Commentary

The nine lives of Fred Wilpon

Saul Katz might want to sell his share, but don't get your hopes up, Mets fans

Updated: May 13, 2014, 6:46 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The fact that the story might be inaccurate wasn't the point. The point was, for the first 90 minutes or so after a New York Times report hit the Internet on Monday afternoon suggesting that New York Mets co-owner Saul Katz was thinking of selling his share of the team -- which could have the domino effect of ending the much-maligned Wilpon family's control of the Mets as well -- Mets fans rushed onto Twitter to dance on the Wilpons' grave and dream of life after Fred and his son, Jeff.

And you couldn't blame them -- even if what all the yoo-hooing conveniently ignored is that, in Fred Wilpon's 34 years as a Mets owner, the man has had more lives than a cat.

[+] EnlargeMets
AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekJeff Wilpon, Saul Katz and Fred Wilpon -- the current owners of the Mets.
The latest source of irritation? The fact that the Mets strode into the Subway Series in the Bronx with no bona fide closer, just candidates and retreads. They had huge trouble hitting during the 2-10 slide they rode into Yankee Stadium but at least broke out of that in a huge way. They have a general manager, Sandy Alderson, who surfaced to speak with reporters for about 20 minutes before the game Monday night and assessed the club he put together this way: "We are where we are based on what appears to be meager offense, poor bullpen and solid starting pitching."

And if you're waiting for Alderson and the penny-pinching Mets to swing a trade to fill some of those bullpen holes, forget it. "It can't be addressed externally at this point," Alderson said.

But hey, look at the bright side.

The Mets did rally from deficits of 4-1 and 7-5 and pulled off a terrific, game-saving 3-6-3 double play that Lucas Duda started in the bottom of the ninth for a stirring 9-7 win over the New York Yankees. The Mets rapped out 14 hits, four of them home runs. They pulled within one win of matching their cross-town rivals in wins (19-18 versus 18-19), if not the perception battle.

And Katz did issue a statement through the team shortly before the night's first pitch, saying, "There is no truth to the reports of any intention of selling. I have no intention of selling my share of the Mets, nor have I ever had any intention of selling my share."

I know.

Katz's denial is actually not part of the bright side.

If Katz was telling the truth -- and at this point it's a coin flip, because the Mets never tell the truth and nothing but the whole truth about why their payroll is stuck at a weak $85 million if their finances are as unencumbered as they claim -- then change is not in the offing among Mets ownership.

Katz is 77 years old, and Fred Wilpon, his brother-in-law, as well as business partner of 50 years, is 74. Katz might indeed be sick of pumping millions into a team that's had five straight losing seasons, as the Times report suggested.

But believe they're on their way out at your own peril.

Wilpon started his involvement with the Mets with just a 1 percent stake in 1980. Together, he and Katz outmanuevered Nelson Doubleday to get half-control of the team six years later and full control by 2002.

They weathered their first Ponzi scheme in 2009, or two years before Bernie Madoff's even bigger scam nearly brought everything crashing down around them in 2011. But how? By withdrawing $29 million just in time from a fund run by a man named Samuel Israel III, who tried to avoid going to jail by faking a suicide in July 2008.

They somehow came out of the Madoff scandal still in control of the Mets despite early estimates that they could be on the hook for $1 billion in damages. They wound up reaching a settlement to pay only $162 million instead and picked up an unflattering new nickname: #TheWilponzis.

During the time that the Madoff caper made their finances highly vulnerable, they seemed to have a deal to sell a large chunk of the team to David Einhorn, another hedge fund manager, in May 2011 -- then backed out of it by November after a thrilled Einhorn had shown up at Citi Field, granted a rush of interviews and photo-ops and all but picked out new wallpaper and carpeting for his owner's skybox.

"MLB is banking on Mets woes and may jump to take control as Wilpons will soon feel the financial squeeze," a Daily News headline read a month later.

Wrong again. Wilpon and Katz's solution was to sell off smaller shares of the team rather than give Einhorn the control he wanted. And then lean on a series of sweetheart loans from Major League Baseball instead.

So don't be surprised if the Mets are stuck with the Wilpons and Katz for at least the foreseeable future, even if there have been backstage rumblings that Katz's patience might be fraying or some members of the Mets' full ownership group aren't blown away by the acumen of Wilpon the Younger.

With the Mets, there's always a sort of weird calliope music playing in the background. If it's not a cockamamie idea such as their recent stunt asking fans to sign a loyalty oath (and being tweaked for it even by one of their own team announcers, former pitching star Ron Darling), it's hearing Alderson say this about speculation over the weekend that Collins' job might be in jeopardy because of the Mets' recent slide: "I understand there may have been a lot of Twitter traffic or what have you," Alderson said. "I'm not sure how well-founded that all was."

But, um ... wait. If Collins was about to get cashiered, wouldn't Alderson, as GM, know if it was well-founded?

But that's what Alderson said. And why ask why?

It's the Mets.

Even the truth often reads like fiction.

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