All does not seem right in Flushing to me. There is a curious game of cat and mouse (or a game of chicken if you prefer) being played between Mets ownership and their general manager.
We were never privy to the conversations that took place between Commissioner Bug Selig and Mets ownership during the heights of the Madoff scandal, nor do we know to what extent, if any, Mr. Selig urged (or insisted) the Wilpons hire Sandy Alderson. What we do know is Sandy Alderson was not an original consideration for the office of general manager heading into ownership’s interview process, as he was working for MLB in the Dominican Republic at the time. It wasn’t until the Commissioner threw Alderson’s name into the mix, that he became a candidate.
June 18, 2012; Flushing, NY, USA; New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson (left) and owner Fred Wilpon before the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Without being derisive, the Wilpons are not exactly astute baseball people per se. After all, there’s a reason why they hired an independent entity in order to line up potential candidates. They never had to before.
In the absence of an objective and qualified team president, over the years, both Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon relied exclusively on executives closely familiar with them, and the practice continued in earnest since 2003, under sole ownership of the Wilpon Family. The long running condition eventually evolved into an inbred front office, which became riddled with drama, controversy, and in certain instances, toxicity. The trend was finally broken with the dismissal of Omar Minaya.
Consider the history.
The appointment of Al Harazin falls squarely on Frank Cashen, and what an unpopular decision that was. Fans rejected it outright. Meanwhile, in the back offices of Shea Stadium, team executives Jerry Hunsicker and Joe McIlvaine bickered like children. Both men were quite dumbfounded over the appointment of Harazin. Needless to say, Hunsicker soon thereafter took a position with the Houston Astros, and Joe McIlvaine left to become GM of the San Diego Padres.
When it was clear Al Harazin was over matched by the office, ownership put out an SOS for Joe McIlvaine’s return. Joe Mac was a rebellious sort. As Mets GM, he was often away on some far off mysterious scouting trip, and would fail to tell ownership where he was going. He ultimately earned the ire of Fred Wilpon for not returning calls, and matters of that nature. All this was famously played out in the tabloids, and on a side note, it seems since then, the club’s relationship with the media has never been the same.
The office of general manager was then handed to the last of Frank Cashen’s pupils, Steve Phillips. On the bright side, he built a team that made consecutive playoff appearances, and won a N.L. pennant. On the darker side however, he was emboldened enough to conduct a sex romp through the offices of Shea Stadium.
By the time of Steve Phillips’ firing, the Mets were a last place club, with one of the top payrolls in the National League. In the background, the Wilpons were on the heels of purchasing Nelson Doubleday’s 50% share of the club, and preliminary plans for the financing and construction of Citi Field were underway. It was under these tight conditions, Jim Duquette (brought in by Steve Phillips) was named general manager, but, effectively became nothing more than a stop gap company man ordered to halt spending.
After experiencing the backlash of the Jim Duquette/Art Howe years, Fred Wilpon reached out to Omar Minaya, who was also previously imported to the Mets by Steve Phillips, and was well regarded throughout the league. Under Steve Phillips, Omar left to become general manager of, then, the Montreal Expos, but answered the Mets SOS, and returned towards the end of the 2004 season.
Under Minaya, the Mets arguably underachieved, strained relationships with their minor league affiliates, maintained and even fueled adversarial conditions with the media, and oversaw the machinations and toxic environments created by Tony Bernazard.
Outside of John Ricco, Omar Minaya was the last executive at the Wilpon’s disposal. They had effectively exhausted all their known commodities, and with the dismissal of Minaya, were left without familiar options. It was at this point, the Mets were finally forced to break the string of 3 decades in which they enjoyed a relative comfort with those under their employ.
Figuratively speaking, with Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta, and J.P. Ricciardi, the Wilpons became, and remain surrounded by relative strangers. That’s a precarious condition considering how we’ve come to understand ownership’s paranoia, lest we forget how they banned newspapers from the clubhouse a few years ago, waited to fire Willie Randolph on the west coast in the middle of the night, were displeased with Matt Harvey putting his middle finger up on Twitter, and, since the Madoff scandal, how they’ve continually reassured the fan base how that would not hinder the club’s operation. Of course, there’s more instances we need not mention now.
