Felix Unger Day odd couple: China and Covid-19

November 13, 2020

Happy Felix Unger Day, November 13. This year’s odd couple is China and Covid-19.

The Middle Kingdom took the first hit from the virus and gave it to the rest of the world. While China has largely recovered – if you believe its numbers – its strategic and economic rivals continue to suffer from the pandemic.

Covid-19 has also made it easier for Beijing to exert its will on Hong Kong, imposing a draconian yet undefined national security law to quell dissent, effecting ending Deng Xiaoping’s “one country-two systems” formula for reunification. The virus provided a pretext to cancel elections, after pro-democracy candidates won 86% of seats in November last year, and then expel “ineligible” lawmakers sitting in the expanded session.

We can’t know whether security measures that promise long jail terms or the pandemic have quelled massive street demonstrations, but we do know who’s won, at least so far. Happy FU Day, Hong Kong, from the big motherland.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, a contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

How Steven Cohen can make the Mets winners

November 9, 2020

Dear Cousin Steven,

Mazel tov on your purchase of the New York Mets. For Met fans, it’s only fair that a hedge fund billionaire has rescued our team from Fred Wilpon, the schlepper whose investments with Bernie Madoff forced a decade of austerity. We believe you want what we all want: a consistent winner worthy of Met fans, with an ethos worthy of New York.

Maybe Aunt Sylvia never told you about me. Like you, I grew up rooting for the Mets, and we were both 13 when they won their first championship in 1969. (Sorry you weren’t invited to my bar mitzvah.) Unlike you, I didn’t make billions managing money. Instead, after attending the same high school as Omar Minaya, I began covering baseball in the 1980s. Over the decades, I’ve worked with and picked the brains of some of the game’s top players, managers, executives and statistical analysts.

Since you’re a multi-billionaire, everybody expects you to spend big on free agents to improve the team. History shows, trying to build a championship is rarely a winning strategy.

Players become free agents after completing at least six years in the major leagues. At that stage of their careers, usually pushing 30, most free agents are unlikely to match or exceed their pre-free agency peak productivity. We’ve seen notable exceptions in New York, including Dave Winfield, Carlos Beltran and (with help from performance enhancing drugs) Alex Rodriquez, the latter two reaching free agency before age 28.

With any first time free agent, you’re paying for their top performance, and you’re unlikely to see it repeated. You’re more likely to receive diminishing returns, particularly over the course of a long term contract.

Albert Pujols was the best hitter in baseball when signed his 10 year free agent contract with the Angels, a deal that he began at age 32 in 2012. Pujols has steadily ascended the all-time leader lists, passing Willie Mays in home runs and A-Rod in RBIs in 2020. But Pujols has been a below average hitter for the past four seasons at cost of $110 million – his paycheck and pedigree blocking the Angels from replacing him with someone better – and has one more year left at $30 million. The Angels have reached the postseason just once during Pujols’ tenure.

The other history making hitter of that generation, Miguel Cabrera, signed an eight year, $240 million contract after his age 32 season in 2015 and has logged only one outstanding season since. The Detroit Tigers still owe Cabrera $94 million for the next three seasons.

This off-season’s premier free agent, catcher JT Realmuto, will almost certainly get a long term contract. But he turns 30 in March and plays the most demanding position in baseball. Mets Hall of Famer catchers Gary Carter and Mike Piazza had their last outstanding seasons at age 32 and 33 respectively. Any commitment to Realmuto beyond three seasons carries high risk, including potentially blocking a more able replacement, such as Mets prospect Francisco Alvarez, who turns 19 on November 19.

Realmuto happens to be the best catcher in baseball right now, and catcher is a key need for the Mets. But too often free agents don’t fit your team’s top need or aren’t good enough to make a difference.

Many of baseball’s best players don’t become free agents in their primes because teams give them long term contracts. Last year, the Mets signed Jacob deGrom to a contract that extends through his presumed prime years before he could become a free agent. The Angels did the same with centerfielder Mike Trout, the Rockies did it with third baseman Nolan Arenado, the Dodgers did it with rightfielder Mookie Betts after the Red Sox failed to sign Betts and traded him to Los Angeles.

Too often, teams get seduced by availability and overpay for a good, but not great, free agent that won’t make a significant difference. Houston Astros centerfielder George Springer, a free agent this winter, is a good hitter – very good in the postseason – and middling fielder at a key defensive position, and he turned 31 in September. As a free agent, Springer will get a top tier contract for mid-range skills likely to deteriorate over the term of his deal.

The lure of availability also can induce teams to cast free agents in unsuitable roles. The Boston Red Sox pursued star infielder Hanley Ramirez to play a different position, leftfield, particularly challenging in quirky Fenway Park with its 37 foot high wall. The Red Sox committed $88 million over four years to an experiment that, in year one, yielded Ramirez’s career worst offensive season along with predictably shaky defense. Ramirez didn’t play outfield during the rest of his Boston tenure and was released in June of his fourth contract year.

