Growing up in New York City, I was a Mets fan down to the marrow of my bones. I’d stand outside of the old Shea Stadium, pleading for autographs, and eventually my baseball glove had more names on it than the cast on a third grader’s broken arm: Mookie Wilson, Ron Darling, Kevin Mitchell—any Met who’d stop for me. My bedroom was a shrine to the team; posters of Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, and Keith Hernandez watched over me as I slept. I loved those teams of the nineteen-eighties. I always talked about them using the pronoun ”we,” as in, “We are going to win it all this year.” (In 1986, we did—and I was there for game six.) That’s why it’s been so ineffably painful, over the past several months, to see the ugly truth unveiled: the Mets aren’t my team, or New York’s team. They are Bernie Madoff’s team.
When I was reading William Grieder’s piece on Madoff in the Nation—where I’m the sports editor—I couldn’t help but think that there is no criminal statute against using and abusing an entire fan base. We now know that the owners of the Mets, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, were financial partners with the Babe Ruth of swindlers. They allegedly used Madoff’s portfolio as a sort of personal bank, with the team being both their collateral and their cash register. Now they are facing anywhere from three hundred million to a billion dollars in lawsuits from an assembly of Madoff victims. As a lawsuit filed by the victims’ trustee, Irving Picard, states, Wilpon and Katz “made so much easy money from Madoff for so long” that, despite the myriad red flags, they “chose to simply look the other way…. There are thousands of victims of Madoff’s massive fraud. But Saul Katz is not one of them. Neither is Fred Wilpon.”
According to the lawsuit, Wilpon was using his Madoff-made gains to pay off as much as half a billion dollars in debt he accrued in building the team’s new stadium, Citi Field. (It is somehow telling that the field would be named for a bank.) In response, Wilpon and Katz said in a statement,
The trustee’s lawsuit is an outrageous “strong arm” effort to try to force a settlement by threatening to ruin our reputations and businesses, which we have built for over fifty years.
That statement, and many others like it, is up on the Mets Web site, making it even harder to cordon off one’s feelings for the team. (“To see business owners so misjudge their audience is solar-eclipse-black humor,” Jeff Passan, a Yahoo sports columnist, wrote.) Wilpon and Katz are now looking to sell anywhere from a twenty-five-per-cent stake to the entire team. One hopes they will. The team has already received a twenty-million-dollar loan from Major League Baseball after running through the seventy-five-million-dollar line of credit available to all teams in financial distress. And they owe a few players, some of them disastrous signings, a tremendous amount of money.
Mets Nation is owed something, too. Not just because their trust was so flagrantly violated—their blue and orange entangled in a Ponzi scheme—but because the taxpayers of New York paid for two hundred million of the six hundred million it took to build Citi Field. Maybe we are owed the team. Why shouldn’t the Mets follow the model of the Green Bay Packers and allow fans to buy shares? In Green Bay, people buy a piece of their beloved Pack and all they get in return is a piece of paper saying that they are part owners. This is a model worth emulating, especially given the Packers’ recent success. Over the past twenty years, the Wilpons have careened from one embarrassment to the next.
These are tough times, when tightening budgets have led to historic attacks on schools, hospitals, and public services. Why shouldn’t the Mets help subsidize all that? Imagine how it would be if every time you saw a kid in a David Wright jersey, you knew that the proceeds would help to keep the city afloat.
We should repossess the Mets. Once we do, I will be first in line to buy my shares of the club. Then the Mets really will be “our team” again, and I can resume the passion of youth, with the confidence that my love isn’t just an asset in the Madoff-Wilpon-Katz portfolio.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary“Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]
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