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The Unholy Trinity

Say, wanna get even more depressed about the state of your favorite baseball team? Scrape the ice off your keyboard and visit the Times. There you can read all about [1] how brilliant Fred Wilpon long ago decided Bernie Madoff was and how the Mets put a lot their money — which on some level had been our money before we exchanged it for a ticket or a cable subscription or a piece of licensed apparel or merchandise — in Madoff’s hands. Madoff, before his Ponzi scheme became known, was a sure thing in Wilpon’s eyes, so sure that when there was a matter of deferred compensation, the Mets took the funds they’d eventually have to pay out and placed it in Madoff’s care. From there, it would grow, because that Bernie Madoff, he was brilliant.

According to the Times, “the role Mr. Madoff played in the financial life of the ball club” was “substantial”.

When the Mets negotiated their larger contracts with star players — complex deals with signing bonuses and performance incentives — they sometimes adopted the strategy of placing deferred money owed the players with Mr. Madoff’s investment firm. They would have to pay the player, but the owners of the club would be able to make money for themselves in the meantime. There never seemed to be much doubt about that, according to several people with knowledge of the arrangements.

“Bernie was part of the business plan for the Mets,” a former employee of the club said.

Makes you feel warm and fuzzy all over, doesn’t it? Just like those assurances that whatever Wilpon had going on with Madoff, it had nothing to do with the Mets — they were totally separate.

Being a hardcore Mets fan, meanwhile, you no doubt focused like a laser on the phrase “deferred compensation” and thought of one person in particular. Yup, he is indeed, reportedly, attached to this, too:

Bobby Bonilla was among the players who had their deferred money put with Mr. Madoff, one former employee said.

God only knows how whatever the hell is going on in the sordid Madpon affair affects anybody and everybody who is remotely touched by it, but I’m going to assume Bobby Bonilla’s deferred payments [2] will be fine. Of course they’ll be. Bobby Bonilla always makes out fine where taking Met money is concerned. As the former third baseman/right fielder/albatross told the Wall Street Journal last summer when the specter of his impending neverending payoff arose, “Hey, a blind squirrel can find an acorn.”

Stupendous. Bernie Madoff robbed people blind, Fred Wilpon’s stewardship of our beloved franchise careens toward an iceberg and we are gently reminded that from the nexus of their close relationship, Bobby Bonilla will be collecting $1.19 million worth of acorns per year starting this July and continuing — as every schoolchild knows — through 2035.

This arrangement was crafted so the Mets didn’t have to immediately pay Bonilla the $5.9 million they owed him for 2000…and, lest we forget, Bonilla was on the Mets for a second golden term (after having been such a prize from 1992 to 1995) because they couldn’t bring themselves to simply eat the final year of Mel Rojas’s anvil of a contract, which would have cost them not quite $4.6 million in 1999.

To unhappily recap, they swapped one theoretically untenable season of the dreadful Rojas (from a deal the Mets inherited when they traded for him, Turk Wendell and Brian McRae in 1997) to the Dodgers for two untenable seasons of the washed-up Bonilla. It was a classic case of bad contract for bad contract, though it didn’t require hindsight to divine the bad contract the Mets were accepting was sizably worse than the one they were jettisoning. The Mets committed $11.8 million to Bonilla in order to save themselves from paying Rojas $4.6 million.

Where was brilliant Bernie Madoff’s financial acumen then?

Bobby Bonilla lacked both productivity and common human decency [3] in 1999, eating up roster space, his manager’s patience and, presumably, a disproportionate share of the clubhouse spread. No way could Bobby V be asked to indulge Bobby Bo in 2000. But just making the mistake go away would have been too unclever for the Wilpon administration. That’s where the deferred compensation came in, that’s where almost $30 million will go out over the next 25 years, and now we learn that somehow Bernie Madoff was a part of this scheme, too.

Oh, and Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo are still under contract and expected to don Mets uniforms in a couple of weeks. Maybe they would have been granted the dazzling deferment package Bonilla has made famous had Madoff magic still been available to the Mets. Alas, that door was closed when Madoff’s massive malfeasance came to light the winter Perez was re-signed for $36 million over three years, which coincided with the universal realization that the $18.75 million Castillo was owed for 2009, 2010 and 2011 was not what you’d call a savvy investment.

Now and then I’ve read thoughtful explanations [4] of how Bobby Bonilla being paid by the Mets for a quarter-century, long after he played his last hand of hearts at Turner Field, wasn’t such a bad financial deal for the Mets (which the Times article indicates in the first passage quoted above). And in the context of the 1999-2000 offseason, given the Mets’ reflexively hesitant approach to adding payroll during that era, putting off Bonilla’s payments way into the future — no matter how astronomical they would appear to the untrained eye — gave Steve Phillips perceived short-term flexibility. Issuing seven-figure checks to Bobby Bonilla clear into his seventies is an obvious punchline, but there was, I’ve been assured, a scintilla of logic to it.

But geez, y’know? Bobby Bonilla adds to his riches via a check cut by the Mets every year for 25 years; Bernard Madoff was reportedly the conduit to execute this sludgiest of slush funds; and none of this imbues us with anything resembling confidence regarding the future of this operation for however long Fred Wilpon is running it.

Makes the ice storm outside look pleasant by comparison.