- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The owners of the New York Mets are going to trial over what they did and did not know about Bernie Madoff, and the federal judge in the case has already listed them as heavy favorites. Maybe Fred Wilpon threw himself a parade over that one, as he hasn't been favored to win anything in quite some time.
But then again, Monday wasn't exactly a ticker-tape day for Mets elders, who have bigger problems than Ike Davis' valley fever and David Wright's sore ribs. Jed S. Rakoff, U.S. District Court judge, ruled that Wilpon and partner Saul Katz will have to pay as much as $83 million to the trustee for Madoff's victims, Irving Picard, and stand trial March 19 for another $300 million and change.
In his decision, Rakoff fitted Picard for one of those "Underdog" T-shirts Jeff Wilpon handed out to his players. "The Court remains skeptical that the trustee can ultimately rebut the defendants' showing of good faith," the judge wrote, "let alone impute bad faith to all the defendants."
So the Wilpons have been made the top seed in their own March Madness bracket, the team expected to survive and advance past Rakoff's charge that they were "willfully blind" to Madoff's staggering fraud while they kept investing Monopoly money with him, and while they treated him as another big-headed Mr. Met at Shea.
But if a jury of their peers decides otherwise, and concludes that Mets owners made a mint off Madoff while all but knowing they were profiting from a great American scam (assuming, of course, that a judge doesn't overturn the verdict), Bud Selig will have no choice but to force the Wilpons out.
Sure, it works both ways. If it's found at trial that Mets owners were likely telling the truth and were merely duped by a common thief the way they'd been duped by so many executives, agents and ballplayers over the years, so be it. The Wilpons would've won the right to maintain ownership, as long as they can pay their bills and return the payroll to a level worthy of a big-market team.
Either way this should be a sudden-death game. With the jury acting as an independent panel of arbiters, owing nothing to Picard or the Wilpons as it reviews the claims and facts of the case, the verdict on whether the defendants knew what Madoff was up to should also serve as the verdict on whether the Mets owners can remain the Mets owners.
In the event of a courtroom defeat, it wouldn't matter if the Wilpons were hit with another $300 million tab, or if the penalty was reduced, or if the owners somehow cooked up another magic formula to make the financials work. Selig can't have owners in his sport who were found by a jury to have been complicit in the Madoff scandal. That would most certainly not be in the best interests of baseball.
The commissioner would have to run out the Wilpons the way he ran out Frank McCourt. When he announced last year that he was appointing a trustee to oversee McCourt's Los Angeles Dodgers, Selig said he made the decision "because of my deep concerns regarding the finances and operations of the Dodgers."
The commissioner was never a friend of McCourt's, and he's long been a friend of Fred Wilpon's. This inspired suggestions that Selig played hardball with one and high-arc softball with the other for personal reasons, suggestions that angered the commissioner.
But with the Mets hemorrhaging money, with their credit cards maxed out, and with their loaning banks hovering over them like the specter of another September collapse, Selig has granted the Wilpons and Saul Katz all sorts of breathing room. Against the odds, the commissioner is clearly rooting for the Mets owners to make it.
Can they make it? The Wilpons are selling off parts of the franchise in a bid to raise $200 million and pay off a $40 million loan from Bank of America and a $25 million loan from Major League Baseball. In his recent spring training visit with the news media, Fred Wilpon confirmed a New York Times report that said four $20 million shares were purchased by team-owned SNY and two by family members, transactions that at least sounded like robbing Peter to pay Saul.
But now another $83 million bill could be added to the pile, followed by another potential $303 million bill, and all this after the 2011 Mets lost $70 million and forced poor Sandy Alderson to strip the 2012 Mets to the bone.
"[Fans] shouldn't be concerned about us owning the franchise," Fred Wilpon said last week, "because we intend to own the franchise for a very long time. Whether they're happy about that right now, I don't know."
Oh yes he does. The Wilpons know the fans are about as unhappy as fans can possibly be with their owners, and a Picard victory at trial will only render the losers radioactive and make an unhealthy business-customer relationship worse.
Reached by email Monday, Jeff Wilpon said Mets owners could only offer "a polite decline" to comment on the judge's ruling and the following statement from the Wilpons' Sterling Partners:
"We are preparing for trial. We look forward to demonstrating that we were not willfully blind to the Madoff fraud."
Yes, the Wilpons deserve their day in court, and their chance to show a jury that they were victims, not enablers. But this isn't only a fight over money, no matter how eye-popping the figures get.
Up front, the Wilpons need to understand that losing this case means losing the moral authority to own a public trust like the New York Mets.