Fred Wilpon promised Friday that the "uncertainty" hovering over the state of his family's finances will have no impact on how the Mets are run this season, a sentiment the team's owner has expressed repeatedly in recent years.
On a conference call with reporters to announce the family's sudden willingness to sell a 20-to-25-percent share in the ballclub, Fred Wilpon began by strongly reiterating his desire to insulate the Mets from their owners' ongoing - and potentially costly - connection to the Bernard Madoff fraud case.
"What we are discussing today has not and will not affect or change the Mets' day-to-day operations and control," Wilpon said. "We will continue to operate the franchise in a first-class manner. This season, we have one of the highest payrolls in baseball, as we have had for the last several years."
The special trustee in the Madoff fraud case, Irving Picard, filed a suit in December against various members of the Wilpon family and associates at Sterling Equities, Wilpon's Great Neck-based real estate conglomerate. The New York Times reported Friday on its website that Picard is seeking as much as $1 billion from the Wilpons.
"I don't think the suit has had any effect on the cash flow or the liquidity of the Mets in any major way at all," Wilpon said, adding that they've been engaged in settlement negotiations for the past month.
Wilpon's son Jeff, the team's chief operating officer, said the influx of cash they expect to receive from their potential new partners will have a direct effect on the team's resources. Forbes last year estimated the Mets' value at $858 million.
"We're looking to do something with the team, and make sure the team is healthy so that we can put the proper ballplayers on the field," Jeff Wilpon said, "and give Sandy [Alderson] what he needs in terms of flexibility to have a winning ballclub."
The Wilpons have gone to great lengths in the past two years to dismiss the notion that they have not spent as much on the team since the Madoff scandal broke in December 2008.
The Wilpons point to their high payroll as evidence; this season, the Mets' payroll is expected to be about $140 million.
But they can't deny that the Mets have not spent as much on free agents in recent offseasons, Thebelt-tightening was capped by an offseason without any significant player signings.
Alderson, the Mets' new general manager, consistently has said he didn't plan to go after high-priced free agents this offseason because he did not have the financial flexibility necessary to be a major player. A Mets spokesman said Alderson was unavailable for comment Friday.
Former general manager Omar Minaya, who presided over the spending sprees of a few years ago and the quieter recent offseasons, declined to comment Friday.
Wilpon defended the lack of player movement Friday, indicating the strategy was Alderson's recommendation.
"Our general manager Sandy Alderson has articulated his plan," Wilpon said, "and his plan is being implemented."
Still, their silence this winter has been noted throughout the baseball world, just as their surprising decision to welcome minority partners was Friday.
The Wilpons long have insisted that they intend to keep the ballclub in their family for generations, with one team executive once strongly denouncing the idea of inviting minority owners into the fold.
Appearing on Fox Business Network in September 2009, executive vice president for business operations Dave Howard said, "The team is not for sale - whole or in part. It is family-owned and it will be family-owned for the long term . . . There's no need to sell. There's no reason to sell. There will be no sale and I can't state it any more definitively than that."
With Ken Davidoff