Keidel: Mets’ Moneyball

By Jason Keidel
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With the sun beaming on baseball again, the slumber of last season replaced by new players on new teams jogging leisurely to the tune of whispering palm trees and sunsets over western cacti, hope springs it annual leak for most MLB clubs.

Except in Queens, where the sun rarely rises. And thus it’s time to feed Fred Wilpon’s gorilla, nearly the size of King Kong, squatting in his living room.

A recent report in The New York Times introduces a new actor in the Mets’ drama, starring the Wilpon/Madoff/Picard triumvirate.

It seems that Sterling Equities wasn’t, well, so sterling over the last decade, at least. And while Mets ownership demands its innocence, it also declares amnesia over dealing with a woman named Noreen Harrington, who looked at Bernard Madoff’s profits back in 2003 and didn’t like what she saw. She could be the cog that derails any notion that the New York Metropolitans were unaware of foul play with the appalling, imprisoned Ponzi king.

According to the article, Ms. Harrington – a Goldman Sachs executive who ran a hedge fund owned in part by Mets ownership – confronted Saul Katz, Wilpon’s partner and co-owner of the Mets, about the numbers sprouting from Madoff’s spread sheets. Putting it bluntly, she essentially said there’s no way anyone could make that kind of profit all the time. And according to Harrington, Katz became indignant over her assertions, lecturing her rather than investigating Madoff, whom he told Harrington was a longtime and trustworthy friend.

How’s that going?

This was back in ‘03, which means for many years the Mets did business with Madoff after Harrington’s accusations. “Fiction” is the term she used to describe Madoff’s monetary gains.

And when she suggested to Katz that Madoff could be stealing in order to feed his profits, she said Katz got visibly angry. And when Harrington said she couldn’t continue in her current capacity if Madoff were a main source of income, Katz ignored her. So she quit.

She also asked to look at Madoff’s books independently but was “rebuffed with disdain” according to the article written by Richard Sandomir. “You don’t get it, do you?” Harrington said she was told by a big wig at the hedge fund who steered clients to Madoff. “This is a privilege. You don’t get to ask questions.”

How’s that going?

For folks who claim systemic innocence and transparency, the men who run the Mets have been awfully delicate and defensive over Madoff. If there’s nothing to hide, then why hide? It reminds me of a great line by Ricky Roma (played by Al Pacino), who once said, “Tell them the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember.”

If Irving Picard, the attorney trying to recoup millions for Madoff’s victims, can find a few more Harringtons and, worse, even get Grandma on the stand to sing her sorrows about being gutted by Madoff’s greed, being forced to sell her dream house to move into a one-bedroom box of an apartment, eating canned goods instead of red snapper for dinner…well, let’s just say the suits at Sterling will be cracking open their checkbooks before the jurors are done deliberating. Defiant to the end, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz have claimed they knew nothing of Madoff’s malfeasance, refusing to cut a deal, to settle out of court.

Unless Wilpon has an unseen ace up his sleeve, it will be tough to imagine him garnering any sympathy from a jury of much poorer peers who hear about private planes and nine-digit bank accounts while the regular folks forked over their pension plans into Madoff’s toxic, financial wasteland. Indeed, it doesn’t take a wizardly financial chef like Warren Buffet to smell the pungent books Madoff cooked.

In fairness, Ms. Harrington said she provided no physical proof to Katz that Madoff was stealing. (Though it’s hard to do when she’s denied access to his records.) But surely her cynicism didn’t appear in a vacuum, and we need to remember that the standard for proving guilt in a civil suit is far more relaxed than a criminal case. Picard only needs to provide a preponderance of evidence to prove Wilpon and Katz’s guilt. I’m not an attorney (nor do I play one on television) but it doesn’t take Vincent Bugliosi to know that dismissing the suspicions of Ms. Harrington – who has two decades of big-time finance under her belt with Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, and M.D. Sass – is probably poor form and could be quite costly.

Picard will no doubt remind the courtroom that Wilpon, Katz, and their entourage arrive in towns by limo and Learjet, some of which, Picard will argue, was fueled and financed by Madoff. And while being rich doesn’t mean you’re guilty, playing the have and have-not card could resonate with a jury.

And let’s not forget who pays Wilpon’s bills – you, the fan. So even if you’re inclined to forgive Fred for the Madoff transgressions, dismiss the charges and declare that he was duped like the rest of Madoff’s victims, you’ve got a terrible team waiting for you on Opening Day.

