and because Van Wagenen’s switch from at-your-service agent to deGrom’s boss was a monster change. So yeah, it’s fucking awkward.
A few minutes later, Van Wagenen comes over and apologizes for deGrom’s (again, very polite) rejection. “He’s a really good guy,” he assures me. “He’s just getting it from all sides this spring.” So is Van Wagenen. His quick breakfast chat with deGrom is the only time they’ll cross paths before the players knock off for the day, but the specter of deGrom’s contract will dog him all afternoon. It will dog him all spring, and all year, until it gets resolved one way or the other. Van Wagenen knows this and that the best defense is to keep a healthy sense of humor about it.
Back out on the fields, a kid, maybe 10 years old, sporting head-to-toe Mets gear, hands Van Wagenen a scorecard to autograph, and Van Wagenen tells him to turn around so that he can lean on the kid’s back while he signs. The kid wheels around, and just as Van Wagenen is about to write, he notices the name sewn on to the back. “Of course,” he says, grinning. “It had to be a deGrom jersey.”
This story appears in the May 2019 issue with the headline “The Changeup.”
Devin Gordon is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and ESPN the Magazine, and his book about the history of the Mets will be out from HarperCollins in summer 2020.