The Lawyers of Summer

Talking baseball with the legal execs of the Yankees and Mets

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2008 magazine

By Joy Darlington on April 1, 2008


The House That Trost Built

There was no lack of politicians and luminaries in hard hats ready to shovel dirt at the groundbreaking ceremony for New Yankee Stadium on August 16, 2006. Just a pop fly from the House That Ruth Built—where since 1923 fans have cheered the team to a record 26 World Series titles—team owner George Steinbrenner, flanked by former governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was uncharacteristically brief. “It’s a pleasure to give this to you people,” he said.

Then a major player stepped forward: Yankees’ chief operating officer and general counsel Lonn Trost. A former mentor, William Shea, once advised him that he could accomplish more by staying in the background, and throughout his career Trost has followed that advice. Not this day. Carrying a 10-foot bat that he keeps in an office filled with memorabilia, the likeable man, soft-spoken with a hint of Brooklyn in his voice, drew laughs by invoking a Teddy Roosevelt quote, often used in reference to quiet sluggers like Lou Gehrig: “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” he said.

Stadium building tends to go in waves. Cookie-cutter parks and domed stadiums dominated in the 1960s and ’70s, and the latest round began 15 years ago with the aesthetic and financial success of Camden Yards in Baltimore.

Tearing down Yankee Stadium isn’t like replacing Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, however. A bit more history here. Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president and former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, says, “Lonn and I worked closely on this project for several years. We would talk sometimes 10 to 12 times a day, discussing issues and getting permissions and approvals from the city, state and federal governments.”

After a stutter-step in 2001, talks intensified in 2005, when teams of lawyers in every field—tax, real estate and finance—convened to work out the details. Two public parks had to be leveled, 400 mature oaks felled and five lawsuits defended from irate renters and landlords in the neighborhood.

“It was one of the most reviewed and approved public projects in history,” says Jonathan Schiller of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, the outside counsel who handled litigation with Trost.

All of that means Trost has to give up one of the best office views any lawyer has ever had. Located on the loge level at Yankee Stadium, his office looks out over the most famous home plate in Major League Baseball. When he says he’s tuning into the game while working late at the office, he’s not talking radio or television.

The job has other perks. Fans like Rudy Giuliani and Billy Crystal stop by. Trost owns four World Series rings (’96, ’98, ’99, ’00) and two league championship rings (’01 and ’03), and tends to wear the two most recent World Series rings.

“Working in sports, and particularly with the New York Yankees, is like no other job in the world,” he says. “I enjoy it, but it’s not all glamour. This is a business. The paradigm of all professional sports today is to increase revenues and reduce expenses, like any other business. You work 24/7, 365 days a year. I don’t eat meals outside of here. Even when I’m at home, the computer and phone are always in operation. Is it unusual to be on a conference call at 4 a.m.? No.”

Trost grew up in Brooklyn and played ball on blacktop fields. “You learned how to make use of what was available,” he remembers of the neighborhood games. “Maybe you couldn’t hit to right field because it was too close, or maybe only six kids would show up and you wouldn’t have an infield.”

The family moved around: from southern Canarsie to Brownsville to Bensonhurst. When it’s suggested he rooted for the Dodgers, Trost becomes a little less soft-spoken. “No one in my family has ever been anything but a Yankees fan,” he states firmly. “My father ate, slept and lived for the Yankees. My wife is a Yankees fan, as are my children and my granddaughter—and at 2 months, she cannot even speak yet.”

Was it easy being a Yankees fan in Brooklyn? Trost recalls a surprising number of Yankees fans in the old neighborhood: families who had recently moved from Delancey and Clinton streets in the Lower East Side and had taken their Yankees affiliations with them.

His early baseball memories are succinct and infuriating in that Yankees manner: “We win, they lose. Except one year,” he adds, referring to the lone Brooklyn Dodgers championship in 1955. “But for the catch by Sandy Amoros [in the left-field corner in the sixth inning of Game 7] we might’ve won that too.”

Not blessed with the athletic genes of a baseball player, Trost found another way to stay close to the game: selling concessions at Yankee Stadium. “There was a hierarchy,” he says about concession selling. “The guys who had been there longest got the hot dogs and beer. So my first day, it was 98 degrees out and I was in the upper deck selling hot chocolate.” He had to carry a vat around on his back and it sloshed and spilled on him. He made a request: Next time he’d like to sell ice cream. The temperature that day turned out to be in the 40s.

“I realized you’d better not ask for anything because you might get it,” he says.

But Trost knew what he wanted after graduating from Brooklyn Law School in 1971. “A career in sports law did not exist then,” he remembers. So he came as close as you could. After a year with the Chief Counsel’s Office–Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., he returned to New York and joined the firm of Shea & Gould. His boss, William Shea, was the man who spearheaded the campaign to bring National League baseball back to New York, and did with the Mets in 1962, which is why the stadium in Flushing bears his name.

It was a serendipitous meeting of minds. Every morning Shea and Trost talked baseball, and Trost developed a wide and eclectic list of sports clients. He represented the Yankees and Mets, Little League Baseball, the Nets and the Devils. He represented the Baseball Hall of Fame on IP issues.

