PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
The first full-squad workout promotes talk of beginnings, of new journeys. But the minute Fred Wilpon appeared at the Mets' training complex Monday, you thought about possible endings.
How long can the Wilpons and Saul Katz hold on to this team, shredding payroll and tossing assets overboard like a sinking cruise liner desperately trying to stay afloat? How long can Mets fans and Major League Baseball tolerate the desecration of a jewel franchise?
"We intend to own the franchise for a very long time," the Mets' principal owner told reporters, adding with a smile: "Whether they're happy about that right now or not, I don't know."
The Mets are coming off a 77-85 season, their third straight losing campaign, and their best player, Jose Reyes, jumped to the Mets' National League East foe in Miami. Their payroll has sunk from $140 million to $90 million in one year. Their Citi Field attendance has plummeted from 3,168,571 in 2009 to 2,559,738 in 2010 to 2,352,596 in 2011. The Marlins and Nationals seemed to improve significantly in the offseason.
Second-year general manager Sandy Alderson has put together a respectable lineup, an improved bullpen and a starting rotation with both significant upside and serious depth issues. Manager Terry Collins brings considerable energy to the party and sent the right message to his players at his opening meeting. "Just because we don't have guys with $100- million contracts," Collins told reporters, "that doesn't mean we don't have a good team."
Yet any sunshine here gets blocked by the giant cloud of ownership malaise. It's been going on for more than three years, since Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme was uncovered in December 2008, and although there's a big moment coming up, it appears unlikely to produce a fully blue sky.
The jury trial for Madoff trustee Irving Picard's lawsuit against Mets ownership is scheduled to begin March 19, although Federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff could impact that hearing with March 5 rulings on motions by both sides.
"I think things will become a lot clearer in the next months," Wilpon said.
Even if the Mets' owners prevail in the Madoff mess, however, they still face an uphill climb. They have not yet closed on the 10 to 12 shares (4 percent each, at $20 million a pop) they need for a cash infusion, which will allow them to pay back loans to MLB ($25 million) and Bank of America ($40 million).
And there's the issue of so little money coming in from the actual team. "We've got to win the fans back," Wilpon said. "No, strike that: Win the fans and the customers back . . . The only way we're going to get that revenue is if we have a competitive, interesting team on the field."
The problem lies deeper than that, though, as Wilpon joked. According to Michael Weinstat, an investment adviser / portfolio manager from Woodbury who owned Mets season tickets from 1987 through 2009, about 25 percent of Mets fans are rooting for the team to lose to expedite the Wilpons' departure.
"We want to get a real owner in," Weinstat said. "We feel like we've been taken. We supported the team financially through tough times like 1992 and 2002. Then, over the three-year span of 2007 through 2009, they tripled our ticket prices.
"We have venom for the Wilpons because they stuck it to us."
Wilpon only reluctantly conceded that the Madoff losses contributed to the payroll cuts after initially insisting the whole thing was Alderson's idea. The 75-year-old won't take ownership of basic facts, let alone grasp how much he's hurt the baseball universe.
How long must this go on? If even the first workout is hindered by turbulence from above, it shouldn't be too much longer.