The Wilpons Are Going Nowhere, Part II—Evil Fred

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It’s time to stop with the “yeah buts” and come to the realization that the Wilpons are more resourceful than they’ve been given credit for. Fred Wilpon didn’t get rich by being stupid and the money they’re borrowing, while viewed as a desperate lifeline with the opportunity to pay down a debt that’s set to rise exponentially in 2014, is a daily business endeavor for people who have the money to purchase a sports franchise in the first place. If a person owes the banks hundreds of millions of dollars, it benefits neither the banks nor the borrower if there’s a default. In fact, it’s a disaster. Therefore it behooves the Wilpon creditors to help them, and if that means providing a loan at favorable terms and the Wilpons borrowing against SNY, then that’s what they’re going to do. It’s easier to assist the current owner than it would be to stage a liquidation or for MLB to force them to sell the Mets.

Since the Bernie Madoff swindle was exposed, there’s been an overt attempt to display the Wilpons in an unfavorable light by tossing everything that’s happened to them personally and with their ballclub into one giant Dutch oven and somehow concoct a palatable meal with ingredients that don’t mesh.

When they backed out of the agreed upon deal with David Einhorn they were “being the Wilpons.” Actually, the deal was unfavorable to them as Einhorn wanted significant say-so in the operations of the club and preapproval as majority owner. With Einhorn being so aggressive, the relationship was doomed to end with a power struggle for control of the club and it was a battle that the Wilpons, still trying to find their financial equilibrium, would probably not be in shape to win. They were wise to pull out from it when they had the opportunity to do so.

Steve Cohen and Jim McCann were buying their way in? Both have questionable histories in their business lives with Cohen employees investigated and arrested for insider trading and McCann’s 1-800-Flowers operation accused of overcharging customers.

Is it the people or is it the businesses they’re involved in that leaves them ripe for financial mistakes that, to the layman, would view as “illegal” or “wrong”? I have no idea what Cohen and McCann were up to. Perhaps they knew what was happening with their companies and perhaps they didn’t. Either way, it’s ridiculous to link that with Wilpon involvement. Because these people were investing in the Mets, it was equated into the Wilpons being at fault as if they’re supposed to comb over every little instance in a friend/potential business partner’s past before accepting his or her money to be a partial owner of the club.

Bill Maher bought his way in as well and he’s a controversial, potty-mouthed, unabashedly left wing political commentator and comedian who likes to smoke pot. Does that mean that Fred Wilpon is sitting in Maher’s Jacuzzi with a group of strippers and getting high? Given the nature of the attacks against the Mets owners, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the implication.

All that’s missing is the ominous music in the background, Fred and Jeff Wilpon walking in slow motion, and a ludicrous connection from so far in outer space that people believe it because it’s so asinine.

Every huge business with tentacles flowing all over and poking multiple pies on numerous platforms will have circumstances that don’t look quite right. Sometimes that’s intentional and sometimes it’s not.

In opposition to the obvious accusations of graft that accompanied Frank McCourt’s tenure as Dodgers owner in which MLB essentially shoved him out the door as bankruptcy filings indicated that he was possibly taking money from the club to maintain a lavish lifestyle like some sort of Beverly Hillbilly, the Wilpons are well-liked by the other owners in baseball and Fred Wilpon is close with Commissioner Bud Selig. Selig, if he could help it, wasn’t going to take steps to force the Wilpons out. Perhaps it was friendship or perhaps it was that Selig and his inner circle people examined the Wilpons’ plans and understood that if they settled the Madoff lawsuit with trustee Irving Picard, regained some of the money they lost, and got their array of businesses back on solid financial footing, then they could do as they just did and secure a loan to have more cash available to spend on the team.

While the easy decision is to take that money and purchase cosmetic upgrades, given the manner in which GM Sandy Alderson and his staff have gone about rebuilding the farm system and swiped top prospects from the Giants (Zack Wheeler) for the soon-to-be-free agent Carlos Beltran in the summer of 2011 and Blue Jays (Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard) for R.A. Dickey, it would make little sense to spend for the sake of it. There are players out on the market that can help the Mets, but the strength of the NL East and their own weaknesses makes it risky to even part with a second round draft pick as compensation plus pay the amount of long term dollars it will to get a Michael Bourn. The Mets could use Bourn, but is it worth it at his agent Scott Boras’s current requests? No.

