Prodding Mets to Spend More, Fans Have a Message: We’ll Venmo You

Prodding Mets to Spend More, Fans Have a Message: We’ll Venmo You

There was only one logical response in Frankie Wilton’s mind. When Wilton, a lifelong Mets fan, read that his favorite team hadn’t made an offer to re-sign pitcher Zack Wheeler, who instead joined the rival Philadelphia Phillies on a five-year, $118 million deal in December, he opened his cellphone and scrolled to Venmo.

The application has become ubiquitous in modern life as a method of electronically exchanging money. And spending, or lack thereof, is too often part of the story of the Mets.

After Wilton futilely searched Venmo for the Mets’ principal owner, Fred Wilpon, and his son Jeff, the team’s chief operating officer, he was surprised to find General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen on the app. Wilton sent him one cent with a tongue-in-cheek message: “Spare change for the poor.”

“I’m on the college budget,” said Wilton, 20, laughing during a recent telephone interview. He is, after all, a junior at Boston College, studying environmental science.

Wilton wasn’t the only Mets fan taking the Venmo route to Van Wagenen. Since he became the Mets’ general manager in October 2018, Van Wagenen said, he has received about 500 notifications of requests for payment or of money sent to him on the app.

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“I’m sort of embarrassed: I’ve never used Venmo,” Van Wagenen, 45, said recently. “And at the time, I didn’t realize I had a Venmo account until some of the emails and notifications started coming through.”

The internet age has spawned a slew of new ways for fans to interact with their favorite teams. Players and club officials can better control their public messaging through Twitter or Instagram, but the networks have also allowed fans to share their thoughts — negative or positive — more publicly and more directly with the team.

Mets fans are a passionate bunch that bears the team’s maddening history as a badge of honor, a testament to loyalty: The team has not won a championship since 1986 and has reached the playoffs in only six of the following 33 seasons, including a 2015 trip to the World Series.

The fan base has long complained that the team operates with a payroll more suited to a mid-market franchise, despite playing in the country’s largest market, with a lucrative television network. Adding to the frustration, the Wilpons’ proposed sale of the Mets to the billionaire investor Steve Cohen fell apart this month.

For some fans, Venmo seems the most fitting place to vent.

“So many of the issues with this team throughout my life as a fan have just stemmed from finances, and I guess this was the only tool that I had,” said Wilton, who was traveling in Cambodia, after studying in Australia, when he made his donation to Van Wagenen.

“You can write a letter, you can make a phone call or make some sort of public spectacle,” Wilton added, “but none of that has to do directly with finances like Venmo does.”

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Credit…Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

It’s a modern twist to a long tradition of sports fans’ protesting the management of their favorite teams. In 1978, fans of the N.F.L.’s Giants rented a plane to fly over the team’s stadium during a game with a banner that read: “15 Years of Lousy Football … We’ve Had Enough.” Supporters of the English soccer club Charlton Athletic staged a fake funeral procession before a game in 2016 to protest the ownership of their team.

This season, the Mets are projected to have the largest opening day payroll in team history, at roughly $174 million, which would rank them ninth in the major leagues, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. This would be only the second time in the past nine years that the Mets’ payroll has ranked in the top 10 in the majors. (The team’s finances took a hit a decade ago because of the Wilpons’ involvement in the Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Bernard L. Madoff.)

Still, many fans wanted the Mets to further open their coffers this off-season and chase one of the top available managers (Joe Girardi) and the best third baseman on the market (Anthony Rendon) to supplement a promising roster that includes the two-time defending Cy Young Award winner, Jacob deGrom, and the 2019 National League rookie of the year, Pete Alonso.

Some of those fans decided to make a direct appeal to Van Wagenen.

“Hire Girardi and bring back the black jerseys,” wrote a fan named Dan Healy when he sent Van Wagenen money via Venmo on Oct. 17, a week before Girardi was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies.

“Sign Rendon,” Robbie Rose wrote on Dec. 11, the same day Rendon reached a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels — over $100 million more than the largest contract the Mets have ever given to a player.

Rose, 19, a Queens native, was watching the news at the State University of New York College at Cortland when he saw that the Yankees, the Mets’ crosstown rivals who spend quite differently, had lavished a record nine-year, $324 million free-agent contract on the star pitcher Gerrit Cole. Rose was tired of hearing from his roommates, who are Yankees fans, about how their team had once again nabbed a top player with a big check.

So Rose had an idea. He was inspired by other fans who had requested money on Venmo from players who made a big mistake that cost their team a win, or who had sent money to an opposing player whose mistake led to victory for their favorite team. During the N.F.L. playoffs in 2019, for example, Philadelphia Eagles fans sent Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey money on Venmo after he missed a potential game-winning field goal.

Rose sent Van Wagenen $1.

“I didn’t even know if it was him, but it’s not a common name,” he said, adding later, “It was just a lighthearted joke. I just wanted him to make a signing.”

Van Wagenen did dole out several free-agent contracts this winter worth a total of just over $24 million — including ones for pitchers Michael Wacha, Rick Porcello and Dellin Betances. But all were short-term deals for players who didn’t excite the fan base the way Rendon or Cole would have. The new players might help the Mets contend for a playoff spot this season, but it won’t be because of the money Rose or Wilton sent.

Their donations, along with others from Mets fans, are sitting unclaimed in the internet ether. Van Wagenen said he hadn’t cashed out any donations, or paid out any requests, that he received on Venmo.

“It’s his for the taking so if he wants it,” Wilton said. Added Rose, “If he’s going to use it to sign a guy like Rendon, he can have it.”

“Do I have to accept that?” Van Wagenen asked of the money directed to him on Venmo. “So, I don’t even know how to do that.”

When asked how much untouched money was sitting in his account, Van Wagenen said he didn’t know. “You’ll have to show me one day,” he said.

Moments later, he opened his cellphone to scroll through the email notifications he had received from Venmo since he became general manager. Van Wagenen has deleted most of them, but plenty remained: one request for $100, and another for $1,200. Some fans, he said, had requested money for tickets, or for compensation after disappointing games, or for each home run smashed by Alonso. (With 53 last season, he set the major league record for a rookie.)

Van Wagenen has not responded to the notifications, but he admitted he got a chuckle from reading them. “I’m active on Twitter,” he said. “I’m active on Instagram. I enjoy both of those platforms, but I’m not really a Venmo user.”

Reminded of one particular message, Van Wagenen laughed. A Venmo user named Daniel Cohen sent Van Wagenen an undisclosed amount of money on July 7, the day after news broke that Van Wagenen had thrown a chair in a meeting with Mets coaches. The team had just lost a game, once again wasting a strong outing by deGrom.

Van Wagenen later explained that his competitiveness and frustration had gotten the best of him. But at least he had some money earmarked for the damage, thanks to fans like Cohen, whose Venmo message simply read: “The broken chair.”

“I don’t think the chair broke,” Van Wagenen clarified. “I think we kept using the chair. It may have been a little bit slowed, but the chair is still on a swivel.”

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