PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon shouted encouraging words from a golf cart Saturday as he watched Mike Pelfrey and Francisco Rodriguez throw a bullpen session at Digital Domain Park.
This was a typical spring-training morning at the team's complex, but it's hardly business as usual for Wilpon after it was revealed Friday that the Mets had received a $25-million loan in November from Major League Baseball.
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Wilpon told Newsday that he had no further comment on the matter, aside from the team's statement Friday that acknowledged the loan. Earlier this month, Fred and Jeff Wilpon had separate news conferences to address the potential $1-billion lawsuit facing them from Madoff trustee Irving Picard, but they have not spoken publicly since then.
That has left the Mets' front-office members, along with the players, to handle the business-related questions, and they insisted again Saturday that this latest development - involving the $25-million loan - did not make them overly concerned about the team's finances.
"We're focused on baseball," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "None of these other issues has affected any of the decisions we've made about the team. Any limitations I may have faced in the offseason, payroll-wise, were the result of existing payroll issues."
Before joining the Mets last October, Alderson had worked closely with commissioner Bud Selig on a number of baseball-related projects, and the two remain friendly. As for when Alderson specifically knew about the loan, he declined to comment Saturday when asked by Newsday. The Mets are trying to sell a partial share of the franchise, up to 25 percent, and a baseball official with knowledge of the those discussions said the team had 30 "legitimate inquiries." The official also said that a dozen of those had applied to Major League Baseball to examine the club's finances - due diligence for any serious investor.
Players: A non-issue, for now
The players, for the most part, don't seem to be following the Wilpons' financial issues on a daily basis, nor have they expressed reservations about the team's operation - for now.
"You'd have a hard time finding half the guys in here that know about what's going on," David Wright said. "And the other half that has heard about it, I don't even know how to begin to explain something or comment on something that I don't fully understand.
"To me, it doesn't affect anything that we're doing this year. Beyond this year, I guess we can answer those questions then. But as far as I'm concerned, I trust what the Wilpons are saying and you kind of go from there. I'm not too worried about it."
That might be easier to say now, at the start of the Grapefruit League schedule in Florida, when the games don't count. But there may be greater consequences once the regular season begins, and particularly around the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline, should the Mets be unable to improve the team because of money problems.
"Yeah, I think that if were the case, we'd have some guys that would have some input on that," said Jason Bay, using a diplomatic way to describe the potential of clubhouse unrest. "But as of right now, it's a non-issue."
As for the future, Bay added, "I think that if certain things start to trickle down, and then all of a sudden it starts affecting players on whatever level, then I think it becomes a bigger issue in here. But as of right now, everything that has transpired has transpired outside of this room, outside of the baseball field, and I don't think anybody's really preoccupied with it."
"It's not a good sign"
For the Wilpons, however, the fallout from Madoff's Ponzi scheme and Picard's clawback efforts are impossible to ignore. The fact that the Mets needed a $25-million loan may be an indication that the team's owners are having more serious financial problems than they are admitting.
"It's not a good sign," said Michael Cramer, a former minority owner and president of the Texas Rangers from 1998-2004.
"There's no way you hit up the MLB credit agreement for a liquidity loan for $25 million unless you just don't have the cash or any other way to do it," said Cramer, director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media at the University of Texas at Austin. "My gut is that's not a good sign."
Picard's lawsuit was filed Dec. 7, making the timing of the $25-million loan from MLB curious. It's possible the Mets already had exhausted all outside sources of cash and had gone through a $75-million line of credit that MLB makes available to all clubs annually, Cramer said.
"It's hard to say exactly what was happening," Cramer said. "But it's unlikely they had the availability of other cash or other assets or the ability to get another loan, which is why they tapped the MLB facility."
The last struggling franchise known to get money from MLB's loan program was Cramer's former club. Last May, Selig agreed to prop up Texas with $21.5 million in loans while the franchise was in bankruptcy under then-owner Tom Hicks. After a lengthy auction process, the team was sold to a group that included Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.
MLB's loan to the Rangers became public because the team's finances were an open book in bankruptcy court.
The New York Times reported Friday that baseball's executive committee was not told of the Mets' loan until last month. The secrecy is typical, Cramer said. But the type of loan the Mets received is not.
"When I was there, this type of loan wasn't that common, and that's a good thing," Cramer said. "It's just not that common. There were some teams that had some financial issues and we as another team would not necessarily have known what other teams' issues were, nor if MLB was issuing money."
Selig has shown a willingness to use his powers to aid financially troubled franchises before. He helped orchestrate a three-team ownership swap in 2001 that led to Florida Marlins owner John Henry buying the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos owner Jeffrey Loria buying the Marlins.
The Expos were left as an MLB-owned orphan and were run by future Mets general manager Omar Minaya until the franchise was sold in 2004 and moved to Washington to become the Nationals.
In 2000, MLB guaranteed a $20-million bank loan for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who had greatly outspent their revenues in their first years of existence. Owner Jerry Colangelo said he was "appalled" that his franchise was seen as having financial problems. In 2004, Colangelo was ousted in a takeover by his minority partners.
Just this week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Selig nixed a bail-out proposal from baseball's other financially troubled big-market franchise, the Dodgers.
Selig reportedly rejected Dodgers owner Frank McCourt's bid to take a $200-million loan from the Fox TV network. McCourt has been engaged in a bitter divorce that has left the team in financial limbo.