No Joy in Metsville

March 13, 2011

It is a good thing that I have come to view sports with a veteran journalist's detachment, that I no longer have a crazed passion for the favorite teams of my youth. Otherwise the Mets would have me feeling lower than owner Fred Wilpon's credit rating. It's not just that New York's ace, Johan Santana, is rehabbing his left shoulder and probably couldn't sneak a fastball past a Little Leaguer, or that the team's best all-around player, outfielder Carlos Beltran, has an arthritic knee that's as creaky as a cellar door.

That kind of spring training worry normally would prompt me to just give my lucky 1986 Mets World Series championship mug an extra rub for a change of fortune—if, you know, I owned such a thing. But those problems are pedestrian compared with the biggest concern for the Mets and their fans: a $1 billion lawsuit filed against Wilpon and co-owner Saul Katz accusing them of having been complicit in Bernie Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme. The suit, brought on by the trustee representing the duped investors, alleges that the Mets' owners profited from the scam and either knew or should have known of Madoff's illegal dealings.

Wilpon and Katz insist they were unaware that Madoff was conducting a monstrous swindle. Essentially, their defense is that they were clueless, which, given that their team has often fit that description over the last few seasons, shouldn't be a hard sell. The courts will decide whether the co-owners helped Madoff bilk investors, but this much is already certain—the financial cloud over the team has already robbed Mets supporters of their spring.

All baseball fans deserve a spring, that blissful period when they get to dream, however unrealistically, that every question mark about their team will become an exclamation point. Not so for the Mets' faithful, who are preoccupied with worry that any day now we—I mean, they—will pull up to a traffic light and see team executives on the median, holding a cardboard sign: spare a FEW DOLLARS TO HELP SIGN A FREE AGENT? The team's debts are estimated by The Wall Street Journal at $500 million, and that's not counting any obligations from the lawsuit. Wilpon and his son, Jeff, the Mets' chief operating officer, said last season that the Madoff issue would not affect the team's finances, but by October they were acknowledging that they had "a short-term liquidity issue." In November they borrowed a reported $25 million from Major League Baseball to help cover operating costs, and since then, reports the New York Post, they have been pressuring JPMorgan Chase—which led a syndicate of banks that loaned the Mets $430 million last year—for millions of additional dollars to cover basic operating costs.

That sounds like a team that's tapped out—the New York Debts—which would be a new indignity for Mets fans, but not a surprising one. They're too familiar with the team's strange history to ever think they've seen it all. The Mets haven't subjected their backers to the long championship droughts of the Cubs or the Indians, and they haven't suffered through years of pinching pennies (yet) like small-market teams such as the Royals and the Pirates. No, the Mets fan's lot in life is to endure the bizarre. Two years ago the club fired its vice president for player development, Tony Bernazard, after he—among other unusual actions—ripped off his shirt in a tirade directed at the Double A Binghamton (N.Y.) farm team. Omar Minaya, the general manager then, announced the firing at a press conference in which he also stunned everyone by publicly accusing a beat writer of angling for a job in the front office. Only the Mets.

From the days of Vince Coleman throwing a lit firecracker into a crowd of fans in 1993 to Francisco Rodriguez being taken into custody after a game last season for assaulting his girlfriend's father in the clubhouse, the Mets have had a flair for original sins. Being implicated in the biggest financial scam in U.S. history? Sounds about right.

Being a Mets fan means enjoying a few fleeting moments of rapture (the miracle of 1969, Game 6 of the '86 Series against the Red Sox) in exchange for stretches of soul-crushing failure, such as the historic late-season collapses of 2007 and '08 (the second of which did not make me bury my head between the sofa cushions in despair, no matter what you may have heard hear to the contrary).

A Mets fan learns to endure a gut punch at every turn. Dwight Gooden, their phenom of the mid-1980s who once seemed destined to earn a plaque in the Hall of Fame, appears instead to have earned a spot in the new season of Celebrity Rehab. Longtime reliever Pedro Feliciano left after last season to join that crosstown team with the pinstripes, saying last week, "It's everybody's dream to be a Yankee." Thanks, Pedro.

Mets fans are realists. They know that an NL East title is unlikely this year, what with the Phillies having acquired every big-name pitcher except Koufax and Gibson. All we—er, they—really want at the moment is a stable franchise that doesn't need overdraft protection at the bank and a season that doesn't feature another strange calamity that leaves everyone around the league shaking their heads. To be a Mets fan is to cling tenuously to sanity, desperate for nothing as much as 162 games of normalcy.

Or so I would imagine.

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Mets fans are too familiar with team lore to think they've seen it all. Being implicated in the biggest financial scam in U.S. history? Sounds about right.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

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