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Fred Wilpon says he plans to keep Mets

Mets owner Fred Wilpon.

Mets owner Fred Wilpon. Credit: Jim McIsaac, 2010

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Mets owner Fred Wilpon said Thursday he intends to hold on to the team despite the financial troubles plaguing the franchise.

"That's my strongest desire," Wilpon said in his first extensive comments on the situation since the summer.

At the baseball owners' meetings, Wilpon also touched on fan support amid the team's declining payroll and the offseason loss of Jose Reyes.

"How can anybody deny it's been a challenging time?" Wilpon said in an interview. "But I came from nothing, so I meet the challenges. And so does . . . our whole family and the Met organization. We're meeting the challenges and I think that we'll be fine."

Wilpon's ownership of the Mets has been in doubt because of the team's money woes.

Wilpon has a powerful ally in baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who Thursday agreed to remain on the job for at least two more years. Selig approved a $25-million loan from Major League Baseball to the Mets in November 2010, and reiterated support for Wilpon Thursday.

"They are making progress and that's a good sign," Selig said. "He's been a great owner, loves his team. He's everything you'd want in a local owner. He's had some economic problems not caused by himself and I have a lot of faith in him that he's working his way through that."

Wilpon and co-owner Saul Katz face a $386 million lawsuit brought by the trustee for victims of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme. Trustee Irving Picard alleges Wilpon and Katz should have known the millions they received from Madoff represented phony profits. Wilpon and Katz have denied the charges.

Losses of $70 million

The National League franchise lost $70 million last season, general manager Sandy Alderson said recently. A $200 million deal with hedge fund manager David Einhorn fell through because of control issues. Attendance fell to 2,352,596 last year after topping 4 million in 2008.

The Mets also have an annual bond payment on Citi Field that totals $43.8 million in 2012.

The team anticipates closing on a sale of at least four minority shares within a few weeks, according to a person familiar with the process. The Mets hope to eventually sell 10 units for a total of $200 million to pay off a $40 million bridge loan, a $25 million loan from Major League Baseball and help with operating expenses.

Wilpon declined to speak in detail about the Mets' finances or the Madoff lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial on March 19.

The Mets announced last week they hired CRG Partners, a bankruptcy and financial turnaround consulting firm. The team said it was not seeking bankruptcy protection, only help with financial reporting and budgeting processes.

Wilpon said he understands Mets fans' frustration over a shrinking payroll and the loss of all-star shortstop Jose Reyes to the Miami Marlins as a free agent, but asked them to give this season's team a chance.

"I think that we have to get the fans back at the stadium," Wilpon, 75, said outside the entrance to The Sanctuary resort. "That's a necessity, that's a lifeblood. To do that, we have to have a good team. . . . Our fans really deserve some good play on the field and I'm very hopeful."

'Give this team a try'

Asked what he would tell Mets fans, Wilpon said: "I think we're going to be better than you think. And I would say that we would hope that Met fans enjoy going to the ballpark and give this team a try."

To those who say he should sell the team, Wilpon said: "I understand it's a by-product [of losing]. If we were winning, they wouldn't be saying that. They'd be saying how brilliant the organization is run. When you're losing, it doesn't [happen that way]. I've been through both. I've been through times when we were receiving far more credit than we perhaps were earning and vice versa. This is a tough time. We're bearing up. I can promise you that."

The Mets have slashed their payroll from about $140 million in 2011 to less than $100 million for the season that begins in April. They let Reyes sign with Miami for six years and $106 million without making a formal offer.

Asked if it was painful for him to let Reyes go, Wilpon said, "Yes. Certainly. It's painful for our fans even though you all [media] and our fans said you understand it. But you're still pained. I'm a fan. I understand it, but I'm still pained about it."

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