The great Dan Quisenberry referred to his hardest pitch as his "Peggy Lee fastball." As in, "Is that all there is?"
Well, in the wake of the New York Mets’ signing of free agent Alejandro De Aza to plug a big hole in the outfield, this is starting to seem like a Peggy Lee offseason for the Mets.
Yes, they did shore up second base when they traded for Pittsburgh’s Neil Walker. But is this really all there is? De Aza and Walker, for a team playing in New York and coming off its best season in many years?
The Mets are likely headed for another season in the lower third of payroll, and there is only one way that is remotely tolerable: if the owners plan on getting a head start on the ugly task that awaits them in years to come, when their brilliant young pitchers will become brilliant expensive pitchers. Will they push to lock two or three of them up – and with serious effort, not the window-dressed half-measures they have been famous for through the years? If so, perhaps they can start to earn the kind of trust that qualifying for the World Series hasn’t yet brought them. Because it really is as simple as that: Most Mets fans don’t trust the Wilpons, and believe they have neither the will nor the riches to back up their dusty old promises to act boldly once the people returned. Well, you returned. You are likely to pack the ballpark this summer because in your heart of hearts, all you want is to love your baseball team as fervently as you can. You just want to know that the men who sign the checks feel the same passion. It would be nice to say that they do. It was hard to say that Tuesday afternoon.
Two things about this.
One, if the fans are packing the ballpark this summer, then does it really matter if they trust the Wilpons?
Actually, I’m not sure the fans really care one way or the other about the Wilpons. As long as the Mets have marquee players and they’re winning, the fans will show up. Regardless of the owners. As I believe we saw last summer.
Two, I don’t doubt for a moment the Wilpons’ passion for winning. If only because very few people buy sports teams with the intention of losing. Most of them, in my experience, hope to win on the field and break even (at least) financially.
The Wilpons’ problem is that they’re not even close to breaking even, personally. Howard Megdal, who has for some years been the Wilpons’ harshest critic, doesn’t question the Wilpons’ passion for winning. Rather, he blames the Mets’ payroll on the Wilpons paying off their personal creditors with their baseball revenues. And Megdal’s not buying the theory that money’s being saved now so all those brilliant young pitchers can be paid later:
Back in 2008, the team’s investments with Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff were discovered to be a fraud. More than $500 million in assets Wilpon and Katz thought they had — and had borrowed against — vanished. Accordingly, just to stay afloat, they needed to take out a $430 million loan against the team and $450 million against their majority ownership stake in SNY (a network started with a loan from Madoff, incidentally). Ever since, the Mets have managed to get by annually by diverting revenue from their baseball and television operation into the financing of debt. Prior to the refinancing of the past two years, the annual interest on these two loans plus debt balloon payments of more than $43 million have exceeded team payroll itself. The refinancing of the two loans has extended their due dates out five years, so this arrangement is set to continue for a long time to come. And the debt balloon payments run until December 2045, when currently youthful pitching ace Steven Matz will be 54 years old.
Granted, that should be difficult for anyone to buy, considering the Mets play in New York and yet somehow they’re projected with a payroll roughly the same as Cincinnati’s and much lower than St. Louis’. There’s something that keeps the Mets from outspending the Reds, and it’s hard to believe Wilpon’s claims that the Mets’ revenues simply haven’t been up to par in recent years.
I do think it’s well worth remembering that Megdal and others were saying exactly the same things about the Mets one year ago, and even last July. Then they went out and got Kelly Johnson. And Juan Uribe. And Tyler Clippard. And Yoenis Freaking Cespedes. And Addison Reed.
If this team doesn’t care about winning, it has a strange way of showing it.
Megdal has argued that Frank McCourt got kicked out of baseball for doing basically what the Wilpons have done.
Financially speaking, perhaps. Like McCourt, the Wilpons blew threw a bunch of their own money and took to plundering the franchise to maintain a standard of living. But the Wilpons were never as embarrassing as McCourt. This might strike you as a distinction without a difference, but you have to remember that baseball isn’t so much a collection of businesses as a club — a club so exclusive that even billionaires can’t just buy their way in.
Now, you might reasonably ask (as I have) why McCourt, if he so offended his fellow club members, was permitted to join in the first place. I’m still waiting for an answer. But it’s pretty obvious that McCourt became such an embarrassment that his ex-pals resolved to blackball him, even though – with a massive new television deal imminent – there was no real financial reason for doing so.
I’ve gotten off the subject some. My point is that as long as the Wilpons can make payroll, one way or another, and don’t make the wrong sort of headlines, they’re staying in the club. And based on what happened last August and September, it’s not clear to me that they don’t belong there.