If Kermit thinks it’s not easy being green, he should try being a New York Mets fan in the city it shares with the most successful franchise in sports history, the Yankees. To be a Mets fan in New York is to prefer Shemp, to be the guy who bought the Betamax (great, now I’ll have to explain that reference to my daughter), or to be that guy in Wham! who wasn’t George Michael. (What was his name again? Exactly.) I like to delude myself that supporting the downtrodden Mets over the arrogant Yankees is like supporting the 99% over the 1%, though as you will see, the Mets owner is a charter member of the 1%.
In the 25 seasons since the Mets’ last championship in 1986, the pinstriped, deep-pocketed behemoths from the Bronx have won five, and their appearance in the playoffs has been as certain as death and taxes. Meanwhile, failure for the Mets arrives frequently and often with a degree of infamy. Ignominious late-season collapses in both 2007 and 2008 left the Mets outside the playoffs on the final day of the season, downfalls leading to the memorable Conan O’Brien bit in which Mr. Met comes home from the stadium, finds Mrs. Met in bed with the Phillie Phanatic, then tries to commit suicide but can’t because his head is too big to fit in the oven or the window. Only the Mets, as they did in August 2009, could end a game (and a potential game-winning ninth-inning rally) by hitting into an unassisted triple play. The perplexing inability of reliable sluggers like Jason Bay to hit their way out of a paper bag after coming to Queens has fans wondering if the Mets’ uniforms are made of kryptonite.
That 1986 championship team lives under its own tragic cloud. Just in the last year, besides Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter’s death from a brain tumor:
- Ace pitcher Dwight Gooden, after decades of drug and legal problems, ended up on Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab
- Charlie Samuels, the team’s clubhouse manager for 27 years, was indicted for criminal possession of team memorabilia, as well as embezzlement and tax evasion charges stemming from team expenses
- Relief pitcher Roger McDowell, now pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves, was suspended for making homophobic remarks and gestures to fans in San Francisco, leading to a Gloria Allred press conference memorably excerpted on The Daily Show in which one of the insulted fans demonstrates McDowell’s obscene gesture while his young children stand next to him
- Center fielder Lenny Dykstra was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading no-contest to grand theft auto and charges of filing a false financial statement. He has also been charged with bankruptcy fraud, identity theft, sexual assault and indecent exposure.
None of these events, however, explains why the 2012 Mets, and probably the teams for the next few years, has an especially dismal outlook. Rather, it’s because the team’s principal owner, Fred Wilpon, was good friends with Bernie Madoff. I’m no financial wizard – I have trouble with any dollar amount containing more than one zero – but I’ll attempt to give the Cliffs Notes summary.
Wilpon did almost all of his investment through Madoff. He encouraged his friends, as well as some of the Mets players, to invest with Madoff. When the team signed a player, any deferred money in the contract was invested with Madoff. Much of the team’s financial operation flowed through Madoff accounts. The New York Times later reported:
According to an analysis of the list of Mr. Madoff’s 15,000 clients, done by Jamie Peppard, a former financial auditor who has studied the Madoff case, more than 500 accounts can be tied to Mr. Wilpon and Mr. [Saul] Katz [Wilpon’s brother-in-law and part-owner of the team] . Mr. Wilpon had at least 17 accounts just under his name, according to her analysis.
Wilpon was warned by some acquaintances that Madoff’s continuing high rate of return smelled fishy, but he continued to trust his friend.
When Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed in December 2008, it was estimated that the Wilpon family lost $700 million (Wilpon insists it was much less). Since the Mets, who were still considered a contending team at the time, were only weeks from opening their brand new stadium, Citifield, it was disastrous timing.
However, the Wilpon losses weren’t the only problem. He had also made money over the years, cashing out some of his Madoff returns. This triggered a lawsuit by Irving Picard, the trustee who was representing Madoff’s victims. Picard’s suit alleged that Wilpon should have known, and possibly did know, that Madoff’s business was corrupt. With the possibility of a legal judgment of up to $1 billion, the Mets’ assets were effectively frozen and the club was quickly transformed from one of baseball’s bigger spenders into a penny-ante organization.
As we Mets fans watched the Yankees’ free-spending ways with disdain (that hides more than a touch of envy), we sighed as our team completed the largest single-season payroll slash in baseball history, from $142 million to $90 million (granted, still a larger payroll than many teams). All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran was traded away in the middle of the 2011 season. The team’s best player, N.L. batting champion Jose Reyes, walked away as a free agent after the 2011 season to the divisional rival Miami Marlins without the Mets making even a token offer. There is speculation that its best remaining offensive player, third baseman David Wright, will be traded in midseason to avoid having to sign him to a lucrative contract extension. My once free-spending team treated the free-agent market like a Salvation Army shopper looking for the least damaged merchandise.
Many Mets fans, including me, desperately wished the Wilpons would sell the team or be forced out by Commissioner Bud Selig. The sad reality of being a sports fan, however, is that no matter how much you live and die with your team – I’m probably wearing my Johan Santana #57 T-shirt as you read this – you are merely an observer with no say in matters. The team is the rich man’s toy, and often just one of many.
Unlike former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who stripped his team’s assets to fund his lavish lifestyle and that of his now ex-wife, Wilpon has not been an abrasive presence and has kept the best interests of the league in mind. Therefore, Selig stood by Wilpon, giving the team emergency loans to stay afloat and make payroll, and giving Wilpon time to resolve the matter. Two weeks ago, Wilpon settled the Picard lawsuit for $162 million, bringing some long-term stability to the franchise’s finances, but leaving the short-term picture bleak.
Still, today is Opening Day and this afternoon our ace pitcher, Santana, returns to the mound following 19 months spent recovering from shoulder surgery. I will spend the afternoon with a fellow Mets fan, switch the TV on and root, root, root for the home team. However, I won’t be surprised if by the eighth inning, we’re scouring the cable channels for a Three Stooges film. They might be showing one featuring Shemp.