The Mets' Bernie Madoff problem, it turns out, could have been even worse.

In 2002, after investing with Madoff for years, principal owner Fred Wilpon tried to draw his financial ally even closer - offering him a piece of his crown jewel, the Mets' MLB franchise, according to the Madoff trustee's lawsuit unsealed Friday.

The opportunity came when Wilpon and his family investment vehicle, Sterling Partners, were buying out Nelson Doubleday's 50 percent share of the team. Madoff, a longtime friend, had invested $12 million in various other businesses run by Wilpon and his family, the trustee said.

But Madoff said "no" to a partial ownership interest in the Mets, according to bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard - the "only time Sterling offered Madoff an opportunity to invest that he declined."

And now the Wilpons are trying to sell a piece of the Mets because of the financial fallout from their Madoff dealings.

Mets officials offered a slightly different version of events. They said Madoff was one of six to 10 prominent friends approached by Wilpon's group about becoming limited partners, and the idea attracted interest, but the owners decided not to pursue it.

"There was never any offer made, or declined by Bernard Madoff, because it never got to that point," said Mets' head of business operations Dave Howard.

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Either way, said sports business experts, the Mets are lucky the Ponzi schemer, now serving a 150-year prison sentence, didn't become a partner in the team.

"From an embarrassment standpoint, it would have been magnified 10 times," said former Madison Square Garden president Bob Gutkowski.

Unless, some suggested, Madoff could have transferred his talent for making something out of nothing to the on-field product.

"If Madoff were the owner of the Mets, they probably would have brought back Marv Throneberry to play first base," said Andrew Zimbalist, who teaches sports economics at Smith College.

It's easy to guess why Madoff turned down a minority share, said Garden City lawyer Jerome Reisman, who represents victims: He needed to run things to keep the aura of being a winner, and that wasn't going to happen with Wilpon.

"He was smart, Madoff was smart," said Reisman. "Everything he did had to be controlled by him. He would not have controlled the investment if he invested in the Mets."

With Jim Baumbach