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Madoff Changes Everything

Welcome to FAFIF Turns Ten, a milestone-anniversary series in which we consider anew some of the topics that have defined Mets baseball during our first decade of blogging. In this installment, the Mets get screwed but good.

When the tenth anniversary of Faith and Fear was on the horizon, I thought about putting together a countdown of the biggest Mets stories of our time on the beat. Then I gave up on that idea because — called third strikes, dropped popups behind second base, consecutive September collapses and even some cheerful developments notwithstanding — there was only one story that truly mattered. There was no bigger Mets story over the past ten years than finding out the Mets had a lot less money than everybody, including themselves, thought.

Conversely, there was no ongoing Mets story that I’ve had less appetite to write about than Bernie Madoff. I don’t mean Bernie Madoff the fiend who went to prison but “Bernie Madoff” as shorthand for the Mets not having as much money as everybody thought. The Madoff scandal broke in 2008. We’re still regularly alluding to it, in a direct or indirect fashion, as it applies to the Mets in 2015. You read it explicitly or between the lines every day, whether in earnest reporting about allocations of limited resources or in snark-filled remarks that the Mets would do some mundane thing, except mundane thing costs money! (hold for laughter as billboards of protest continue to rise [1]).

You know how “Bernie Madoff” continues to apply to the Mets? That’s not a rhetorical question. Really, I’ve never fully comprehended it except for the basics: Madoff screwed a lot of people who didn’t own baseball teams in a very bad way, while the people who do own our favorite baseball team were forever tarred and scarred by what had happened…whatever their angle in it was exactly. Several journalists have committed their considerable talents to explaining it [2], and I hang in there with their dedicated reportage for a while, but honestly, my eyes eventually glaze over. I’d rather stare cluelessly at a hundred sabermetric acronyms than have to take apart the details of what Madoff means to the Mets.

There was a prospective new partial owner who came and went. There were minority shares sold. There have been credit lines and bridge loans. There have been favorable judgments. There were statements of support from outgoing and incoming commissioners [3]. There is a cloud that lingers.

It’s not enough that the team owners might make decisions about the baseball experience we don’t agree with or that don’t work out on the field. Every team’s fans, save a couple of perpetually satisfied tribes, can bitch and moan about results. We rebel at authority figures when we’re steamed and call every wealthy man “Mister” when we’re not. We instinctively treat these people like heads of state as long as they don’t invade our head space too often. We’re willing to applaud when they enter the premises on ceremonial occasions, assuming they tacitly pledge to otherwise stay out of our way. But these days, which encompass every day since late 2008, we cheer billboards demanding their ouster. They — which is to say “Bernie Madoff” — destroyed our team’s chances for more than a half-decade.

Our team. Not their team. That’s the deal. We dig deep because of that sense of ownership, even if it’s only a psychological stake we hold. Being down on the titular owners in this realm is nothing personal against them, per se, whatever their foibles in other realms [4]. It’s about what they allowed to happen to our team. They’re supposed to be the caretakers, takin’ care of business on our behalf.

That part is personal.

I took one or two shots at delving into all this second-hand when it was relatively fresh. I didn’t know what I was talking about, so I stopped trying to write about it, except to say, in so many words whenever I attempted to piece together the Mets’ immediate future, “Bernie Madoff” — a.k.a. the Mets have a lot less money than everybody thought and that’s probably bad news for the Mets.

You know what I like to write about? Baseball. One of my favorite things is to look at the Mets and try to figure out whether their team is good enough to win, and if it isn’t, I like to puzzle out what might be done to make it better. We all do this. Except every time I’ve attempted to do this for the past six or so years, I hit a brick wall. Every meditation on the near-term fortunes of the Mets inevitably devolves into some version of “…but we don’t really know how much the Mets can spend, so who knows what’ll actually happen?”

That’s the legacy of “Bernie Madoff” in the Met sense. It used to be we knew. We grasped whether the Mets had resources (it was more or less a given that they did) and by their actions they let us know what they planned to do with them. Maybe the Mets spent them wisely or foolishly, but you could follow along at home. When we began blogging in 2005, they had resumed spending enthusiastically. It produced a fun ride for a while.

Then Madoff happened. Actually, I suppose Madoff happened before. Madoff happening — not the part where he was caught, but the part where he seemed to be a wizard and the principal owner trusted him implicitly — meant the Mets acted as if they had resources they didn’t necessarily have. Or they had them before they didn’t.

See, I still don’t quite get it. The Mets used what they either had or thought they had and turned the go-nowhere team that preceded our blogging to the going-somewhere team we took such delight in chronicling. Then they didn’t have the resources to make things happen. Or did they? We’d resign ourselves to spending patterns more in line with the last days of de Roulet, yet suddenly there’d be a Jason Bay signed here or a David Wright extended there. Curtis Granderson took real bucks if not the biggest of bucks. Bartolo Colon cost money. Michael Cuddyer wasn’t exactly cheap.