Beyond the posturing and poor publicity that comes with all things Ponzi, Sandy Alderson shaved – heck, purged and blasted– payroll by $50 million, the largest single-season fire sale in MLB history. Do you think it’s just a coincidence he did this on the heels of the lawsuit? You don’t think Sandy is doing this under direct orders from his bosses? It’s hard for an objective baseball man to argue that letting homegrown hero Jose Reyes walk was good business.

If the Yankees are the emblem of excess and avarice, Gordon Gekko gone wild, then the Mets are the dark side of that coin, lunging for the quick score without doing due diligence on the man upon whom they heaved a few hundred million quid.

Then they want you to spend thousands of your legally obtained bucks for courtside seats. And I’m quite sure the more prudent among you are watching ringside in civil court before you drop your dollars on a sub par baseball team.

No one questions Alderson’s bona fides as a baseball man. But if he, beyond cutting spending, is charged with selling you the idea that New York City is the natural province of a paltry payroll and small market team, then he can’t win. It’s an impossible sell, particularly juxtaposed with that juggernaut in the Bronx. With his comments this week, Alderson essentially raised the semantic white flag before the season has begun.

It says here that the Mets are in grave danger, springing leaks faster than they can plug them. Besides the chasmal gaps in their club, they’ve also scrambled for minority investors for cash flow purposes. But who would want to buy the entire franchise at proper market value, especially now that it doubles as a public piñata? And if the Metropolitans don’t draw at least 2 million fans – they drew just 2.3 million last year before Reyes, their most popular player and NL batting champion, moved to Miami – it may be time to nudge the Wilpons near the door, with or without their permission.

Bud Selig isn’t inclined to boot a friend from the owner’s box, but he got involved with the Dodgers on the basis of financial woes. Depending on how things go against Picard, the Mets might not give MLB much choice but to at least investigate the possibility of taking the team from Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz.

Fred Wilpon’s obstinacy could cost him more than money, extra commas in the checking column. Could it cost him the Mets?

Feel free to email me:

Your thoughts on the Mets’ financial woes? Sound off below…

  • Larry Kaplan

    Terrible Team waiting for us? Really? Think it’s a bit early to be dismissing this season as a failure when they Mets get their ace, their future all-star 1st baseman, and a .320 hitter back from injury coupled with a retooled bullpen. No issues with any of your other points, and like any Met fan I was dismayed with the lack of moves this offseason but to suggest this team has no chance, as many “Experts” have, is naive. But I’m sure you knew that the Rays were poised for an AL Pennant in February of 2008, also.

  • Steve Yak

    Jason, I just hope they get what they deserve. Everything is lovely and wonderful when the money rolls in. That Piper plays a MEAN Pipe.

  • Kurt Spitzner


  • chris

    Bud selig and wilponzi must go!!!!!!

    • Kurt Spitzner

      wilponzi eh?where did you see that?heh heh heh!

  • Jed

    Living close to Citifield, I love that the Mets suck. I get to take my kids to see other great teams for practcally nothing. Last year we got tickets to see Prince Fielder and the Brewers for $6. We waited till the second inning then move down to the empty field level seats. It was great! What is everyone complaining about?

  • Spnky

    I think it works like this folks…you have alot of money, and you get treated special everywhere…everywhere you go, you go to the front of the line, you walk past the roped off areas, and you get access to peole and toys of the 1%. In time you develop a way, or mindset about yourself, and you just believe, because you experienced it over and over again, that because of all that you are, you are privileged and so of course you have access to a genius like Bernie that some of your wealthy but lesser so peers get turned away by him, which only increases the belief that you are indeed privileged and special.

    Then you toss in how bernie was on the board at NASDAQ and he himself is rather snobby and acts aloofand above it all, for years, and you have a aster schemer at work, and the Wilpons, drank the Kool Aid…so my point is, I can see how they were duped and wanted to keep believing and did so.

    I really don’t think they knew.

    Apart from that, I think they are lousy owners, and Jeff in particular….the reason they can’t walk away from this team, and go on to an ok life anyway is because the getting is so good in baseball. The Mets have been the cash cow that funded all of their other businesses and they know they lose this, they lose alot of other things. They need the dough this team brings in, even in bad years, because the margins are phenomenal…that’s why the owners never open those books….the high payrolls? Anytime a team signs a guy for alot of dough its because they got the money to do so…NONE of these guys reach into their margins to sign top players…they do it to sell tickets and they only do it because theyhave the money to do it.

