David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - From the moment Fred Wilpon escaped the predatory grasp of Madoff trustee Irving Picard back in March, the embattled Mets ownership group has tried to shout down the skeptics.
Shares of the team were sold. Debts repaid to a degree.
And when Mets COO Jeff Wilpon faced the questions again Wednesday about the financial state of the organization, his response was predictable.
"Very stable," he said. "We have a plan and we're going to move forward with that. The payroll is going to go up this year and Sandy [Alderson] knows the flexibility he has. And then next year, when some things roll off the books, it will be able to go even higher."
Sounds good, right? But don't take Jeff Wilpon's word for it. For those tired of management's rhetoric, the Mets give you David Wright, and the team's new $138-million pitchman delivered a message Wednesday that was precisely on point with the front office's vision of the future in Flushing.
Wright easily could have jumped ship. Instead, he listened as the Mets tried to sell him on the franchise's long-term potential, first in September over late- night hamburgers in Miami with Jeff Wilpon and a month later during a round of golf with Alderson near his Virginia home.
Wright said both conversations were "brutally honest" and came away convinced the club's power brokers could turn the Mets into a contender again.
"The commitment from ownership, the commitment from the front office to execute that plan was important to me in the decision," Wright said. "There were 100 different factors that went into this decision -- No. 1 had to be that commitment to winning, and I got the answers I wanted to hear."
Words don't mean much. Just ask Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, both of whom probably heard a similar speech from Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria a year ago and now are looking for Toronto apartments. Unlike those two, Wright has a long history with the Mets, but this still was a gamble for him, a calculated risk.
In turning over the next eight years of his life to a franchise that hasn't been to the postseason since 2006, Wright could have signed away any shot at a World Series. Wright says he doesn't believe that he did. Do you believe him?
"People will subscribe to the process," Alderson said. "They'll get what you're trying to do. But at some point in time, and not that far out, you've got to actually win."
The Mets expect Wright to be the driving force of that "process." He even served as a spokesmodel Wednesday by donning the Mets' new alternative jersey for the nationally televised news conference.
Wright was an orange-and-blue billboard for the message the Wilpons have been unable to convincingly deliver on their own. All that was missing was a 1-800-METS-TIXX scrolling across the TV screen. And with Wright secured, Wilpon was asked if the Mets would be "competitive" this season, a question quickly amended to include the chances of making the playoffs.
"You asked how long until we're competitive," Wilpon said. "There's a lot of ways to get to the postseason now. With the extra playoffs and everything, I think we will be competitive this year."
More words. The Mets have said plenty and done little for far too long, but this investment in Wright may signal a change in the direction of the franchise. For the first time in a while, there is tangible evidence of that -- not just the promise of it.
Over the next eight years, Wright expects to be in the playoffs again, and his agreeing to this extension is an endorsement of the Mets' plan to get there. Evidently, Wright trusts them, and that's a start. Only time will tell if you should, too.