When the Wilpons met the Dolans

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 1999, the Mets were almost bought by Cablevision. Would they be any worse off than they are today?

The Mets' existence has been reduced to some cruel hybrid of Groundhog Day and Catch-22. The team seems stuck in a loop, facing the same financial crises with disturbing regularity. When these bullets are dodged at the last minute, the danger they posed to the team are explained with a convoluted sophistry that serves not the truth, but those in charge.

Case in point: Back in January, the Wilpons refinanced a $250 million loan that was due to paid in full in June 2014, a maneuver that sounded eerily like previous finagling of their massive Madoff-induced debt. When the news broke, Mets ownership proudly announced that refinancing would prevent any restrictions on payroll, even though they'd maintained for years that the Mets would never have payroll restrictions. This announcement of the removal of payroll restrictions that never existed was accompanied by the expenditure of zero dollars, not even on the modest prize of Stephen Drew, who remains curiously unemployed.

The celebrated loan refinancing left open the issue of a $600 million loan the Wilpons took against their regional sports network, SNY, which comes due in 2015. However that gets resolved, it's hard to see how it won't restrict the team's spending even further. In other words, same time next year, folks.

While it's hard to ask fans to root for their team to face financial ruin, that loan payment was their best hope for a change in ownership. The Wilpons have jumped another financial hurdle, and it remains highly unlikely MLB will intervene to force them out the way they did with the Dodgers and Frank McCourt. Bud Selig has been bound and determined that the Wilpons hang onto the team, mostly because they were staunch supporters of his during the coup that deposed Faye Vincent as the game's last independent commissioner. There's no reason to think Selig's handpicked successor will behave any differently.

If you want to look on the bright side, consider this: Over a decade ago, Cablevision came close to purchasing the Mets. Which means that right now, fans would be cursing not the Wilpons, but the Dolans.

Cablevision has had its eye on baseball for a long time. Their first serious foray came in 1998, when they engaged in serious talks to buy a chunk of the Yankees from George Steinbrenner. That year, with the Yankees in the middle of an historically dominant season, The Boss pressed his advantage by agitating for a new stadium in the Bronx, lest he relocate the team to the West Side Yards in Manhattan, or to New Jersey, or to Tampa, or to wherever would welcome him. In July of that year, he swore he'd keep the Yankees in the Bronx, provided they passed the 3 million mark in attendance and he could be "guaranteed similar attendance in the future." At season's end, the Yanks finished just a hair shy of that mark (2.95 million, give or take).

Sensing opportunity, Cablevision swooped in to see if an agitated Steinbrenner was ready to cash out. Under the reported terms of the deal, Cablevision would purchase a majority stake in the Yankees for something in the neighborhood of $500-600 million. Steinbrenner would continue to be in charge of the Yankees as team president, and might also be given the option of running Cablevision's Madison Square Garden tenants, the Knicks and Rangers. Cablevision didn't outright promise to keep the Yankees in New York, but did profess they "would be sensitive to what New York wants."

The longer talks dragged on, however, the colder Big Stein's feet got, as he seemed loath to part with his ownership stake. The official reason for the deal's failure was that Steinbrenner sought too much money in his new role. When desired incentives were factored in, Cablevision would have been on the hook to pay him as much as $100 million over 10 years. (One executive, pointing to the Mets catcher who'd just signed a lucrative contract, said Steinbrenner was "looking for Piazza money.") There were also inevitable clashes over how much control Steinbrenner would maintain over the team, which didn't sit well with his would-be employers. "Chuck Dolan is not a person who is dictated to in a business deal," sniffed one Cablevision business associate. By the end of 1998, the deal was dead.

Cablevision's baseball dreams were not dead, however, because they soon turned their sights on the Mets. Negotiations between the Wilpons and the Dolans picked up speed quickly. By the time spring training rolled around in 1999, the two parties had reached the brass tacks stage.

In terms of cash, the deal was reportedly in the same ballpark as the failed Yankees merger, but would have had Cablevision buying the team outright and installing Fred Wilpon as a general partner. This infusion of cash would have allowed the Mets to both chase pricey free agents and to build Wilpon's dream project, a new domed ballpark styled after Ebbetts Field, on the same site as Shea Stadium. The sale also would have shielded Wilpon and his heirs from hefty estate taxes. In return, Wilpon would develop a parcel of land on Ninth Avenue for a new Madison Square Garden.

Talks went on for fits and starts throughout 1999. Wilpon became increasingly anxious to nail down a sale, figuring that public financing for a new ballpark would be less certain after Rudolph Giuliani's mayoral administration ended in 2001. At midseason, an ownership change seemed so likely that Wilpon had to publicly assure fans such a sale would not prevent the team from adding players at the deadline. By August, a rival owner said "they're sending papers back and forth putting in the last details."

And then suddenly, nothing happened.

Initially, the main sticking point was Nelson Doubleday, a mostly silent co-owner of the Mets but still a co-owner at the time. Doubleday had zero part in the Cablevision negotiations and showed little enthusiasm for entering them, or for initiating any talks to build a new ballpark. In June of 1999, when things were supposedly heating up between the Mets and Cablevision, Doubleday shrugged and told the New York Times, "I haven't talked to the Dolans for months." Wilpon had little recourse but to wait for his partner to come around on the issue, which Doubleday showed no sign of doing.

After the summer of 1999, no progress was made on a sale of the team. Doubleday's health slowed things even further, as he came down with an illness that required a liver transplant. He recovered in time to be seen at Shea for the Mets' pennant run in 2000, and to tell the press that he had zero desire to ask the public to pay for a new Mets ballpark, much to the Wilpons' chagrin.

Doubleday's resistance gave Fred Wilpon time to think, and to acquire Steinbrenner's case of premature sellers' remorse. The Cablevision arrangement held no guarantees that he or his family would continue to run the Mets. With his son Jeff heavily involved with developing the Mets' proposed stadium, Wilpon feared a sale to Cablevision would take his dream project out of his hands. Talk of a sale fizzled out.

In 2001, Cablevision had another shot to buy into the Mets when Doubleday, fed up with dealing with the Wilpons, finally decided to sell his 50 percent stake in the team. Doubleday reportedly sought out Cablevision, preferring to sell to them than to his soon-to-be-ex-partners. By that point, however, the Dolans were preoccupied with attempting to purchase the Red Sox. Thus rebuffed, Doubleday was all but forced to sell to the Wilpons. Even amid the team's financial ruin, Cablevision has not made a serious bid to purchase the team since.

Would the Dolans be any worse for the Mets than the Wilpons? The change would have made the team impervious to the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff scandal. Considering that owning a cable company remains a license to print money, the team would surely be in better financial shape. The Dolans spend-now-plan-later approach might work better in a sport without a salary cap.

All that said, the example of the Knicks and Rangers proves that the Dolans would almost certainly be much more meddlesome in their running of the Mets than the Wilpons are. Dolan-related personnel moves on the Knicks in particular (take your pick) suggests the team would still be subject to the same pointless PR messes and LOLMETS headlines. And say what you want about Jeff Wilpon, but as far as I know he doesn't spend most of his time and money paying session musicians to put on a blues fantasy camp for his benefit.

So there are your choices, Mets fans: Payroll slashing and half-truths about financial health, or incompetent meddling and postgame concerts by JD and the Straight Shot. I think Yossarian could relate to that.

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