    They should have millions upn millions in reswerve for the Mets, after 30 years of ownership. They were pigs..they took all of that dough and kept buying office buildings and left the team cash poor and its all caught up with them.

    BUT…I still don’t believe they knew he was a crook. Did they suspect it, wonder about it? Probably, yes. But that’s different then knowing.

  • JK

    Again, to all who say the SEC didn’t know, therefore Wilpon, Katz, etc. couldn’t have known, I remind you that the SEC was told on myriad occasions, but they ignored the warnings.

    His name was (and still is, I imagine) Harry Markopolos. And Ms. Harrington begged Katz to look at Madoff’s books and was rebuffed. Why deny her access if you have nothing to hide?

    There’s way too much smoke here for there to be no fire.

  • A disheartened MetsFan

    I think the Wilpons are terrible owners and they should sell now. As far as the Madoff stuff, its very easy now to say I told you so! Don’t forget people were begging Madoff to let them put their money into his “fund” which means that if you asked any questions you where out. I think its insane for anyone to say they should have suspected their friend who is a memeber of the NASDAQ board and who passed all inspections by the SEC

  • CharlieH

    SELL. THIS. TEAM. please

  • Sully

    Joe Paterno was a victim!

    Oh wait. Sorry. Wrong column

    • JK

      Always the troublemaker, Sully. Just when I get the Paterno zombies off my back, you stir them up…

  • Jim in VA

    The Wilpons’ have been running the Mets into the ground for years. Having a small market payroll in the largest market in baseball is not acceptable. This team will undoubtedly be a last place team, every other team in the division has made substantial improvements except for the Mets, who will be fielding a triple A team at Citi Field. Why would anyone want to blow several hundred dollars to watch minor league baseball? There will be many empty seats in Citi Field this season, and with good reason. Maybe MLB will do the right thing and take the team from these losers.

    • Kurt Spitzner


    • JK

      The problem, Jim, is that Wilpon and Selig are good friends. You”ll notice Selig had no problem whacking the Dodgers because McCourt is despised. A shame it comes to such alliances and not the best for baseball.

      Let’s see how this trial drags on…

  • Kurt Spitzner

    My emptiness as a Mets fan in recent years can only be surpassed by what my Dad experienced when his beloved Dodgers left for LA.I am just glad that he does not have to be around to see what happened to the team that took their place in his and in turn our hearts!
    Its time for Selig to do his job and take control now! I fear its already too late for the present team but not for the future of the franchise,but this is only my opinion.

    • JK

      Indeed, Kurt. Madoff alone would not kill Wilpon. But the current confluence of events has – poor financial moves and a morbid product on the field is too much for Wilpon to bear.

      As we learned from Steinbrenner, New York is willing to forgive almost any transgression when you win, for better or worse. If the Mets won 95 games every year we wouldn’t be having this chat.

  • Choo-choo coleman

    The problem with your argument is that the SEC failed to detect any problem with Madoff. If FINRA and the SEC gave the OK on Madoff’s business, why should Sterling Equities have had any reason to doubt them and listen to someone like Ms. Harrington? Sure, looking back on it after Madoff was exposed makes Wilpon & Katz look like fools. But you have to take these events in the context of time in which they happened.

    • Kurt Spitzner

      So you feel just because the SEC et al failed to catch on that makes everything okay in your eyes?And how does the context of time change the way any of this went down because I am no brain surgeon but this case stinks and they are all GUILTY,GUILTY,GUILTY!Now that only pertains to the Madoff allegations and has nothing to do with the fact that the Wilpons,Katz,Sterling have been making a lot of serious money but have given the fans very little in return other than smoke and mirrors,and looking back only makes it all much more heinous,once again in my opinion.

    • JK

      I respect your view, Mr. Coleman, but perhaps you forget Harry Markopolos, who told the SEC exactly what Madoff was doing and they ignored him, too. Feel free to Google him.

      The problem doesn’t lie entirely on Wilpon, but my piece is about the Mets, so I kept it within that context. But if you want to drag the SEC into it, you’ll find they were warned and equally indifferent, if not incompetent.

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