The New York Mets set their chum slick this week. Deep in their pocket, they always held Oliver Perez(notes) and Luis Castillo(notes), and the notion that whacking either – or, as they chose, both – would cause embarrassed devotees to pop their heads out of the water and feast on long-decayed meat. And they did. This was no Irish wake.
Yet the joy in Perez and Castillo finally shedding Mets uniforms gave way to a truer reality, and one far harsher than the bad contracts, lackadaisical play and general apathy surrounding the franchise: The Wilpon family and Saul Katz still own the team. They just happen to be accused of profiting off the biggest financial fraud in the history of the modern world, which – considering all the con men, swindlers and crooks who have come to pass – is quite the achievement.
As much as the Wilpons try to distance the Mets from Bernie Madoff, their worlds bleed into one another more by the day. On the press-release portion of the Mets' website, sandwiched in between statements concerning the releases of Perez and Castillo, are two harshly worded attacks against their nemesis, Irving Picard, who is in charge of reclaiming money for victims of Madoff's Ponzi scheme and is pursuing $1 billion from Katz and Fred Wilpon.
The most recent is particularly captivating: a 12-bullet-point anthem of innocence in which they call Picard a liar without acknowledging him by name. He is, in their parlance, the Trustee, nebulous- and nefarious-sounding. Wilpon, Katz and their spinmeisters have it wrong: Picard, to the common man, is the hero, working on behalf of those fleeced, and his doggedness in chasing Mets ownership brands them forever.
They may well be innocent of what Picard alleges – that they knew, or should have known, about the Madoff scheme because of a longstanding personal relationship with him, and that they ignored warnings that something was amiss with the return on investment. That no longer matters. The fashion in which Wilpon and Katz continue to defend themselves – the public proclamations, the terse language, the sheer vehemence of it all – is terribly off-putting. To see business owners so misjudge their audience is solar-eclipse-black humor.
Even the rich Mets fans, for whom the team built Citi Field, can't stand by this pyramid of incompetence. It's one thing to alienate blue-collar supporters, as both the Mets and Yankees did with their new stadiums. At least the Yankees still win. The Mets have stunk two years running; collapsed the two years prior; kept Omar Minaya as general manager too long; botched the firing of manager Willie Randolph; mishandled Jason Bay's(notes) concussion; watched Perez, Castillo and Carlos Beltran(notes) skip a team visit to wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; spent minimally internationally, even less in the draft; and fostered an inconceivable amount of ill will considering their resources.
When the best thing about a team is the hamburger available at its stadium, it's bad.
Not so awful that it catches Bud Selig's wrath, of course. In Los Angeles, Frank McCourt's skimming of Dodgers profits to finance his extravagant lifestyle, plus his very public divorce with wife Jamie, ostensibly led to the commissioner's telling rebuke: He refused to allow McCourt to borrow $200 million from Fox. Cash poor, McCourt may have to sell.
Major League Baseball, on the other hand, floated the Mets a $25 million loan in October to take care of what the team deemed a "short-term liquidity issue." Now MLB is vetting potential Mets investors – not majority, of course, because the accusations levied against Wilpon and Katz seem not to bother MLB nearly as much as McCourt's, whose domestic toxicity spilled over into business.
Never mind the hypocrisy in it all. MLB is a $7 billion industry. Wilpon is a Selig loyalist. And this is what fealty buys: a hall pass for intertwining the business Selig runs with Bernie Madoff.
The names being thrown about for the minority share come with the stench of investment banking as well: men who work for Goldman Sachs and Apollo and BTIG, all of whom got rich off the same system that sent the country's economy headlong into the toilet. Alleged Madoff profiteers marrying Goldman executives? Sheesh. The Mets are tough enough to root for already.
This story is going nowhere soon. Picard is to the Wilpons what Jeff Novitzky is to Barry Bonds. Even though a judge enlisted former New York governor Mario Cuomo to mediate, the sides' extreme positions – Picard increasing his original restitution request by $700 million, Wilpon and Katz pillorying his methods – portend a long and ugly fight before the likely settlement.
By then, the Mets will be well into their rebuilding. GM Sandy Alderson, another Selig stalwart, will turn the franchise around if given the proper resources. After eating nearly $20 million in Perez and Castillo's salaries, that is far from a given.
Nobody can predict how the post-Madoff Mets will operate. Back in December 2008, when the fraud was exposed, Jeff Wilpon – Fred's son and habitual sufferer of foot-in-mouth disease – tried to separate the Mets from Madoff: "It's truly two different things. It's just not affecting the business."
More than two years later, we know better. As the on-field Mets flail and barrel toward a third consecutive losing season, their ownership finds itself in even more turmoil. So long as Selig sheaths his knife and doesn't take it to the snake's head, it'll keep slithering on, sliming everything it touches.
Perez and Castillo may be gone. The problems for the Mets are only beginning.