Bud Selig sent a strong message in a meeting with reporters at Citi Field on Tuesday: One of his last acts as Commissioner of Baseball will be continuing to ignore the mess that is New York Mets ownership.
The Mets are up to their eyeballs in debt, have alienated a large chunk of one of the most passionate fanbases in the country, can’t muster a competitive payroll and now also stand accused of blatant, retrograde discrimination. But to listen to Selig, there's no reason for concern, let alone action. It was a missed opportunity for the outgoing commissioner, and if it isn't exactly a shock, it is still disappointing.
Selig has always been consistent in his support of longtime friend and Mets owner Fred Wilpon and his son, COO Jeff Wilpon, throughout their recent trials, tribulations and Ponzi scheme losses. The commissioner has never shown the slightest inclination to step in the way he did, for instance, with erstwhile Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, perhaps because of his long friendship with the Wilpons, or perhaps because he honestly believes, as he says, that the Mets are not actually in violation of MLB’s "internal economic rules."
Still, the potentially damning lawsuit from former Senior VP of Ticket Sales Leigh Castergine, full of specific, credible allegations, seemed as if it might change the landscape. Maybe the league wouldn’t intervene in the face of the team’s precarious finances — but how about precarious finances and potentially illegal sexist discrimination? If the lawsuit's claims are true, then Jeff Wilpon fired a woman for getting pregnant out of wedlock after months of inappropriate remarks. Would that not make the commissioner's office take a long, hard look at just who it was sticking its neck out for? Furthermore, just as the NFL's various hypocrisies were gathering into a mudslide, this seemed to give MLB a chance to distinguish itself by taking a strong stand. Leading the charge, Yahoo's Jeff Passan wrote:
If this is true – if these disgusting, abhorrent acts of misogyny receive even one iota of confirmation – one of Bud Selig's final acts as commissioner must be to rid Major League Baseball of this nepotistic fraud once and for all.
Selig, or his successor Rob Manfred, must do this, because baseball needs to tell the world it is a safe place for women. That its top executives won't scoff and sneer and bungle the issues that face women every day like the NFL did the Ray Rice case. MLB shouldn't do this as a reaction to Rice; it should because it is the right thing to do.
Instead, Selig had only this to say about the matter: "That's employment litigation. There were a lot of charges there. Jeff denies them vigorously. I think in this particular case, they're going to court, and we're just going to have to see how it plays out." That was all.
It's certainly true that the allegations against Wilpon and the Mets are, for now, just that. The case has not been tried yet, evidence has not been heard and Selig would not be at all wrong to say that he needs more information before taking any action. What is surprising, however, is that he didn't even pretend to be concerned about the lawsuit, or to take it seriously. It would cost Selig and the league nothing to say: These are alarming allegations, and we will be investigating them thoroughly— and then do so. This is a league that will go to any lengths to investigate reports of a player taking human growth hormone; why doesn't this issue merit the same kind of proactive action? Or he could have said: Baseball strives to be a place that treats its employees equally regardless of gender or sexual orientation, and if these allegations are proven, we will take action. That would hardly be a risky position to take. But instead, Selig offered only a verbal shrug.
Nor is he concerned about the financial disaster that's hamstrung the team for half a decade now. "Do I have any problem with the Mets' finances? None," Selig told reporters. None? If that's true, it would make Selig just about the only person in New York of whom that can be said.
Ever since Bernie Madoff's scam collapsed and took the Mets' finances with it, the Wilpons have struggled to stay afloat. The team's payroll had plummeted from $143 million to roughly $85 million in the last four years, despite playing in the biggest and richest market in the country. At one point, the Mets had to borrow money from MLB just to make payroll. Earlier this year, the team refinanced a Bank of America loan that was coming due, buying themselves a little breathing room, but the Mets will have to do the same with more than half a billion in loans taken out against their television network, SNY, that are coming due next year. Attendance is quite understandably in the toilet, and that's no coincidence, as Castergine's lawsuit did not hesitate to point out.
Selig's legacy is much larger than the Mets, of course, and baseball itself is thriving financially. But he is leaving what should be one of the league's strongest franchises in a shambles. And in the process, he missed a chance to send a message about what Major League Baseball stands for. Or, rather, he is sending a message, but not a good one. And it leaves incoming commissioner Rob Manfred with considerable damage to undo.