The Wilpons: Are You Now or Have You Ever Been Broke?

When Matt Cerrone of MetsBlog teased a breaking Mets story on Friday morning, I immediately felt ill. It was around this time last year that we learned of Carlos Beltran's unsanctioned knee surgery, and Jose Reyes' thyroid condition. Immediately, I assumed the worst. I'm not even going to joke about possible nightmare scenarios that sprang to mind, because god forbid any of them should come true.

When the actual big news was revealed--that the Wilpons are looking to sell a minority interest in the team--I was initially relieved. That was the tenor of much of the immediate online reaction ("phew! no one's dead"). But there was also a feeling that the Wilpons had been less than truthful to this point. After all, they said the Bernie Madoff scandal had not affected them financially in any serious way, at least as far as the Mets were concerned, and protested repeatedly that the family would not have to (and did not want to) sell any part of the team. Now they planned to do exactly that.

I don't know any more about this situation than most people. My last name is not Wilpon, and finance is far from my strong suit. My opinion is that Mets' ownership was not dishonest per se, but rather that the exact truth of their financial situation is a mutable, evolving reality. Because I honestly can't think of a way in which lying about having to sell the team for all this time makes any real sense.

In 2009, Erin Arvedlund (author of Too Good to Be True, an account of the Madoff scandal) insisted that the Wilpons would have to eventually sell the Mets because of their dealings with the disgraced investor. Team executive Dave Howard angrily denied the claim on FOX Business Network, calling the charge "flat out wrong" and insisting the Mets were not for sale in any way. This is now being pointed to as an example of the Wilpons' duplicity. I don't think this is entirely fair, since so many things have changed since Howard made his counterattack.

First off, you have to consider the timing of when the Madoff scandal broke: the end of 2008. Things in the world of business were pretty bad already, but the country had yet to sink into the full-blown recession we're in now. Most of the causes of this recession had already happened--the mortgage crisis, for instance--but how deeply those events would be felt was still largely unknown.

Speaking of mortgages, consider also that the Wilpons' main business, the thing on which they created their fortune, is real estate. In case you haven't noticed, that sector of the economy has taken a huge nosedive in the last few years. I would imagine the Wilpons' coffers have been hurt as much by this as anything Madoff related.

The Mets themselves are also in a very different financial place now than they were at the end of 2008. The team drew over 4 million fans to Shea that season, the stadium's last. Despite disastrous conclusions to 2007 and 2008, the Mets had contended for the playoffs for four straight years. Excitement for the soon-to-be-opened CitiField was building, as was the luxury box and season ticket revenue tied to it.

Then, the historically disastrous 2009 season happened, followed by a listless, ugly 2010. The lure of a new stadium soon wore off, and empty seats abounded at CitiField. Season ticket sales have plummeted, and I'm sure they've dropped even lower for the upcoming season. With 2011 not holding much promise, it doesn't look like the Mets can expect a spike in revenue any time soon.

None of these things happened overnight. The true depth of the Wilpons' financial issues could reasonably have taken years to fathom. Perhaps they hoped to wait out the tough economic times, only to find out the recession wasn't going away any time soon. Perhaps they counted on the Mets' play to improve, thus keeping team revenue at a certain level, but were disappointed on that front as well.

And then there's the not-so-small matter of a new lawsuit facing the Wilpons. Irving Picard, trustee for Madoff's victims, believes that the Mets' owners were among the few net "winners" from Madoff's investment (meaning they withdrew more from their accounts than they invested, reportedly to the tune of $45 million). He also reportedly contends that the Wilpons ignored "red flags" about the dubious nature of their investments. In December, he filed suit against the Wilpons to recoup an undisclosed amount of money, though The New York Times reported he might be seeking as much as $1 billion.

Even assuming Picard wins his suit, that doesn't mean he'll get a cool billion from the Wilpons. Regardless, the family could be on the hook for a significant amount of cash, which obviously makes their financial situation much more dire than it looked even in 2009.

If you say that the Wilpons lied about not needing to sell a piece of the Mets, you also have to devise a purpose behind the lie. Because people don't lie for no reason; a lie has to give someone an advantage they would otherwise not have. And in this case, I don't see a reason to lie from any standpoint, be it financial or PR-related.

By declaring yourself open to selling a piece of the team, you basically signal a certain amount of helplessness, which in turn drives down the cost of the thing you're selling. Witness what happened to Tom Hicks, former owner of the Texas Rangers. Hicks got into serious money trouble, tried to sell a piece of the team, and wound up having to declare bankruptcy and sell the whole shebang because the market waited out his desperation.

If the Wilpons had intended all along to sell the team, waiting 2+ years to do so has turned out to be a really crappy strategy. If they wanted to maximize their returns, they probably would've cashed in a piece of the team after the 2008 season, when the value of and outlook for the Mets were both pretty high. (Granted, this may seem more obvious in retrospect than it would have at the time.) And if they wanted sympathy from the press and the public for the move, protesting to anyone who'd listen their complete lack of interest in selling then changing their mind is a curious way of doing it.

Witness an article from NJ.com in which Steve Popper wonders if the Wilpons' association with Madoff makes the Mets themselves "less lovable" and "just like other evil empires, just not as successful[.]" Yes, somehow David Wright, Jose Reyes et al. may be tainted by what the Wilpons may have done in business dealings that did not directly involve the team they play for. To be fair, Popper is throwing the question out there (article title: "Has Fred Wilpon made these Mets less lovable?") more than he is lobbing an accusation. But I find it curious that the question is asked in the first place.

First off, thanks to several years of on- and off-the-field failure, every Mets-related news story becomes a setup for a punchline. At this point, I don't know what could truly harm their reputation outside of the entire 40-man roster pulling off a bank heist. Secondly, the sins of ownership are very rarely transferred to the teams they own (in the public mind, anyway). No one thought the Yankees themselves were tainted when George Steinbrenner was suspended from the game--twice. No one pinned blame on the Cincinnati Reds for the skinflint tendencies and racist outbursts of Marge Schott. Regardless of whatever craziness or ego-stroking stunt Mark Cuban involves himself in, nobody thinks less of Dirk Nowitzki for it.

For all I know, the Wilpons could be lying through their teeth and guilty as sin. Lest I come across as an apologist for them, I think many of the team's current problems can be laid at their doorstep. But when it comes to this specific issue, I honestly think they have only decided very recently to sell a piece of the Mets, and have only done so to steel themselves against the possible ramifications of the Picard lawsuit. Because unless I'm just stupid (and I will grant that as a possibility), I can't see an advantageous reason to lie about selling the team. It just doesn't make sense to me.

More than anything, I'd really like it if I didn't have to write about another dumb thing the Mets brass did, since I was hoping that was left behind in the Minaya administration. And if someone could pick up a baseball in Port St. Lucie and start throwing it, so we can all concentrate on the actual playing of baseball, that'd be great, too.

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