Free agency works best when you identify special situations where the market improperly evaluates a player. As a 29 year old free agent after the 2018 season with an all-star resume as a Colorado Rockie, second baseman DJ LeMahieu faced doubts about replicating his sky high performance beyond the thin air of Denver. Signed at a relative discount, LeMahieu defied skeptics with two career best batting seasons for the Yankees. Note, it wasn’t the discount that made the signing a success, it was LeMahieu’s outstanding performance. To paraphrase renowned baseball fan Warren Buffett, a great player at a good price is better than a good player at a great price.

With Covid-19 reducing 2020 revenue by forcing a truncated schedule without spectators and no certainty about fans returning to stadiums in 2021, this off-season promises many special situations. Teams are not offering contracts to many players with two-plus years of major league service, releasing them to avoid the arbitration process that usually raises salaries regardless of performance. Many teams are reducing budgets, jettisoning potentially costly players and shunning premium free agents.

More available players and limited competition mean unprecedented temptation to flex your checkbook muscle. But under any free agent market conditions, the same guidelines apply: avoid buying unproductive years; focus on need, not availability; and seek special situations.

Consider a team we both know well, the 1986 Mets. The most important free agent contributor to that team was… Rafael Santana, a footnote to its success. Dwight Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman were homegrown. Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda, Jesse Orosco, Ray Knight, Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson were obtained in trades.

With trades, you’re not restricted to the sliver of often flawed talent available in free agency. Rather than trying to determine the best free agent third baseman, your baseball operations executives should determine the best third baseman, period, and work to acquire him.

As with free agency, trades require rigorous data analysis to identify needs, finding the right fits and recognizing special situations, such as distressed assets. Aunt Sylvia says you already know something about data analysis and trading.

Kol hakovod, and Let’s Go Mets!

Cousin Muhammad

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, a contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Bali Ubud festivals go virtual

October 28, 2020

With Covid-19 shutting down international travel, Bali’s annual Ubud Writers Festival and Ubud Food Festival have moved online. Kembali – “come back” in Indonesian – begins Thursday, October 29 and runs through November 8 with an all-star cast of Indonesian and international luminaries in each field and most disciplines in between. The festival preview call, featuring founder Janet DeNeefe and several speakers, gives a taste of what’s ahead.

Going virtual means that sessions with the likes of David Byrne, Jonathan Safran Foer, William Dalrymple, and preview call star Bandana Tewari will be available on demand for a month from their release time. So no matter where you are, the festival is on local time and can follow your schedule.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, a contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Macau casinos face long road to recovery

October 12, 2020

China’s national day holiday brought little joy to Macau. Despite eased travel restrictions, Macau faces a slow recovery from Covid-19, with gaming revenue barely reaching 15% of 2019 levels. An amorphous threat from Beijing to “blacklist” overseas casino destinations further clouds the regional gambling outlook.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, a contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Saipan casino struggles to survive

September 7, 2020

With a casino monopoly on the US Pacific island Saipan and a history of reporting multibillion dollar monthly VIP action, Hong Kong listed Imperial Pacific International says it can’t pay its casino license fees or legal judgments against it, and its beachfront hotel remains unfinished despite a purported US$900 million investment. New CEO Donald Browne says IPI has a new plan, if it can survive Covid-19.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Top Cambodia casino thinks bigger

August 21, 2020

NagaCorp plans to build the tallest building in Phnom Penh with a sky high swimming pool as part of a $3.5 billion expansion of its NagaWorld complex that will catapult it into the top rank of the world’s integrated resorts. Plans for Naga3 are going forward as the Cambodian capital’s only casino reopens with Covid-19 safeguards, relying on the city’s burgeoning resident Chinese business community to fuel play as international travel remains at a trickle.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Conventional convention highlights

August 19, 2020

My good friend and go-to political scientist Ken Sherrill relives his stint as a 1984 convention delegate, recounting backstage grappling and the road he traveled to get there. In absence of normal political conventions this year, and maybe for good, it’s worth remembering these events once had meaning beyond a tourism bump for host cities.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Online gaming tempts virus stricken casinos

July 18, 2020

Casino closures, capacity cuts, travel restrictions and other Covid-19 measures have collapsed gaming revenue across the world, especially in Asia, where most casinos rely on border crossing customers. As governments and gaming operators consider online casino gambling to replace lost revenue and save jobs, there are viable examples to consider from the US and Europe.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Hong Kong handover marks broken promises

June 29, 2020

This week’s anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China marks Beijing’s broken promises less than halfway through the city’s mandated 50 years with a high degree of autonomy. It’s also a time to examine why the Western defense of Hong Kong’s liberty has been so muddled. And it’s a fitting moment to remember that during handover time Hong Kong was the center of the universe, a place with far more hope and far less despair about its future..

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Punish Beijing for Hong Kong’s lost freedom

June 12, 2020

The Trump administration and its GOP allies aim to sanction Hong Kong because Beijing is usurping its autonomy. That’s penalizing the victim.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.


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