Fred Wilpon on Mets' cash: 'We're OK'
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- After surveying his players stretching on the morning of the New York Mets' first full-squad workout, principal owner Fred Wilpon reached into his pocket, pulled out a roll of $5 bills and lightheartedly flashed them for the media.
"We're OK," said Wilpon, who has been stung by the Ponzi scheme involving Bernard Madoff, in response to a question about his finances.
During a 22-minute interview Monday morning, Wilpon went on to address the progress in the sale of minority shares of the team, the future of face-of-the-franchise third baseman David Wright, the defection of Jose Reyes to the Miami Marlins, a $52 million payroll slashing and the fate of the 2013 All-Star Game, which is planned for Citi Field but has not yet been formally announced.
They shouldn't be concerned about us owning the franchise, because we intend to own the franchise for a very long time. Whether they're happy about that right now or not, I don't know.” -- Fred Wilpon on his team's fans
Wilpon said he already has all but formally sold seven $20 million, 4 percent minority shares to investors, with Major League Baseball approval granted and the money sitting in escrow. The sales of two more shares are nearing approval by MLB, Wilpon added, while an additional two are "in the process."
In total, Wilpon said, as many as 12 shares may be sold, which would infuse as much as $240 million into the organization. That would go toward paying off a $25 million loan from Major League Baseball, pay down the first mortgage on the team and provide cash on hand for operation of the franchise, Wilpon said.
Of the as many as 12 shares to be sold, two shares have been purchased by family -- by Wilpon's son, Jeff, and brother-in-law, Saul Katz. Four of the shares in escrow have been purchased by SportsNet New York, of which Wilpon's Mets own a majority stake, Wilpon said.
The 75-year-old Wilpon reiterated he has no intention of his family relinquishing majority control.
"They shouldn't be concerned about us owning the franchise, because we intend to own the franchise for a very long time," Wilpon said about his message to fans.
He then quipped: "Whether they're happy about that right now or not, I don't know."
Wright is under the team's control through 2013, including a team option. Wilpon said it will be a baseball-operations decision whether he ultimately signs an extension, walks away as a free agent or is traded beforehand.
"My intention is always to follow what the baseball people [say]," Wilpon said. "In spite of what you all used to say that we were running the baseball department, [general manager] Sandy Alderson has a great feel for this. So does [manager] Terry [Collins]. And if it works out, I would be thrilled. I think there's no finer guy. He's just a very fine young man. Any of us who are old enough to have him as a son would be proud to have him as a son."
The Mets are projected to have the largest single-season payroll cut in Major League Baseball history -- by $52 million, to $91 million. Yet Wilpon tried to suggest Alderson's philosophy was the primary motivation for that cut, more so than the team's dire finances.
Wilpon added that some of the money that came off the books this offseason was wasted on players who were not even with the 2011 Mets, such as Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, so the pay drop is not as dramatic as it would appear, even if the money was not reinvested. Perez and Castillo were released last spring training, when the Mets ate a combined $18 million. Their contracts expired after last season.
"I don't remember a time that we've turned down [a request] when the general manager and the manager wanted certain people," Wilpon said. "Look at our history. For a long period of time, some of it wasn't well-invested. And you criticized us for that, rightfully. So now you have a right to say, 'OK, you'd like seven more stars here.' "
Pressed, though, Wilpon conceded he did dictate parameters for the payroll, and it was not just a budget-conscious Alderson acting unilaterally.
Regarding the departure of Reyes to the Marlins as a free agent for six years, $106 million, Wilpon said he thought the Mets had made a formal offer that would have been worth as much as $100 million with an option based on performance and staying healthy. Alderson previously has said the Mets did not make a formal offer because Reyes' agent, Peter Greenberg, said it would not be competitive. Regardless, team sources have told ESPNNewYork.com that the Mets were willing to guarantee Reyes five years with a vesting option that would have raised the total to $100 million over six years.
"It was clearly a baseball decision," Wilpon said. "Are we a little leery of six-year, seven-year, eight-year contracts? Yes. Is Sandy leery of it? You bet. I'm big-time leery of it. So, listen, others have done it. I don't want to criticize anybody else who's done something different. We did different also [in the past], and we were burned. That doesn't mean there won't be some player in the future that we think we would do something with longer term, but the history has not been very good."
I don't remember a time that we've turned down (a request) when the general manager and the manager wanted certain people. Look at our history. For a long period of time, some of it wasn't well-invested. And you criticized us for that, rightfully. So now you have a right to say, 'OK, you'd like seven more stars here.'” -- Wilpon, on signing players
The Wilpon family currently is being sued for $386 million by the trustee trying to recover funds for victims of Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Judge Jed S. Rakoff indicated he would rule by March 5 whether to toss the suit, award a partial victory to the plaintiff or allow the case to proceed without a bench decision. A jury trial is currently scheduled for March 19. The suit originally sought $1 billion.
Wilpon acknowledged there will be more clarity about finances once there is a resolution.
"That's been a motion picture," Wilpon said. "When it started, there was a really big number out there. Now it's down -- I'm not minimizing it -- but it's down to a different number. So I think the next couple of weeks will tell. Whether there's a trial or no trial, we'll see. I think that things are going to become a lot clearer in the next months."
When Madoff was arrested in December 2009, the Wilpon family insisted it would have no practical impact on the team. Wilpon insisted Monday that was true when spoken then, and that the subsequently filed suit is when the impact began to be felt. Still, Wilpon insisted, the cutbacks are more related to dwindling attendance versus high payroll and team debt than a Madoff impact.
"When I said three years ago that the Mets weren't affected by the Madoff thing, I was telling the truth -- I know you don't want to hear it -- because we weren't sued then," Wilpon said. "This was prior to the suit, OK. Then did it affect it us [after the lawsuit]? Sure."
The Mets have been long expecting to host the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field. That is still likely to occur, Wilpon said. The holdup, he said, was negotiations between the City of New York and MLB over costs.
"I think that the holdup in the announcement is conditions have changed for New York City and their finances and what they can do," Wilpon said. "We're very optimistic we will have the All-Star Game in 2013."
As for his future, Wilpon said: "As long as I can, I plan to be the owner here."
Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com.