Early in my career, I learned that it was not a writer’s place to say that a player should retire — the decision is too personal, too emotional, too difficult for someone on the outside to understand.
Saying that an owner should sell is just as problematic, particularly when the state of the owner’s finances is not entirely clear. But while people inside and outside of baseball tell me that it’s too early to rule out Fred Wilpon’s chances of retaining control of the Mets, I find it increasingly difficult to believe that he will remain viable as owner.
For the good of the team, the good of the game and maybe even the good of his family, Wilpon needs to get out.
I understand that Wilpon has no intention of yielding majority control. I also understand that he still can survive, if he finds the right minority investors, if he reaches a reasonable settlement with the trustee for the Madoff victims, if the Mets play better than expected and exceed their revenue projections.
But how long will it take for the partial sale and Madoff case to resolve? To what extent will Wilpon be damaged even if he achieves outcomes that he deems favorable? Will he ever fully recover?
The Mets’ relative inactivity this offseason was excusable. They already were locked into too many bad contracts. The additions of one or two high-priced players probably would not have transformed the team into a World Series contender.
Next offseason will be different.
More than $60 million could come off the Mets’ payroll, creating — in theory — significant flexibility. That flexibility, though, will exist only if Wilpon supports a payroll appropriate for a New York franchise. He said recently that the Mets will have the “necessary resources” to compete. But after insisting for the longest time that Madoff scandal would not affect the team, his credibility is in question.
That said, no one really has any idea where this is all going. You hear plenty about the Mets’ debt these days, but few know the true value of Wilpon’s assets. Those assets include not just the Mets and their television network, SNY, but also Wilpon’s substantial real-estate holdings.
If Wilpon’s debts exceed his assets, then it’s game over; he must sell. Even if his net worth is still positive, he faces a severe cash crunch. His ability to secure loans — from both banks and baseball — is all but gone. The only way for him to generate cash is to sell off assets. And selling off real estate in the current economy would not achieve the desired returns.
That leaves the Mets and SNY.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that baseball is expected to approve about 14 individuals and groups to bid for the franchise. Sounds promising, but let’s see what the term sheets look like, what kinds of provisions that potential investors demand. It still seems unlikely that anyone would want a minority stake without a right of first refusal on future ownership — or a phase-in process that eventually could enable them to take control.
The best-case scenario is this: Wilpon gets the deal he wants, or something close to it. He then settles with the trustee for the Madoff victims, Irving Picard, for much less than Picard is seeking; say, $150 million rather than $1 billion. At that point, his problems behind him, Wilpon again would be in a position of relative strength.
Baseball obviously would love for that to happen; Wilpon and commissioner Bud Selig are close, and the sport loaned the Mets $25 million last November. Wilpon, universally respected within the game, first became an owner in 1980. He calls the Mets “part of my DNA.” He surely is more difficult to dismiss than Frank McCourt, the Dodgers’ embattled owner who — in baseball’s view — is out only for himself.
That, more than anything, is probably why Selig recently rejected a $200 million loan from FOX to the Dodgers, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Selig apparently feared that McCourt would use the money not for the team, but for his own personal consumption, perhaps using it to pay off his divorce. Wilpon does not operate in such fashion. The Mets, for all their troubles, again will field a top-five payroll.
From baseball’s perspective, it’s too early to pass judgment on Wilpon; he deserves every opportunity to bounce back, given his years of distinguished service to the sport. I get that. I think it’s fair. But tell that to all those Mets fans who are struggling to embrace two of commissioner Selig’s favorite words, hope and faith.
What is best for Fred Wilpon is one thing. What is best for the team and the game is quite another.