Deja vu all over again for owners of Mets

Mets owner Fred Wilpon talks to reporters before Mets owner Fred Wilpon talks to reporters before a 2011 spring training workout. (Feb. 17, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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"We have absolutely no intention of relinquishing control, not this year or next year or into the foreseeable future. As I've said many times, the team is not for sale."

- Lorinda de Roulet,

Mets chairman of the board, Oct. 16, 1979

"We're not selling controlling interest of the team. It's not on the table.''

- Jeff Wilpon,

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Mets chief operating officer, Feb. 16, 2011

Sound familiar?

One month after de Roulet made her statement, the Mets were put up for sale. Two months after that, the team was bought by a group that included Brooklyn-born real estate man Fred Wilpon.

Thirty-two years later, it remains to be seen if history is repeating itself. The Mets began spring training last week with ownership uncertainty, a disenchanted fan base and little chance of winning the National League East - just as they did in 1979.

And just as Jeff and Fred Wilpon did in separate appearances at the Mets' spring training facility last week, de Roulet made a "the team is not for sale" proclamation before the Mets' first exhibition game in March 1979.

Hers came from her boat.

Today, the Wilpon family's continued control of the team is in doubt because of the Bernie Madoff trustee's clawback lawsuit. The Mets announced last month they were looking to sell 20 to 25 percent of the team because of uncertainty surrounding the lawsuit and the up to $1 billion the trustee is seeking to recover.

Simply put, these Mets owners need money.

That was not the case the last time the team was sold. The Mets were comically bad on the field, with consecutive last-place finishes in 1977-79, but their owners had plenty of money.

De Roulet (known as "Linda") was the daughter of wealthy financier, sportsman and philanthropist Charles Payson. He inherited the team after the death of his wife, Joan Whitney Payson, the Mets' first principal owner. Charles Payson's net worth was estimated by Forbes magazine in 1983 to be more than $120 million.

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De Roulet desperately wanted to keep the money-losing club, but the disinterested Payson - who once said he liked crew and boxing but not baseball - refused to prop it up with family cash. The Mets took out a $1-million bank loan to cover expenses, according to reports at the time.

Against that backdrop, the Mets went 63-99 in 1979 and drew 788,905 fans to Shea Stadium, still the lowest in club history for a non-strike season.

It was not a happy time to be a Mets fan.

Sound familiar?

"You pretty much knew the hand you were dealt," Joe Torre, who managed the Mets from 1977-81, said Friday in a telephone interview. "You knew you weren't going to spend any money because there were restrictions . . . We were miles behind where the Yankees were, basically."

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The Yankees had just won their second consecutive World Series when de Roulet, an admitted baseball neophyte, took over as Mets chairman of the board at age 48 in November 1978, replacing M. Donald Grant. She is best known now for introducing a mule named Mettle as a mascot on the suggestion of her daughter Bebe, one of two de Roulet daughters who worked for the Mets in 1979.

"Her heart was certainly in the right place and she tried to make the club reasonable," Torre said. "Her dad limited her on what she could do financially. This from my understanding. It was my first managing job, I was still wet behind the ears and excited about anything going on."

Sound familiar?

The current Mets have a manager in Terry Collins who, while not in his first job, certainly is excited and excitable. They have a general manager in Sandy Alderson who spent less money on players in his first offseason (about $8 million) than the Yankees did on one season of free-agent eighth-inning man Rafael Soriano (about $10 million).

And just as the current owners are today, de Roulet tried at one point to find a minority investor who would allow the family to stay in charge. Then-Islanders owner John Pickett, a family friend, was mentioned prominently as a potential investor. But Payson nixed the deal, according to Pickett.

De Roulet, who is 80 and a longtime Manhasset resident, declined through her assistant to be interviewed for this story. She was quoted often in 1979 about her desire to keep the Mets, but she said she understood her father's position and went quietly once the decision was made to sell.

"She certainly enjoyed running the team," said Louis Hoynes, a family friend and Glen Cove resident who was the National League's lawyer for two decades and handled the 1980 sale. "When it came to selling the team, it was the whole family, really, led by Charlie. I don't think the rest of the family was particularly interested in maintaining the team.

"I suppose if it had been left to Linda alone, my guess is that she would have been perfectly happy to run it a bit longer. But the family wanted to sell and she went graciously along with it."

Well, that doesn't sound familiar. There is no family drama today - the current Mets owners know they want to keep the team. It remains to be seen if they will be able to.

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