METS STILL SHUT DOWN

By Murray Chass

December 25, 2011

A week before the end of last year, after the New York Mets had made themselves conspicuously absent from the procurement of competitive players, I imagined and wrote about a sign that was posted outside the main entrance to Citi Field:

CLOSED FOR BUSINESS – WILL REOPEN APRIL 2012

“It’s not really there,” I wrote of the imaginary sign, “but in the interest of full disclosure and truth in advertising, it should be.”

The headline on the column read: “LOST IN THE QUEENS DESERT”Mets Fan 225

A year later, the Mets remain lost in the wasteland that is the Queens desert, and the way things look they may be doomed to wander in it for 40 years.

A year later, we might as well just change the date on that sign and let fans who inadvertently stray by know that the Mets may reopen for business in April 2013. You’ve heard the Frank Sinatra tune, “There used to be a ball park here?” Well, there used to be a baseball team there.

What happened to the Mets? The Mets are dead. Long live the Mets.

If the Mets were owned by anyone other than Fred Wilpon, Commissioner Bud Selig would already have initiated efforts to induce, if not order, the team’s owner to sell the team in the best interests of baseball generally and particularly of New York, which is Major League Baseball’s MVC – most valuable city.

On the 50th anniversary of their creation, the Mets have not regressed to that comical first season of 1962. But they do recall the Mets of the late 1970s, who were so bad that fans stopped attending games, and the empty Shea Stadium seats forced the owner, Lorinda deRoulet, to sell the team.

At that time Mets attendance had plummeted steadily from a record 2,697,479 in the 1970 post-World Series season to 788,905 in 1979.

This time Citi Field attendance has plunged 42 percent in three years, from a first-season 4,042,043 to 2,352,596, ninth in the National League last season.

The attendance decline has come at a time when the Mets are desperately seeking revenue to keep themselves afloat. Wilpon has tried to recruit partners, offering minority stakes in the team, first a one-partner $200 million investment, then multiple stakes at $20 million per, but the first fell through and Plan B has not created the desired results.

Wilpon is a proud man who is searingly pained by developments that have engulfed him and the Mets in recent years – general manager Sandy Alderson has said the team lost $70 million last season – but Wilpon has resisted the ultimate step of selling the team and his friend the commissioner has not suggested, at least publicly, that the time has come to sell.

Earlier this year, when Frank McCourt, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, found himself in fatal financial trouble, the commissioner took steps to force him to sell the team. However, if anyone brought up the Mets and suggested they were in a comparable plight, Selig bristled and said they were two completely different situations. They were: one team had friends in high places, the other didn’t.

Fred Wilpon3 225Wilpon, however, faces the prospect of drowning in debt, just as McCourt has. The Mets borrowed $25 million from Major League Baseball and more recently secured a $40 million bank loan. That’s basically how Tom Hicks started out on the road that led to bankruptcy and his sale of the Texas Rangers last year. When one loan isn’t enough, keep borrowing until the loans pile up and you can’t repay them.

Lurking like the 800-pound gorilla in the room is an element that wasn’t involved in the Hicks and McCourt cases. Wilpon and his brother-in-law partner Saul Katz are fighting a lawsuit by Irving Picard, the trustee for the victims of Bernie Madoff’s historic Ponzi scheme.

With friends like Madoff, a person doesn’t need enemies, but Madoff has turned into a potentially fatal friend for Wilpon. Once it became known that Wilpon and Katz had invested heavily in Madoff’s scheme, Wilpon steadfastly denied that the lost money would undermine the way the Mets did business.

Ever since, though, something has affected the way the Mets have done business. In fact, they haven’t done much business at all. They hired a new general manager, and he has yet to make what can be classified as a major move, either via trade or free agency.

Wait a second; let me amend that. Alderson has made major moves but only to shed high-priced players, not to add major players to the lineup or starting pitching rotation.

In his first season, Alderson and his aides made a point of saying that as soon as the Mets were free of a series of expensive contracts they would be able to add players of substance. Carlos Beltran, Francisco Rodriguez, Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo and Jeff Francoeur disappeared. No players of substance have appeared.

This off-season they opted to let their star shortstop, the National League batting champion Jose Reyes, defect uncontested to the division-rival Miami Marlins. They didn’t try to keep Chris Capuano, who started 31 games for them last season, when the Dodgers offered him a 2-year, $10 million contract.jose-reyes-225

Alderson and his brain trust might have decided Reyes, with his history of injuries, wasn’t worth the risk of an expensive long-term contract, but they never seemed to get in the game. As for Capuano, he was a creditable pitcher for the Mets, who signed him as a free agent last year, and $5 million a year for two years seemed like a reasonable price to pay to have someone pitch every fifth day instead of having the mound unoccupied on those 30 or so days.

But the Mets will scour the scrap heap of questionable pitchers and find a bargain who will fit into their austerity program.

Meanwhile, a host of players from the 2010 team were also deemed unworthy of paying to stay around: pitchers Chris Young, Miguel Batista, Jason Isringhausen and Taylor Buchholz plus Scott Hairston, Willie Harris and Nick Evans.

The Mets also traded Angel Pagan, who had the second most plate appearances (behind Reyes) for the team in 2011, to San Francisco for Andres Torres, who is expected to be the center fielder and leadoff hitter, and reliever Ramon Ramirez.

Other new faces have come via free agency: relief pitchers Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Chuck James and Garrett Olson, catcher Rob Johnson and outfielder Adam Loewen.

