In October 2010, Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets, and his son Jeff sat at a dais explaining, for 40 minutes (a shockingly long amount of time for a professional sports owner to take questions from the media; James Dolan, for example, hasn’t given an interview about the Knicks in five years), why they had just fired general manager Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel. It was an impressively, almost uncomfortably forthright press conference, with Jeff saying, flat-out, “We failed.” The firings were less personnel moves than they were public cleansings, an acceptance, at last, that the Mets needed to start over. At one point, Fred, a septuagenarian who has owned part of the Mets since before David Wright was born, nearly broke down. “The last four years have been the most painful and disappointing of my 30 years with this team,” he said. “We thought we were on the right track.” The Mets were about to reboot, and the Wilpons were out in public to show Mets fans just how serious they were about starting over. Just bear with us, they said. We get it now. It won’t get worse than this.
Early last week, Fred showed up at Mets spring training in Port St. Lucie to chat with the media, wearing the hangdog visage of a man who is far from convinced his ordeal, and that of his team, is over. Sixteen months ago he assured reporters and fans that he would be ushering in a new Mets era. Now, he was merely assuring them he won’t be thrown out of the building, insisting he will own the Mets “as long as I can.” The sad thing for many fans is that he’s right: It has become obvious that you’ll have to pry the Mets out of the Wilpon family’s cold, dead hands, no matter what happens with the impending Madoff trial later this month (the Madoff victims are seeking to recoup more than $300 million from the owners).
The Mets are turning 50 years old this year. (April 11 marks the 50th anniversary of their first game, an 11-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Stan Musial went 3 for 3.) This season should be a yearlong celebration, a rollicking ongoing remembrance of one of baseball’s most endearing and eccentric organizations. Instead, it’s yet another year the Mets brass can’t wait to get over before it even starts. This 50th birthday is a grim one. This is a birthday for a 50-year-old who lost his entire 401(k) and is now collecting unemployment while working part time as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
It is worse than it has ever been for Mets fans. They are starting over. Again. The question now is how long will it truly take to turn this around. And just how much suffering will be involved?
Even for a franchise whose fans have always secretly cherished their pain as the sign of the true believer, the last six years of New York Mets baseball have been cartoonishly cruel. It began with Carlos Beltran freezing on that Adam Wainwright curveball. (In a surreal, grueling twist, those two are teammates now, on a team that has won two World Series since that game.) Since then, the Mets have:
• Endured one of the worst late-season collapses in baseball history (2007).
• Lost, with decades of Mets legends watching in the last game at Shea Stadium, the final game of the season, costing themselves a playoff spot and setting up the most depressing commemorative postgame summary imaginable (2008).
• Logged a 92-loss season in the first season of their shiny new stadium (2009).
• Signed Jason Bay, the hottest free agent on the market, to a four-year, $66 million deal, then watched his talent evaporate in front of them on a nightly basis. Also, Johan Santana, to whom the Mets will pay almost $50 million plus over the next two years, had another surgery (2010).
Comparatively speaking, last year’s placid mediocrity was a dream. The Mets spent the 2011 campaign essentially waiting for the season to end so they could drop roughly $53 million from their payroll. Considering the Madoff disaster, this drop in payroll was a sad necessity, but it also happened to be good business. The Mets wouldn’t be winning a World Series this year even if Mitt Romney owned them. There was no need to throw good money after bad, so the financial constraints probably ended up saving the Mets from themselves.
The problem is that the plan for this season is exactly the same: Wait for it to be over. After this year, the contract of David Wright—with Jose Reyes gone, the most marketable Met—could go off the books, if the Mets refuse to pick up his $16 million option or trade him. That please-end-this-season-as-quickly-as-possible plan? That’s the agenda for next year too. After that year, Santana’s and Bay’s guaranteed contracts expire, saving another $40 million plus. Wait until next year. Then wait again. Then wait some more. This is the Mets’ strategy.