Monday, January 16, 2012

The State of the Franchise

As we sit here in the middle of January, with all of the offseason moves (as minor as the additions were) in the rearview mirror, the only thing anyone wants to dissect is just how bad things have gotten for the Mets. It seems that the issue of most paramount importance - much higher up on the priority list for fans over the makeup of the roster - is their desire for Fred Wilpon to sell the team. They don't care who he sells to, how much he sells the team for, or what it would mean for the future of the team. They just want Fred to sell.

It's not enough for people, though, to simply clamor for the Wilpons to sell. There seems to be a need, a burning desire even, to talk about Fred Wilpon as if he's the bad guy in the movie. The detestable bastard everyone wants to see lose in the end.

Let's be clear: I'm absolutely furious over the predicament the franchise is currently in. However, I'm not angry at Fred Wilpon. I'm angry at the situation. Here's why:

Unless you think Fred Wilpon, Saul Katz, and/or Jeff Wilpon were willing participants in or knew about the scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, they can be seen as nothing but victims of it. And if there was any evidence to support a claim that they knew about the scheme, Irving Picard would've sniffed it out by now. That scheme is the reason the franchise is in its current situation. Once you get past that part, you have to look at this from Fred Wilpon's point of view. Not your view of what his mindset or behavior should be, but his view.

Fred Wilpon is a guy from Brooklyn. Someone who went to Lafayette high school a few miles away from where I live. Someone who grew up and turned himself into something special. Someone who is a self made multi-millionaire, who had the opportunity about three decades ago to purchase (with Nelson Doubleday) a Major League Franchise. Not a random franchise, but the one that represented his roots, his borough. The National League franchise from New York. Up until 2010 (when Madoff's fraud was linked to him), Fred Wilpon was simply seen as a gentleman. Someone who cared deeply about the ballclub he owned (even if fans at times felt put off by him for some reason). For the majority of the time he's owned the Mets, they have had one of the highest payrolls in the sport. For all of that time, Fred Wilpon has made sure the Mets were one of the most charitable organizations in all of sports. Everyone seems to recall the Yankees when the aftermath of September 11th is discussed, but it was the Mets (due in large part to Fred Wilpon) who led that charge.

Put yourself in Fred Wilpon's shoes for a minute. For over 30 years, you've owned the Mets. Over the majority of those years, you've signed off on maintaining one of the highest payrolls in the sport. You're self-made, well respected, charitable, and proud. You, like thousands of other people, were a victim of the largest fraud in the history of the Country. You've been smeared mercilessly by Irving Picard, the trustee in the Madoff case. You've been destroyed by the fans, and destroyed in the press. But, you don't want to sell the team. Again - although the precarious situation the team is in upsets me and angers me, I can understand Fred Wilpon's position. It doesn't mean I'm happy with it, just that I can understand least for the time being.

At this point, it appears Wilpon will only be on the hook for about $80 million as far as the Madoff case is concerned. If that holds true, he can probably ride this out. If Irving Picard is somehow able to get a higher amount (in the hundreds of millions), the situation will most likely become untenable. Dropping the payroll to between $90 million and $100 million, while not ideal, does not create a situation where Wilpon can be forced out. However, if the payroll continues to drop, you'd have to imagine he'd eventually either cave to the public pressure, have Major League Baseball step in, or simply not have enough cash to continue to own and operate the franchise.

If you put the Madoff/cash-flow situation aside for a moment - something that's obviously incredibly difficult to do - you'll see that that the state of the know, the team...really isn't as dire as it's made out to be.

-Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta, and JP Ricciardi are in charge of the baseball operations. Though hamstrung by the current payroll constraints, they've managed to not make any idiotic mistakes. To not hand out any absurd contracts. The loss of Jose Reyes was painful, but I don't think Sandy Alderson would've matched the deal Reyes got from Miami even if the Wilpon's were flush with cash. And the claim that Alderson never tried to retain him is both baseless and absurd. It was Reyes' agents who refused to negotiate mid-season, and Reyes' agents who refused to negotiate during the Mets' exclusive window after the World Series ended.

-The current Manager, Terry Collins, appears to be a stabilizing force in the dugout and in the clubhouse.

-The ballpark that was too cavernous is being adjusted. It's not being turned into a hitters park, though, simply a more neutral one.

-The Minor League System, which was basically a wasteland a few years ago, is now seen as at worst middle of the pack, and appears to be approaching the top third of systems in all of baseball.

-The current roster, while not likely Championship caliber, is being constructed with an eye on the future. There aren't any expensive long-term band aids being put on a deep gash.

Now, the almost universal fan anger is understandable. And as was mentioned above, the screams to sell will continue. And Fred Wilpon relenting and selling the team will become inevitable if the payroll continues to get slashed and/or if the outcome in the Madoff case isn't a desirable one.

I, for one, am rooting for Fred Wilpon to be able to hang onto this team. If he can't, it'll happen sooner rather than later. But I refuse to join the chorus of blood-lusting fans who are making the man out to be a villain. Painting him as a perpetrator and swindler, not as a victim. The current situation is extremely unfortunate, and a source of great anger for most of those who love the Mets. What it shouldn't be, though, is an excuse to pile on a decent man who's been put in an almost impossible situation.

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