It’s unlikely that any of the players will stir Mets fans to the point they will rush to Citi Field to buy tickets and attend games. The new players may not even tempt them to turn their televisions to SNY and watch the games that way.

The Mets fell behind the Washington Nationals last season and are eminently capable of falling behind the improved Marlins next season.

In a recent interview with reporters, Alderson expressed a critical view of multi-year contracts. He can cite a variety of deals to justify his criticism. But is he going to build a contender with players like Francisco, Rauch and Torres?

You have to remember Alderson grew up in baseball with the low-revenue Oakland Athletics. He was Billy Beane’s mentor. In addition, his current boss, Wilpon, has never liked spending money. When Nelson Doubleday was his 50-50 partner, it was Doubleday who wanted to spend to build a contender, Wilpon always wanted to hold back.

That makes for a good fit between Wilpon and Alderson, but it won’t turn the Mets into a contender any time soon. I had hoped to ask Alderson if he would have taken the Mets’ job had he known the future financial instability of the Mets, but he didn’t return my telephone calls.

Alderson had a good job in the commissioner’s office but wanted to return to active day-to-day operations with a club. The Mets had an opening, and Selig encouraged Alderson to seek it. Selig also let his friend Fred know that Alderson was the man for his job.

Maybe it wasn’t important for Alderson to jump into perfect conditions. Maybe he thought it was the right move and the right place to be to enhance his chances to succeed Selig if he actually retires after next season.

TWO OF A KIND: VALENTINE, ROYSTER

You can’t make up this stuff. It’s so bizarre you have to know it’s true.

Bobby Valentine Red Sox 225Bobby Valentine has hired Jerry Royster as his third base coach in Boston. It’s been said before about others, but the two of them deserve each other – more than anyone could possibly think.

In 1993, Royster was the Colorado Rockies’ third base coach under manager Don Baylor. Forty-four games into that same season, Davey Johnson replaced Tony Perez as Cincinnati manager and made Valentine, who had coached under him with the New York Mets, his third base coach.

Royster lasted only that one season with the Rockies. They fired him because they discovered he was giving signs at third contrary to the signs Baylor had given him to give.

Valentine, however, didn’t last either. Johnson found that like Royster, Valentine was giving players his own signs, not those that Johnson flashed him to give. Initially, Johnson thought Valentine might have a problem with his eyes and sent him to an eye doctor to have his eyes examined.

When the doctor found nothing wrong, Johnson removed Valentine from third and replaced him with Ray Knight.

That Royster should wind up nearly 20 years later as Valentine’s third base coach with the Red Sox is just too bizarre a coincidence.

I asked both Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox chief executive officer, and general manager Ben Cheringtion by e-mail if they were aware of the Rockies’ experience with Royster, if they asked him about it and if they cared.

“We did plenty of background work and we are comfortable with who Jerry is and what he will bring to table,” Cherington sasid by e-mail.

The Red Sox should have a fun time keeping track of Valentine’s signs to Royster and Royster’s signs to the batters and the baserunners. Maybe they’ll hire a coach to do that.

AWARDS POSE PROBLEM FOR WRITERS

On the heels of Ryan Braun’s positive test for an illegally high level of testosterone come allegations of child molestation against a long-time Philadelphia sports columnist. What do Braun and the columnist, Bill Conlin, have in common? In the past year, both have won awards from the Baseball Writers Association.ryan-braun-150

The BBWAA named Braun the National League most valuable player last month. A year ago Conlin won the organization’s Spink award, earning a spot if not membership in the Hall of Fame.

Critics have instantly urged, if not demanded, the BBWAA to strip Braun and Conlin of their awards.

In Braun’s case the critics didn’t even wait for Braun’s appeal of his positive test and possible 50-game suspension to be heard. Hang him high, they declared.

I suggested here last week that we wait to consider doing anything until we know the outcome of the appeal. I further said I wouldn’t be surprised if Braun were to prevail in his appeal.

I offer the same suggestion for the Conlin award, though in his case there is a more difficult decision because his alleged acts of sexual abuse occurred so long ago – apparently in the 1970s – that the statute of limitations bars prosecution. In other words, the BBWAA will not have a conviction or an acquittal on which it could base a decision if it wants to decide whether or not to strip Conlin of the award.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was on the three-man committee that nominated Conlin and two other writers for the award last year. I have never been a Conlin fan and reluctantly voted for his nomination because of a dearth of good candidates.

In the election itself, I voted for Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, whom I have long admired for his contribution to baseball knowledge and understanding in Canada. Conlin, however, won the election, outdrawing Elliott 188 votes to 160 in one of the closest outcomes since the current format was adopted in 2000. Elliott won this year.

Bill Conlin 150It is premature for me to say how I would vote if the writers were asked to decide on the Braun and Conlin awards. Rescinding awards can be tricky.

If we were to strip Braun of his m.v.p. award, for example, what do we do about all of Barry Bonds’ m.v.p. and Roger Clemens’ Cy Young awards? Ken Caminiti was voted the N.L. m.v.p. in 1996 and later admitted he played that season under the influence of drugs. His award was not revoked, and I would be reluctant to cancel Braun’s award.

Conlin is a different issue and would take much more serious consideration. He is accused of committing an act far more abhorrent than using steroids or testosterone, and the writers should not be in the position of celebrating someone who allegedly is a child molester. But more time and more information are needed to sort out the sordid allegations and allow us to make an informed, intelligent decision. Conlin won’t have a trial, but he will have an opportunity to acquit himself. I’m skeptical, but I’m willing to listen.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.