The sad state of affairs with the New York Mets is being well documented, but there’s another side to the story that isn’t getting the attention it deserves. How have we reached this point, and more significantly, what can be done to solve the problem?
Mike Puma wrote a wide-ranging story for the New York Post the other day in which he explored the nature of the Mets reputation for being stingy when it comes to payroll. The main thrust of his piece quotes an industry source as saying:
“Fred is pissed every time the Yankees make a move,” said a person who speaks to Wilpon regarding baseball matters. “And he always seems surprised.”
This, of course, is a direct reference to the Yankees loading up by adding Giancarlo Stanton to their already potent lineup and nibbling ever so close to the $197 million threshold before the luxury tax kicks in. This, while the Mets feel the need to shave $20-25 million from the 2017 payroll of $155 million.
“He cares a lot about the Yankees,” Puma also writes, and Wilpon ” keeps saying the Yankees can’t keep this model up, a source said. And they keep showing that they can.”
The point that Puma is making but not stating uncovers a unique perspective about Fred Wilpon we don’t often see. Which is, he is human and, on occasion, will demonstrate the kind of emotions associated with human beings, and not the stoicism and automaton nature of his character.
Moreover, as we often find when trying to understand the present, we need to drill deeper into the past. A good primer on the Wilpons was written by Tom Lay for Deadspin in 2016. Lay goes back to the early days when Wilpon, along with his partners Saul and Michael Katz, was a prime mover in the same vein as Donald Trump in New York City’s commercial real estate market.
Lay cites all the numbers but suffices to say the real estate boom was very kind to Wilpon – until it wasn’t. After losing $550 million in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and paying out $80 million to settle a lawsuit claiming they were in on the scheme, Fred and Jeff Wilpon managed to keep their team by taking out loans and slashing payroll.
Things got so sorry that at one point the Wilpons were tossed a lifeline by Major League Baseball. This was reported in depth in 2011 by Michael S. Schmidt and David Waldstein in a story written for the New York Times. Of significance, the authors state that within the same timeframe:
“The Mets have exhausted baseball’s standard bank line of credit, tens of millions of dollars that Mr. Selig and the sport’s owners make available to teams for a variety of reasons in the course of a year. The owners also have more than $400 million in debt on the team. Thus, the additional money provided by Mr. Selig — done in secret last November — might have been crucial in keeping the club functioning.”
The real kicker, however, came about more recently in 2015, when the Mets reached the World Series. That episode occurred when Josh Kosman unveiled in the New York Post that “Wilpon and co-owner Saul Katz last month quietly refinanced roughly $700 million of debt owed by the team and SportsNet New York, the regional sports network controlled by their Sterling Equities, two sources close to the situation said.”
From there, things descended even further…
All of which points to the fact the New York Mets are in a difficult situation. And further, Fred Wilpon is not a villain as much as he is a poor businessman. He, along with his partners at Sterling Equities, have dug a hole so deep it is not likely they will ever reach liquidity again.
And the fact Fred Wilpon doesn’t understand how the Yankees do what they do is further testament to his inability to grasp the fundamentals of doing business in America.
When everyone was making money in the real estate business, all was well. But that bubble burst heavy on the Wilpons when they fell into the hands of the real villain in the story, Bernie Madoff, which turned out to be yet another mistake in business acumen by the Wilpons.
You will not hear of me making excuses for Fred Wilpon. But at the same time, there are reasons why the Mets are where they are today. The damage has been done, and there is little chance it is reconcilable.
And no one would have reason to care about the Wilpons if not for the fact they are conjoined with the city of New York and the New York Mets.
At some point, things will reach a climax and Major League Baseball will be forced to step in enabling the Wilpons to sell their shares and move on. There is a precedent set for a move of this nature set back in 2011 when MLB filed suit against the Los Angeles Dodgers forcing the sale of the team by the warring McCourts.
Today, the Dodgers have regained their status as one of the superior franchises in MLB, even to the point where they could avoid paying a luxury tax, while still fielding a team that could be on its way to the World Series in 2018.
A story like that is possible for the New York Mets. Regrettably, though, it’s a story for the future and not the present.