The respective dilemmas of Frank McCourt and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that of the Wilpons with the New York Mets, were far from similar, which explains the Commissioner’s handling the Dodgers with a heavy hand. At the same time, the Commissioner could not idly sit by while his New York National League franchise became crippled by a monstrous investment scandal, and paralyzed by potentially ruinous financial losses.
Sandy Alderson clearly inherited a situation in dire need of massive reconstruction, and initiated sweeping changes post haste. He cleared payroll of prohibitive contracts, and implemented a grassroots effort to repopulate the minor leagues with talent. All the while however, the major league product has suffered.
To include the years spanning Sandy Alderson’s rebuilding process, attendance at Citi Field has decreased in each of the last five seasons, at a time when the Wilpons have incurred somewhere in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a billion dollars of debt. So, again, I speculate as to how strongly Commissioner Selig pushed Sandy Alderson upon the Mets, and, if the Mets truly have their trust invested in Sandy Alderson.
There have been instances this year, and last, when I sensed Jeff Wilpon was trying to portray ownership as wanting to do more, but that Sandy Alderson had/has his own plan, and decisions regarding payroll were up to his discretion. There may be a measure of truth to that, as the money ball credo would support such a notion. However, I doubt many, if anyone really believes that. In many instances regarding personnel, fans were left with little else to believe, other than Sandy Alderson’s hands were financially tied. There is additionally no arguing Sandy Alderson has spent an inordinate portion of the last four years, playing the role of club apologist, and operating as protectionist on behalf of ownership.
I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle. However, through this dynamic, I fear a built in excuse emerging for the Wilpons.
Because the Wilpons’ affairs remain dominated by dire financial straits, I find it difficult to ascertain the degree of common ground established, and shared between Alderson and ownership. As Cyndi Lauper once sang, money, or lack there of, changes everything, which to me, includes the Wilpons’ sense of self-preservation.
The fixed years of Sandy Alderson’s present contract expire at the end of this season, while the Mets hold a club option for a 5th year. To date, ownership has yet to broach the subject of a contract extension. I fear, in the misguided minds of non-baseball people, that profitability, and not necessarily the results on the field, are potentially being tied into a contract extension. I could be very wrong about that. But, I wonder.
I want Sandy Alderson extended, at least for two or three more years, for the sake of continuity, and being able to see his own work through. I’m not in favor of passing the baton to DePodesta or Ricciardi just yet. Although, I’m the first to voice frustration with Alderson’s conservatism, and bargain isle shopping. That may stem from the Wilpons, his own philosophy, or both. Regardless, with an improved financial situation, or, even without one, it still behooves the Mets to invest more money into the major league product. Over the previous free agent period, ownership could have just ordered Alderson to secure more, or better talent. But, they didn’t.
Whether be it through trade, or diving deeper into free agency next winter, something needs to give. That’s the only way to wet the system, and get the attendance machine running again. The youngsters on the roster can only inspire so much.
However, ownership’s financial woes have every chance to outpace even the strongest surge in attendance. There’s no sense in bogging this down with all the raw figures, but, the biggest number to keep in mind is the $600 million dollars due next June.
Circling back to the extent of damage caused by the Madoff mess, ownership failed to be completely truthful with the fan base. If anything, they’ve only widened the divide since then. What we came to realize through the Madoff episode, was that even before the discovery of a scandal, the Mets were already operating their team through a series of investments, interest payments, a general juggling act with accounts, and other similar financial strategies; see Bobby Bonilla. We also learned they were already overextended through Omar Minaya’s spending, soon after purchasing Nelson Doubleday’s shares, and financing Citi Field.
Rumors that Saul Katz wanted to sell his shares in the Mets rekindled wide speculation pertaining to the true health of the franchise. They reinforced the fan base’s firm perception of the overall situation. Yet, the Wilpons remain adamant about retaining the club in their family. That might be unfortunate for Sandy Alderson. In the very short term, the Wilpons leave me every reason to believe in their necessity for a fall guy. In my opinion, they’ll somehow deflect blame away from themselves, and try to link Alderson with attendance.
At least that’s what I’m reading into the situation, and the club’s lack of movement on his contract status. Sure, the club could very well be waiting for the off-season to make that decision. But, I do not think the circumstances will change much if they do. The Wilpons have more riding on Sandy Alderson and these kids than perhaps they can deliver by next June.