The important fact is, though, that they can do something significant with the money available. This team isn’t far away from contention. With the young pitching they’ve accumulated; their new young catcher with All-Star potential d’Arnaud; David Wright having re-upped to stay long-term; the pitching and Ike Davis, they’re on the verge of taking the next step.

It has to be remembered that the Madoff nightmare began in December of 2008 when the contending Mets from 2006-2008 were on the downside of that cycle. It took another two years for the entire apparatus to come down completely with Omar Minaya fired and a new regime—with the aforementioned limited funds and mandate to rebuild the farm system—in place with Alderson.

Five year plans are five year plans for a reason. It takes at least three to get rid of the dead weight (Jason Bay); change the template of how they find players; draft well and let the young players develop; and to alter the perception of the team as a dead-end, transforming it into a destination that players will welcome rather than use because they were traded there or have no other choice.

It’s hard to remember, but there was a time that no one wanted to go to the Phillies, the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Red Sox. Things change.

No matter when the club finally turns the corner, the Wilpons will be the owners of the team. They’re going nowhere. By the time 2014 rolls around (or even 2013 if the young pitching comes along faster than expected), no one’s going to say a word about the ownership since the on-field product will make the Mets fans and fans in general forget that Bernie Madoff even existed and the media members whose agendas are all-too-clear will run out of places to put the goalposts to salvage their predictions—few of which have come to pass.

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The Wilpons Are Going Nowhere, Part I—Preying on Ignorance

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After the avalanche of personal financial losses combined with the inability to spend to bolster a flagging franchise and heavily backloaded contracts, the Mets fell from legitimate World Series contender and big market spender to scrimper and saver. They scoured the scrapheap to find bargains and hoped to remain competitive while the organization was rebuilt from top to bottom with a drastically reduced payroll at the big league level and an ownership under siege from all angles. Attendance collapsed and fans called—prayed—for the Wilpons to sell the franchise. The Mets had no money to keep their own free agents such as Jose Reyes, nor to buy the bigger names available on the market. Rookies got the chance to play not out of development nor having won jobs outright, but because they had no one else to put out there.

Between the lines you can read the clear disappointment from media members who’ve made it their life’s mission to prove that their initial assessments of the Wilpon financial nightmare would eventually result in them unloading the Mets to pay their bills. They made their statements, factually, in the beginning. Then the tenor changed to reflect the “I want to be right,” dynamic.

Howard Megdal, who wrote a book regarding the Mets and Madoff, is constantly shifting field position from one area to the next as if it was a preplanned or desperate attempt to wind up being accurate in his projections about something. Much like the Wilpons, he’s adapting, except the Wilpons are doing it successfully.

This piece on Capital New York refers to the attendance figures and the bond ratings for Citi Field being lowered by Standard and Poor’s because of poor on-field projections and attendance; this latest one indulges into the same random speculation that’s been evident in the reporting from the start but was more effectively camouflaged then as opposed to now.

I’m not questioning the math used by Megdal and Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, but I am questioning the interpretation of the math and the agendas behind the interpretation.

Does any of this—the bonds, the debt, Madoff—matter now? Or will a rejuvenated Mets club with some money to spend and young players showing their wares at the big league level breathe new life into a jaded fanbase and improve the situation to the point that the bond rating rebounds? And is it time to move on from the endless prophecies of financial doom and accept that the Wilpons are going to survive as owners of the Mets?

Few if any predicted a settlement with the Wilpons in the lawsuit that Irving Picard, the trustee in the Madoff recovery case, had filed. Yet they settled. Megdal writes that the trustee “had” to settle for fear of the Wilpons being unable to pay as if the circumstances of the settlement (the “why”) render the result meaningless. I thought the end result was the key. It’s like a homegrown club winning a World Series or a group of free agent mercenaries winning the World Series—what’s the difference?

