I remember reading an online article about Fred Wilpon two years back when the wheels had officially fallen off the Omar Minaya Era and being a Met fan became a miserable experience once again. In the article, people who used to be in the organization were anonymously quoted about the type of person and owner he was. The general consensus was that Fred Wilpon was a nice man, a loyal and decent human being……….perhaps a little too nice and a little too loyal. One of the former employees in the piece described Wilpon as “a well-meaning dope”.
I loved that line. It was a wonderfully apt description, even more so now. The Mets are comically inept because owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz are well-meaning dopes.
Fans have known this for some time and have spent years wishing that the Wilpons would sell to owners who weren’t wishy-washy saps. But that was never going to happen. Wilpon and Katz’s net worth was billions; they had a new stadium, a new TV network and were in the biggest market in the nation. As bad as Fred and Saul were running a baseball operation, even they couldn’t screw up a comfy financial situation like that, right?
So we were resigned to perpetual Wilpon ownership, even rationalized it to an extent. It could be worse; we could be the Pirates. At least our owners have money and certainly spend it. It could be worse; we could have despicable human beings for owners like Donald Sterling or Dan Snyder. At least our owners genuinely care about the fortunes of the team and give a passing interest about the fans. Like a blind squirrel finding a nut, we occasionally experience an exciting season or two per decade unlike the Royals. Like my younger brother says after he goes on a three minute rant about something that’s pissing him off: Ehh, whaddya gonna do. Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz own the Mets and would for years to come. Ehh, whaddya gonna do.
So I didn’t get my hopes up when details on the lawsuit filed against the “well-meaning dopes” by the trustee for the victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme came to light. It’s main argument is that “sophisticated investors” like the Wilpons either “knew or should’ve known about the scheme”. That was ridiculous, I thought. The whole point of a Ponzi scheme is to find a bunch of suckers who blindly invest money and should’ve known better. And when the New York Times kindly reminded everyone that Wilpon and Katz had previously been hosed in another Ponzi scheme, it revealed them to be suckers who should’ve known better of the highest order. Plus, if you’ve been had in not one but TWO pyramid schemes and seem to have the rigid investment standards of 1) be my friend and 2) be Jewish, “sophisticated investor” you are not.
And the possibility of the Wilpons knowing about the fraud is ridiculous as well. No one who invests as heavily into Madoff and openly recommends him to friends as Wilpon and Katz did is in on anything. Fred was sold on his super-pallie Bernie, glowingly telling people that Madoff was “smarter than everyone else”. (That he was, Fred, that he was.) So the lawsuit would result in some sizable settlement but nothing that Wilpon couldn’t handle.
But as the week went on, more information was unearthed and the announcement was made that the Mets would be selling a minority share, there was more and more evidence that maybe the Wilpons were in trouble. Serious trouble. My hopes were getting up that they would have to sell the Mets.
It needs to be stressed that despite all the talk about the Wilpons getting their initial investment back, Fred and Saul took a major bath. Like the other Madoff investors, they were under the illusion that their investments were going up a remarkable 18% a year. Obviously that’s impossible, as any “sophisticated investor” would know, but that’s what Wilpon believed. So their books had liquid assets in the hundreds of millions that simply didn’t exist. But it was believed to be there and was used to facilitate business transactions, like say taking out over $900 million in loans to build a new stadium and create a TV network. This is not unlike how banks (ironically like the one the ballpark is named for) or our government operates, racking up massive debt with imaginary or misallocated funds to back it up. The Wilpons have racked up massive debt over the years under the belief that they had hundreds of millions sitting with Madoff in reserve. They never did. Whatever the extent of their current financial trouble, make no mistake the Wilpons are in trouble.
The closest example to the situation the Mets are in right now would be what the Texas Rangers recently went through. Tom Hicks, a venture capitalist who’s most note-worthy move as owner of the Rangers was to blow baseball’s salary structure to hell with his $252 million contract to Alex Rodriguez, had assumed over $500 million in debt to purchase the Rangers along with other sport franchises. When the economic collapse happened in 2008, much of Hicks investments went poof. Needing quick cash, he initially offered a minority share of his sports group, maintaining that he would keep majority ownership. That never happened. Interested buyers waited him out and Hicks was forced to put the team up for auction last summer.
So when the Wilpons announced the minority sale and stressed that they would keep ownership of the Mets, it sounded familiar. They’re kidding themselves thinking someone is going put in $250 million with no part of SNY and no say in the shitty way the team is run. The possibility that the Wilpons will go down to the same fate as Tom Hicks and sell is very real. And hopefully it will happen.
Because this is final straw to prove that Fred Wilpon, Lil’ Jeffy Wilpon and Saul Katz, who have had a hand in the running of the Mets for over 30 years now, are completely unfit to run a baseball team. The mismanagement and ineptness that show on the field and in the locker rooms has now spread to the accounting books. After the Madoff swindle was exposed, Fred Wilpon swore that dealings with the Mets and Madoff were kept separate. Articles have come out exposing Wilpon’s statement as a boldfaced lie, stating “that the role Mr. Madoff played in the financial life of the ball club and the Wilpon and Katz families was pervasive” and that Wilpon “sometimes adopted the strategy of placing deferred money owed the players with Mr. Madoff’s investment firm”. Because of reckless idiocy like that, the Wilpons and Katz have taken an $845 million dollar franchise and possibly bankrupted it. Forbes estimates the true net worth for the team to be -$225 million when all the debt is calculated. That is inexcusable.
I am reminded of a scene in Martin Scorcese’s Casino where Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) confronts one of his floor bosses after a patron won two jackpots off of one machine. Ace argues that it was impossible for that to happen and demanded how it was allowed. Finally, DeNiro fires him on the spot saying:
“Listen, if you didn’t know you’re bein’ scammed, you’re too fuckin’ dumb to keep this job. If you did know, you were in on it. Either way, you’re out. Get out! Go on. Let’s go.”
He could’ve easily been talking to Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, our “well-meaning dopes”. I pray this situation forces them to sell. Enough is enough. It’s time for them to finally go.