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Tom Verducci
May 30, 2011
Love for baseball and loyalty to his friends are two of the defining traits of the game's longest-standing owner. But his long, unquestioning relationship with Bernard Madoff could cost the Mets patriarch his fortune, his reputation—and the team he cherishes
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May 30, 2011

Pays The Price

Love for baseball and loyalty to his friends are two of the defining traits of the game's longest-standing owner. But his long, unquestioning relationship with Bernard Madoff could cost the Mets patriarch his fortune, his reputation—and the team he cherishes

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"I think the club became in jeopardy when he filed [for] this billion dollars. That's when I decided to sell part of the club and maintain control in our operations and share the partnership with somebody."

In January, Wilpon announced that he was looking for an investor to buy a minority share of the team for $200 million. (A buyer who puts up that much cash and assumes some of the team's debt load could own as much as 49% of the franchise.) Thirty-six candidates responded. Wilpon says he recently narrowed the list to four and could have an agreement within three weeks. While he did not name the finalists, one of the leading candidates has not been mentioned in press reports, according to a source familiar with the process.

Wilpon says the $200 million cash infusion already has been earmarked: $25 million to pay off an emergency loan that Major League Baseball extended last November, $75 million to pay down $427 million in debt the Mets are carrying ($375 million to banks and another $52 million to MLB, which extends low-interest loans of that size as a matter of course to all clubs) and $100 million toward operating costs. Wilpon says the Mets "are bleeding cash" and acknowledges that they stand to lose as much as $70 million this year.

Though the Mets will have about $64 million in salaries coming off the books after this season (from a $142 million total), they will not put much, if any, of that money back into the major league payroll. The Mets essentially have forfeited the resource advantages of playing in the country's biggest market with a new ballpark and their own regional television network, SNY, which they launched in 2006. Attendance is down 10% from last year, when they were off 1.5 million paid customers from 2008, their final year at Shea Stadium. Coming off two straight losing seasons, and one postseason appearance in the past decade, they were 22--24 at week's end, in fourth place. They are so poorly run that they are paying $22 million to players who no longer play for them.

The Mets brand has been tarnished by a series of scandals and calamities on the field and off: the 2007 guilty plea of former clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski to distributing steroids, the 2005 guilty plea of groundskeeper Dominic Valila to participating in an organized crime gambling operation, the arrest this month of longtime equipment manager Charlie Samuels for allegedly stealing equipment and uniforms, the arrest last year of closer Francisco Rodriguez for assaulting the father of his girlfriend outside the Mets' clubhouse, and Madoff ... all of it since Wilpon bought out his former partner, Nelson Doubleday, for $131 million in 2002 to become the sole owner.

The Mets' troubles have grown more acute since outfielder Carlos Beltran looked at the final strike of Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series with the bases loaded and St. Louis clinging to a 3--1 lead. They blew a seven-game lead with 17 games to go in 2007 and a 3½-game lead with the same number of games left in '08, then stayed out of contention entirely with two straight losing seasons. A slew of big-money players broke down (Beltran, Putz, Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana, Jason Bay, Billy Wagner) or simply weren't very good (Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo).

Wilpon's management team contributed to the chaos too. The Mets have let go of nine managers and general managers in the past 10 years, none of whom have been hired in the same capacity by another club. One of the G.M.'s, Omar Minaya, fired manager Willie Randolph after a 2008 game in Anaheim at 3:12 a.m. Eastern time. One year later Minaya fired VP of player development Tony Bernazard—who once ripped off his shirt in a clubhouse challenge to minor leaguers—and turned a live televised news conference into an ugly exchange with a reporter that paved the way to his own ouster. A year later Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel, Randolph's replacement, were fired.

Over the previous four seasons Wilpon has sunk more money into payroll ($537 million) than any other team except the Yankees and the Red Sox—with no postseason appearances and a 326--322 record to show for it. "Put all the money aside," Wilpon says of the demise of the Mets. "It hurts. I haven't gone public with my feelings about this, but it hurts. In retrospect, yeah, I made a lot of poor judgments. [Madoff] is by far the biggest regret. By far. The ramifications of some of the others are minimum compared to the regret of trusting a friend with an enormous amount of earned money."

You know, I'm in the investment business."

With that simple line Bernie Madoff opened a door for Fred Wilpon to enter his very exclusive financial world. Wilpon laughed to himself about the humble nature of Madoff's opening. Bernie Madoff in the investment business? It was like Springsteen introducing himself as being in the music business. This was the 1980s. Of course Wilpon knew all about Madoff, and not just because he had seen him around Roslyn for years as their sons enjoyed sports and friendships together. He, in fact, had first met Madoff many years earlier when high school buddies Mark Madoff and Jeff Wilpon, who was a year and a half older than Mark, introduced Bernie to Fred.

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