There is a correlation between payroll and attendance, but as with any position of advocacy, the “why” is twisted to suit this line of thought. Teams with a low payroll are:

  • Rebuilding, financially-strapped clubs like the Mets and Indians
  • Functioning with a low payroll through conscious ownership decision and profiteering like the Marlins
  • Dealing with not having any money like the Rays and doing the best they can under those constraints.

It doesn’t take complicated formulas to determine why teams draw or don’t draw. The Rays’ attendance woes stem from a lack of fan interest without connection to how good the team is. Cubs fans go to the games no matter what. With the Yankees, we’ll see in 2013-2014 how much the outlandish prices fans pay for tickets, parking, food, etc., plus a team that’s not as strong as it’s been in the past will influence fan enthusiasm/apathy. Knowing the Yankees fanbase, I’d say their attendance will fall commensurately with how their mediocre current roster is expected to play.

An interesting case study to the on-field product/attendance/payroll connection will be the 2013 Red Sox. They’ve had a top four payroll and a top four attendance figure in the AL in recent years, but their 2012 season was a disaster and there are still ominous signs for a team that’s spent to improve and will have a payroll around sixth or so in MLB, but might not be significantly better in 2013 than the .500 club they were before they gutted the team in August of 2012. By the summer, the fans might stop going to Fenway. Bad team=bad attendance independent of payroll.

Each team in each city has a reason that there may be an attendance ceiling or that it may plummet through the floor. There’s no theory of relativity and immutable law of the universe to explain why this is the case for every single club because it’s different for every single club.

It’s market-driven and cyclical. It can’t be chalked up to “big payroll=big attendance” any more than “big money star players=championship team”. That was proven by the Angels, Marlins and Red Sox just last season. The A’s won their division and were twelfth in the AL in attendance. Since the Rays became contenders in 2008, the highest they’ve finished in attendance on the AL is ninth. Usually they’re last or next-to-last.

You can’t make a state like Florida suddenly love going to baseball games by putting together championship caliber teams (as both the Rays and Marlins have done in the past 15 years); by spending money (as the Marlins have done); or by building a beautiful new park with luxurious, non-baseball-related amenities (as the Marlins have also done). It doesn’t work because the fans in Florida are not interested. In New York, once the Mets fans believe that the team is for real, they’ll go to the games again. When the team was playing well over their heads into the summer for the past two seasons, the fans didn’t come back to the park in droves because they (accurately) didn’t believe in its reality. It’s not hard to calculate.

Few expected the Mets to have the willingness or ability to re-sign David Wright to a contract that he deemed acceptable. The prevailing view was that they’d tender an offer that was done so for its own sake with zero intention of keeping him, then keep him for his star status while he was signed, trade him in July of 2013, or let him leave as a free agent. But they jumped in with a major, fair market deal to keep their most marketable player. Few expected them to have any money available at all until possibly after the 2013 season when Jason Bay and Johan Santana both come off the books, but now with the loan they’ve taken out against SNY, they have money to play with.

There’s a fine line between objective reporting and, “Look, I was right.” Where the fuzziness ends and clarity begins is in the eye of the reader, but it’s become an egomaniacal prophecy to be “right” and prove that the Wilpons are shady characters who behaved either as outright greedy criminals or were willing accomplices without getting their hands dirty as they should have known something was amiss, but didn’t want to ask questions to stop the money from coming in.

In the end, it no longer matters because they’re getting the house in order financially and on the field, like it or not.

All through Megdal’s piece about S&P, there’s an underlying “Haha!!! Look!! It’s not just me that’s saying this!!!” along with the caveats to provide enough wiggleroom to save face in certain quarters that don’t know any better and say, after the fact, that “X was always a possibility,” with another phantom trapdoor looming ahead.

The media members haranguing the Wilpons are doing so to: A) bolster their own arguments; and B) stir up discontent in the fan base with flashy, summarized assertions that, when dissected, are not the entire story. They’re playing on people’s ignorance of the ins and outs of the financial quagmire the Wilpons found themselves in rather than explain all possibilities in objective terms, simply and concisely. They report with an end in mind and that can’t be classified as reporting at all.

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