Mets owner Fred Wilpon is a winner in court but future of team remains very much in doubt

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

Now that Fred Wilpon has reached a settlement in the matter of his alleged riding on Bernie Madoff's runaway fraud, there remains the issue of the "willfully blind" construction of the current New York Mets roster and where this all goes from here.

What lingers is the question of financial fitness and trust, and whether the Mets and their fans are truly better off today – with owners Wilpon and Saul Katz mugging for cameras in front of a federal courthouse – than they would have been had Irving Picard, trustee for the victims of Madoff's Ponzi scheme, mopped a marble floor with them instead.

Indeed, whose future looks brighter?

The Mets', whose ownership will not be ordered to pay $1 billion, or $386 million, or probably even $162 million, which was the general progression in the case against Wilpon over past 15 months.

(The "other" Madoff victims appear fortunate Wilpon didn't hold out any longer, or they'd soon enough be required to reimburse him for $1 billion.)

Or the Los Angeles Dodgers', whose ownership also is hundreds of millions in debt, quite legally (and, possibly, morally) bankrupt and carrying a $90 million payroll, and whose team is currently up for auction, soon to be sold to some of the richest men in the country.

The difference is that Bud Selig believed in Wilpon. And, I guess, the commissioner's faith has been rewarded. For that, Mets fans, you get more Wilpon, maybe a lifetime of little Wilpons, and maybe that's not a terrible thing.

But it could be.

"Stick with us," Wilpon pleaded to Mets fans. "We'll be there. We've done it before, twice, in 33 years. We'll do it again."


In 33 years.

Every generation or so. Like clockwork.

[Y! Finance: Mets owners settle Madoff case, avoid trial]

Not that all of that belongs to Wilpon. But the return on that civic patience is a franchise in unfathomable disrepair. Wilpon and Katz are raising $200 million from outside investors to aid in the operations of a team that has spun $419 million in payroll into three consecutive fourth-place finishes. The Mets are into MLB for $25 million and Bank of America for another $40 million. According to the New York Times, the club owes $400 million to "a syndicate of banks," which doesn't sound good, and has lost $121 million over the past two seasons, which sounds worse.

Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Baseball
Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Baseball

This isn't a business; it's my kid trying to buy an iPad.

Wilpon once ran the Mets in what Selig considered to be a model and reputable fashion. Selig maintained his support of Wilpon because he believed he owed it to Wilpon to reach a day like Monday, when everyone would learn if Wilpon could continue as owner or not.

That's admirable enough, even if it cost the Mets a season or two or five, along with their shortstop and anything resembling a quality pitching staff.

[ Related: No admission of willful ignorance in settlement ]

Now, however, you wonder if it's possible to be a model and reputable owner while a half-billion dollars or more in debt. And if it's true – as Monday's agreement found – that Wilpon is as much a victim of Madoff's sinister gluttony as anyone, then that's a bad break for Wilpon and the Mets, and still leaves Wilpon in a squishy economic position. That is, he's up to his collar stays in IOUs while operating a business he's turned into a cash sieve.

Ordinarily, this would be where I'd point out that I'm no CPA, so couldn't possibly understand or explain how or why Wilpon got to this point. Neither could I precisely chart a path away from this point, other than to suggest saving his birthday and Christmas money and maybe, instead of an iPad, buying a Kindle.

But – and I'll have to double-check on this, though I'm sure my wife would have mentioned it – I'm also not a half-billion dollars in debt.

And, in the best scenario, Wilpon will still owe somebody something, or the difference in fictitious profits earned (some fraction of $162 million) and real investments lost ($178 million).

So, while the judge, the mediator, the lawyers, MLB and everyone involved in the Mets are pretty excited about the outcome – "So I can smile and maybe I can take a day off," Wilpon said – I'm not too sure.

There was a time, see, when what was best for the Wilpons was best for the Mets. I'm not so sure about that anymore.

Maybe Wilpon is getting his life back together, or at least has discovered a path toward it, starting with his name.

As Katz proclaimed, "We've acted in good faith."

Yeah, well, so the piece of paper says.

Mario Cuomo, the mediator in the case, said the Mets' owners were due for "a return to normalcy."

Mets fans may have a higher standard than that. A person can only be so blind, willfully or otherwise.

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