Mets say they are not for sale

December 17, 2008 6:03:35 PM PST
Jeff Wilpon's phone rang last Thursday and his father was on the line. "He said, `Bernie was arrested by the FBI.' I'm like, `No way,"' the New York Mets chief operating officer recalled Wednesday.

So Wilpon started searching the Internet for details on how his family was allegedly swindled by Bernard Madoff, perhaps out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Completely blind-sided," Wilpon said. "Mainly disbelief, I think. You know, somebody you trusted for this long."

He had attended Roslyn High School along with Mark Madoff, son of the alleged scam artist, and said he considered Mark Madoff "one of my close friends for 30 years."

Bernard Madoff may have stolen $50 billion from clients, a group that included Sterling Equities, the real estate company of Mets owner Fred Wilpon.

Still, Jeff Wilpon said the family's holdings are diversified and that the loss will not affect operations of the high-spending team, whose $138 million opening-day payroll was third in Major League Baseball.

"The individual partners lost some money at Madoff. It doesn't affect the Mets. It doesn't affect the Citi Field project. It doesn't affect SNY or any of our other operating businesses," Jeff Wilpon said.

He vehemently stated the team was "uncategorically, totally, completely not for sale."

"Not a piece of it, not a part of it, none of it," he said.

MLB has been swimming in money, taking in $6.5 billion this year. When new Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez was introduced at a news conference Wednesday, his cufflinks sparkled and the French cuffs were embroidered in silver thread with his nickname "K ROD."

Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, said that to the sport's knowledge, no other MLB owners had invested with Madoff.

Wilpon said the millions of dollars the team set aside to fund deferred payments owed players such as Mo Vaughn, as required by Article XVI of the sport's collective bargaining agreement, were safe. It is with the family's investment company, Sterling Stamos Capital Management, LP, which did not invest with Madoff.

Wilpon said the family will make sure that any funds lost by its charitable foundations will be replenished.

"We're going to continue to do that. There's no change," he said.

Because the Mets are profitable, the Wilpons anticipates rebuilding whatever money disappeared.

"It's just not affecting the business," he said. "The best thing is for the business to continue going and help with cash flow to replenish, you know, what was lost."

Wilpon conducted a meeting Tuesday with other Mets executives and said the team's baseball operations will not be impacted. Rodriguez received a $37 million, three-year deal to join the team. Setup man J.J. Putz, who has a $5.3 million salary next year, was acquired from Seattle.

General manager Omar Minaya is pursuing other players. He may re-sign left-hander Oliver Perez to a pricey deal or add another starter.

"It's an unfortunate situation, but the baseball, it's totally separate from than. I know it's not going to have an affect," Minaya said. "Our plans have not changed."

Wilpon said his family was in better position to move forward than other Madoff investors.

"We weren't the only ones that were cheated, robbed, defrauded," he said. "We have an opportunity with our operating businesses to replenish it. There are other people out there, and you haven't even heard of the small investors that are out there that have no chance of doing that, who are really down and out."

Wilpon compared looking back to how the fraud went undetected to a pitcher regretting throwing a curve instead of a fastball.

"A lot of other people with a lot more money than we had in there were taken advantage of in this situation. So I'm not sure how everybody missed it," he said. "It was missed. It's unfortunate."

Notes: Manager Jerry Manuel joked that Rodriguez should save as many games as his new uniform number: 75. K-Rod's previous number with the Los Angeles Angels, 57, is worn by Johan Santana. "The only challenge that I see over here is the weather," Rodriguez said. ... With Shea Stadium in the midst of demolition and Citi Field under construction, the Mets' Christmas party for children was held at a Citigroup Inc. building in Queens. Mike Pelfrey was Santa. ... Putz is scheduled to be introduced at Citi Field at 10:45 a.m. on Thursday. ... The Mets open Citi Field with exhibitions against Boston on Friday night, April 3 and Saturday afternoon, April 4 - while the Yankees open their new stadium simultaneously with exhibitions against the Chicago Cubs.