Wilpon: Sale of Mets shares approved
Up to $240 million in cash could be available to club
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon said on Monday that Major League Baseball has approved the sale of seven shares of the team, which are in escrow, and that at least two more sales are imminent. Wilpon also revealed that his family has purchased two additional shares, potentially giving the Mets as much as a $240 million infusion of cash.
"[Fans] shouldn't be concerned about us owning the franchise," Wilpon said, "because we intend to own the franchise for a very long time."
Added Wilpon: "As long as I can, I plan to be the owner here."
In a rare 22-minute interview at the Mets' Spring Training complex, Wilpon put third baseman David Wright's future in general manager Sandy Alderson's hands, saying that it will be up to Alderson to decide whether to keep Wright in Flushing long term.
Wilpon also insisted that the Mets' payroll decrease has not been due to his ongoing Bernard Madoff litigation, but to a desire to transform the organization's baseball-operations philosophy.
"I was tired of throwing money at something and not getting success," Wilpon said.
At times playful, at others serious during his interview, Wilpon painted an optimistic picture of the Mets in broad strokes. He did not address his own finances or litigation in any great detail, save for the particulars of the team's minority sales.
He and his family purchased two shares from parent company Sterling Equities, Wilpon said, to open the process. Seven more sales -- including four from SportsNet New York, the Mets' partially team-owned cable network -- are in escrow. The Mets plan to close on three additional shares before finalizing the sales, each of which is believed to cost $20 million for a four-percent stake in the team. Two of those are imminent.
The arrangement should allow Sterling Equities to keep a 52-percent controlling share of the Mets. Wilpon does not plan to sell a greater stake than that, despite the fact that he could retain a controlling interest of the club, even if he technically owns less than 50 percent of it.
Once the Mets close on 12 shares, they plan to use more than a quarter of that money to pay back the interest and principal on a $25 million emergency loan from Major League Baseball and a $40 million bridge loan from Bank of America. The rest, Wilpon said, will give the Mets liquidity to cover operating expenses and shield themselves against future losses.
Wilpon and partner Saul Katz are awaiting a March 19 trial against the trustee seeking to recover funds from Madoff's Ponzi scheme, with as much as $386 million potentially at stake from what was once a $1 billion lawsuit. A federal judge will decide by March 5 whether to proceed with the trial and immediately order Sterling Equities to pay back $83 million of "fictitious profits," or to discard the case altogether.
Regardless, Wilpon spent time Monday insisting that the team's roughly 37-percent payroll reduction has not been rooted in the team's financial issues and pending litigation, but in a shift in baseball-operations philosophy. Standing on a practice field with the Mets in uniform behind him, Wilpon painted a picture of a team waiting for its core to develop before reinvesting money into player payroll.
"We've got to win the fans and customers back," Wilpon said. "They love coming to Citi Field, but we have a diminished population coming to Citi Field. We need that revenue. We just can't do it on air."
The most significant future baseball decision facing the Mets will be whether to trade, retain or ultimately re-sign Wright, whose contract includes a $16 million team option for the 2013 season before he can become a free agent. On that matter, Wilpon deferred entirely to Alderson, much as he did during the club's recent negotiations with new Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes.
"My intention is always to follow what the baseball people [say]," Wilpon said. "Sandy Alderson has a great feel for this. So does [manager] Terry [Collins]. And if it works out, I would be thrilled. I think there's no finer guy [than Wright]. He's just a very fine young man. Any of us who are old enough to have him as a son would be proud to have him as a son."
Told of those comments from an owner who publicly criticized him in a magazine article last May, Wright did not flinch.
"That family has done a tremendous amount for me personally, getting a chance to play baseball for a living and make some good money doing it," Wright said. "It really is a family atmosphere, as far as I'm concerned."
Like his manager, Wright maintained that his concerns lie solely with how the Mets fare on the field -- not on ownership's finances or litigation, or even on the payroll decisions that dictate the roster's composition.
"We're not naive enough to think that it's not getting brought up, not being talked about," Collins said. "And you can't escape it. What you have to do is be able to deal with it."