He also finally got to a World Series game. All those years growing up in Brooklyn, when the World Series was always played in New York, he never got the chance. He doesn’t remember his first Series—perhaps in ’76 when the Yankees lost in four to the Reds—but he remembers he had tickets to Game 6 in 1977. That was the game Reggie Jackson launched three home runs on three straight pitches and launched himself into immortality. “I had a trial the next morning,” he says, “and the better part of intelligence suggested I prepare for the trial.” So he only saw the game in bits and pieces on television. But the sacrifice paid off. “I did win,” he says.

In ’97, the Yankees’ general counsel left, and Steinbrenner asked Trost to come in-house. Trost weighed the matter seriously. “Ten years, three World Series and two pennants later, here I am,” he says.

“Joe DiMaggio had a great line,” he adds. It’s engraved on a plaque next to the elevator in the executive office reception area at Yankee Stadium. “I get to see it every morning when I walk in and every evening when I leave.”

The plaque reads: “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee.”

Meet the Mets’ General Counsel

2006 was a good year for groundbreaking ceremonies. Three months after dirt was turned at New Yankee Stadium, the politicians in hard hats gathered again, this time at the parking lot adjacent to Shea Stadium, where the Mets will build their new home. Along with governors and mayors, the dignitaries that day included Mets owner Fred Wilpon and previous Citigroup chairman Charles Prince, whose former company will pay a record $20 million a year for the naming rights. It’s set to open in 2009.

The man who guided the year-and-a-half lead-up to the stadium contract signing was there too: Mets general counsel David Cohen. But ask him about it and he’ll sound like David Wright after another Mets victory. It was, he insists, “a team effort.”

Others are quick to praise him. Joel Moser, a senior partner at Fulbright & Jaworski, an outside counsel, says, “David became an expert, learned everything—the tax, the accounting, the security issues—and was able to carry on every dialogue and work at it. He made the transaction move forward.”

Ross Moskowitz, partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, agrees. “David is very tenacious without being hostile,” he says. “There were a dozen or so key issues … and any one of them could bring the deal down like a house of cards. David kept his focus, and in the end got the deal the team wanted.”

In a way Cohen is as representative of his team as Trost is of his. Trost is older, and steeped in a grand New York baseball tradition. Cohen is younger, the new kid on the block, with a light, often humorous touch that feels more Mets than Yankees.

He admits the glamour of the job isn’t as great as people suspect. Mets’ superfans like Jerry Seinfeld and Matthew Broderick, for example, aren’t particularly gung-ho about meeting the team’s general counsel. “I did meet Alberto Gonzales,” he says, “who attended one of our games when he was White House counsel. When I told him my role, he asked, ‘How do you get a job like that?’ At which point I asked him the same question.”

Cohen, 42, grew up in North Miami Beach playing baseball and basketball. “There were a lot of lawyers in my family—my father, my older brother and two uncles. There were also a lot of nurses—my mother, my sister, my aunt.” He pauses. “I guess I became a lawyer because I didn’t want to become a nurse.”

After graduating from the University of Florida College of Law in 1989, he joined Alston & Bird in Atlanta. Then he spent a year as an associate judge in Fulton County Juvenile Court before getting his master’s in law at Columbia. While there, he took a seminar in sports law and interned with the Mets. Things moved quickly. In 1995 the Mets hired him as legal counsel. Three years later he was promoted to general counsel.

He calls his day a series of fi re drills. “I usually don’t have the luxury to focus deeply on any one transaction,” he says. “I need to be able to respond quickly to a lot of time-sensitive issues that come up.”

He and his team of two lawyers provide legal advice to all departments. Cohen may be called into meetings regarding stadium construction issues, litigation matters, labor issues. He’s also involved in arbitration, which a player can fi le for after three years in the majors. “We begin tracking statistics at least a year in advance of arbitration, sometimes earlier,” Cohen says. “We prefer to settle, rather than try to litigate, which is why only a handful of cases go to a hearing each year.”

The still boyish-looking Cohen, whose wife, Erika, is a pediatrician, relaxes by playing baseball in the backyard with his two sons, Matthew, 8, and Aaron, 5. For all Mets home games he’s back at Shea, typically in his offi ce, which has a few bobbleheads and baseballs, but, he says, “Much more prevalent are loan documents, closing binders, legal publications and piles of paper. I prefer my offi ce to look like a lawyer’s offi ce.” When he can, he sneaks a peek at the game on TV.

Cohen came to New York a fan of the Atlanta Braves—he adopted them when he moved to Atlanta, then got caught up in the excitement of their worst-to-fi rst ride in 1991—but dropped them for the Mets. When asked if watching games as a general counsel is more intense than watching them as a fan (since you have a vested interest in the game), he says that nothing beats a fan’s intensity. “Having been here for more than a decade now,” he adds, “I’ve become a true fan, and have both the professional and the personal interest combined. The result is greater intensity, greater anxiety, and, when things go well, greater pleasure.”

Sitting in the stands at Shea Stadium, you can see Citi Field rising in the nearby parking lot. “I’m very excited about moving into the new ballpark,” he says. “It will be a tremendous upgrade for the fans over our current facility.”

As for losing only the second stadium in Major League Baseball (after RFK in D.C.) named for a lawyer? “With due respect to Bill Shea,” Cohen says, “I suspect few fans are clamoring for more facilities to be named after lawyers. And if the fans are happy, we’re happy.”

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