So the Mets were spending again? No, they weren’t. They couldn’t. They can’t. Can they? Cuddyer may not have been a bargain-basement pickup, but paying ballplayers of a certain level the going rate is kind of the price of admission for competing within Major League Baseball, isn’t it? Anybody who watched the Mets pursue the low end of the market when free agency came along will always be a little shocked that they sign anyone glitzier than Elliott Maddox and Tom Hausman. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be a shock the Mets would sign somebody like Michael Cuddyer. The shock should be Michael Cuddyer turned out to be our winter centerpiece and half of our new inventory.

I’d like to say the ability to spend is none of our beeswax. It’s impolite to talk money in most precincts. But baseball is showbiz and the figures get thrown around freely. Then you factor in New York, which — according to most New Yorkers — is approximately a bajillion times bigger than Pittsburgh and Kansas City put together. We used to use New York’s enormity as evidence that the Mets were a bunch of cheapskates if they didn’t pony up in a given free agent season. They had to have the money to outspend all those pikers in the hinterlands. It’s New York…right?

“Bernie Madoff” made that not matter a whit. Whatever Pittsburgh and Kansas City and their teeny-tiny town brethren lacked in population they more than compensated for by not being home to the financial whiz who screwed the Mets among others. Too bad we couldn’t keep Amos Otis and trade Bernard Madoff to the Royals for Joe Foy.

Besides, small-market/large-market dichotomy ain’t what it used to be. There’s revenue sharing and multiple revenue streams and regional networks and it’s no longer as simple as saying the teams playing in the big cities have an insurmountable advantage over the teams playing in the littler cities. Pittsburgh goes to the playoffs. Kansas City goes to the World Series. The team playing in the city where Bernie Madoff made his bones winds up with the most stubborn disadvantage of all.

Somehow, we arrived in 2015 filling our optimism glass past the halfway point for a change. Oh, that young pitching! Oh, that spectacular center fielder! Oh, the reasonable assertions one can make that everybody is gonna be pretty good to maybe nearly great! And then, if we’re just a little shy, our general manager can go out and…

Or can he? Ah, the wall rears its bricky head again. Say what you will about Sandy Alderson, but say anything definitive at your own risk, because his actions defy definition.

• He let Jose Reyes leave because the batting champ’s future was a dicey proposition or because retaining Jose Reyes was beyond the means of the Mets?

• He traded R.A. Dickey because the package he could receive in exchange for his services far exceeded the value to be extracted from the Cy Young winner’s world-class knuckleball or because retaining R.A. Dickey was beyond the means of the Mets?

• He loved Ruben Tejada and Wilmer Flores in consecutive offseasons to the exclusion of every possible shortstop alternative available or he couldn’t help but love Tejada and Flores because upgrades were beyond the means of the Mets?

You can make all the inferences you want from Alderson’s public statements or manner or track record to date. You can hail his acumen. You can mock his inactivity. But you can’t really say he’s done everything a general manager can do, because he hasn’t been given the payroll flexibility [5] a general manager is supposed to get.

Or has he? The Mets have never explicitly come out and said, “Whaddaya want from us? Madoff…y’know?” For a while, the story was, yeah, Madoff got to us but not the baseball. The baseball’s fine. Then the baseball operations were obviously impacted. Meanwhile, plans for malls and such went full steam ahead. So everybody was fine? How could they be? If they were, why weren’t the Mets aggressively pursuing this or that player? Because what they had was beyond conceivable improvement? This was a 79-win team in 2014 and it added two major leaguers in advance of 2015. Even with injuries presumably recovered from and prospects on their way, that’s a pretty complacent approach if that’s supposed to be the plan.

Unless it’s the best that can be made of a constrained situation, because “Bernie Madoff” changed everything and will continue to until we can stop talking about it as it applies to the Mets…which we’re not able to yet.

This, I am aware, is not a rigorous survey of the details that have made the Mets a budgetary mystery. This veers to the glib and superficial. Others curse when they don’t know what else to do. Foregoing intellectual rigor in my pursuit of understanding the Mets is my version of dropping f-bombs. I don’t wanna analyze that which eludes airtight answers even after the most exhaustive analysis. I just wanna watch Mets baseball knowing all is being done to make it the best baseball possible.

That’s the Mets we were able to wrap our heads around when we began to blog in 2005. That’s the Mets modus operandi I want back.

Occasional Metpocalyptic forecasts of doom notwithstanding, join us on Saturday, March 28, 1-4 PM, at Foley’s NY [6] to celebrate the tenth anniversary of The Blog for Mets Fans Who Like to Read and actually look forward to the coming season for a change.