It may be strictly coincidental, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. About the same time the New York Mets were spending millions on the closer they so desperately need this week, the owner of the team was facing possible losses of millions of his own as the victim of a fraud scheme even more audacious than the one baseball pulls on its fans.
No one but Fred Wilpon knows how much he lost by investing with Bernard Madoff, and even he may not yet know the full hit in a scheme that may have taken investors for a mind-boggling $50 billion. The Mets, though, were concerned enough to put out a statement saying it will not affect the day-to-day operations and long-term plans of the team.
Just what those plans are, it’s hard to say. The grand scheme of the Mets for years has been simply to throw money at the latest big free agent and hope he produces enough to get them into the playoffs.
That’s why Carlos Beltran got more than market value to hit .275 and provide 30 home runs a year. It’s why the Mets outbid everybody by giving up a ton of talent to the Minnesota Twins and $137.5 million to Johan Santana to land a premium pitcher.
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In a way the Mets — much like their crosstown rivals in pinstripes — were funding a Ponzi scheme of their own, promising big payouts with the hope that fans keep investing in overpriced tickets to see them play. Those tickets will be even more expensive next season while the Mets collect their first $20 million in naming rights for their new stadium from a bank that taxpayers are now bailing out.
Francisco Rodriguez was the latest benefactor of the team’s largesse, getting $37 million guaranteed to do what no one seemed able to do last season — close games for the Mets. That’s good money for a guy who works only every few nights or so, but it almost went unnoticed in the spending frenzy uncorked in Las Vegas by the other New York baseball team.
Even at a time when banks are collapsing and the amount spent in bailouts is unfathomable, what the Yankees did in the space of a few days is staggering. First came the biggest contract ever for a pitcher, $161 million for CC Sabathia, followed soon after by $82.5 million for A.J. Burnett. One left-handed arm. One righty. Total cost $243.5 million.
In ordinary times we might simply shrug, declare that’s the cost of doing business in baseball, and look at next season’s schedule to see if tickets might be available when Sabathia pitches. That’s pretty much the way fans have reacted every year even as salaries rise to unimaginable levels.
But these aren’t ordinary times. The nation’s unemployment rate is headed toward double digits, those who still have jobs are worried they’ll lose them, and one out of every 10 U.S. homeowners are either late with their payments or have a house in foreclosure.
Yet Sabathia will make some $700,000 every time he takes the mound just because he was born with a talented left arm. Burnett will get a half-million for each of his starts just because he can throw a fastball in the mid-90s.
Those kind of numbers are troubling when things are good, obscene when they’re bad. What does it say about our country when millions of children don’t have even basic health care and schools don’t have enough teachers, but grown men who play a game for a living make more money in one day than some of us will in our entire lives?
The greed on the other side is just as bad, if not worse. The Yankees and Mets scammed taxpayers to build them new stadiums when the old ones were perfectly serviceable just so they could sell more suites and raise ticket prices to unconscionable levels to afford their superstars.
Maybe we’re numb to it all now and the numbers are so big they have become meaningless. Maybe all our anger was used up on the financial geniuses who have brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. We should be outraged, but somehow most baseball fans don’t seem to be.
They’re too busy counting the number of days until spring training begins.
Tim Dahlberg, a national sports columnist for The Associated Press, can be reached at tdahlbergap.org.