Bernie Madoff, who died in federal prison Wednesday at age 82, was a monster, a Ponzi-schemer, a thief on a grand scale — and also the reason for a dark era in Mets history. The friendship between former Mets owner Fred Wilpon and Madoff went back decades — their sons had been friends in high school on Long Island — and by the time Madoff was arrested in 2008, the Wilpons had a reported $500 million invested with Madoff.
Former Mets employees told the New York Times in 2011 that “substantial aspects of the club’s financial operations seemed to flow through, or wind up with, Mr. Madoff.” That money, according to those employees, included things like annuities set up for players and cash from sponsorship deals. Probably the most famous example: The team negotiated a 2000 buyout of former slugger Bobby Bonilla that included deferred payouts that were supposed to come from Madoff profits. (Bonilla still receives $1.2 million from the Mets every July 1 — and will until 2035.)
When Madoff’s scheme collapsed, the Mets owed millions to the trustee, seeking to recoup money for Madoff’s victims, and took out millions in loans to meet payroll. Suddenly, the big-market club began operating on a considerably tighter budget: In 2009, the team’s payroll was some $149 million. By 2012, it was down to $94.5 million. Two years later, it was $85 million.
To hear more about Madoff’s effect on the franchise and its tortured fans, Curbed spoke with Devin Gordon, author of So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets ― the Best Worst Team in Sports.
After the Madoff scandal, the Mets stopped behaving like a big-market club for a while. How much did that shape the last decade of Mets baseball?
From around 2009 through 2012, they could pretty much only keep the lights on. There was a stretch in 2011 when the highest-paid outfielder on the roster was Bobby Bonilla, who’d been retired for a decade and was only getting $1.2 million a year in deferred payment. Somewhere around 2015, I think that Mets fans started to get the sense that the lights were finally back on and the business was, if not running full tilt, at least they could function like a baseball team again.
Mets fans long had their issues with Fred Wilpon, but how much did this seal his reputation?
Mets fans were apoplectic about the Wilpons [Fred and his son, Jeff, the team’s former COO] long before Madoff. In many ways Madoff was just sort of the apotheosis of the Wilpon era, right? It was the Wilponiest moment in their reign. Insofar as people can be not taken by surprise when someone famous gets caught up in a Ponzi scheme, I don’t think it particularly surprised Mets fans to find out that not only were the Wilpons one of the rubes, but they were one of the biggest. In fact, when it happened, the Wilpons were so enmeshed with Madoff and their finances that Irving Picard, the prosecutor whose job it was to claw back all this money, genuinely believed that the Wilpons had to be involved. Like, it just didn’t seem possible that they could not know about it. And I remember at the time thinking, Well, he must not be a Mets fan. This makes perfect sense. In fact, every Mets fan I know was sure that the Wilpons weren’t in on it. It was far more plausible that they were the biggest dupes of all.
It’s shocking because no one expects their franchise to truly collapse that way, especially when we were coming off one of the better teams in franchise history. That 2006 team was as loaded and gifted as any Mets team has ever been. And then immediately they got stripped for parts — everything was gone.
They were riding high, at least for a team that had basically committed two straight late-regular season collapses in 2007 and 2008. But they were in a good stretch and, oh my gosh, in 2012 and 2013, even I, a lifelong Mets fan, kind of started checking out. Because it was just unwatchable. It wasn’t funny-bad, it was just boring-bad.
How big a role had Madoff played in the team’s business operations?
According to the reporting at the time, the Wilpons were basically financing the Mets operation — including the payroll for the team — based upon their assumed profits from Madoff. So when all that money vanished, literally the only money that the Wilpon family was making was from things like tickets, hot dogs, and beer. And the team wasn’t very good, so they weren’t selling a lot of tickets, and they weren’t selling a lot of beer. And so it was pretty much everything. That’s how they were financing the team.
Sandy Alderson has said that he didn’t even ask about Madoff when he was hired as general manager in 2010, which was shortly before the Mets were sued by the Madoff trustee. [Editor’s note: Alderson was charged with rebuilding the team and abruptly discovered that he’d have much less to spend than he’d expected to.] How hard does that hit a fan base — when you can suddenly see how bad things are about to get?
It was one of those things where you could sort of connect the dots, right? Between what you were reading in the papers, what you could see on the field, right? We can all see who you’re paying. We can all see what the Miami Marlins are doing relative to what you’re doing. And so, at a certain point, you can’t really fake the financial health of the team.
I think we can debate whether or not Alderson is telling the truth about whether he asked any questions. I mean, to the extent that I believe him, it’s only in the sense that he was kind of behaving like Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction. You know what I mean? Like he had been hired to do a job. He was given an assignment — it wasn’t his job to ask how this corpse ended up in the backseat of the car. It was just his job to fix it with whatever resources he had been given by the commissioner’s office and, you know, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, to torture this metaphor.
So it wasn’t really his job to worry about Madoff and what the Wilpons did or didn’t have; it was his job to just go fix this thing. And he did! Really, really well! I think that’s the amazing thing. In some ways that’s the Metsiest part of the story: This team was … to say hanging on by a thread is not even enough. These guys are genuinely facing jail. And four years later, you know, from a moment in 2011 where they’re basically being sued for a billion dollars to where they’re in the World Series — that’s pretty remarkable.
When you see Bobby Bonilla’s name trending on Twitter on a day like this, as a Mets fan, do you laugh, or do you cry?
I always laugh because it’s, like, my professional requirement at this point. But you know, it starts with a cry, right? There are certain phrases in the Mets vernacular that when you see them trending your heart just sinks and you’re like, Oh, what now? So, you know, if that’s a long way of asking, did I find out that Bernie Madoff had died because of Bobby Bonilla trending — Yes, I did.
The Mets have new ownership now, but a decade-plus later, are there any lingering effects of the Madoff scandal?
Bobby Bonilla Day is effectively a holiday that exists because of Bernie Madoff. And because he is the sort of dynamite that makes that into such a cartoonish irony — you know, Bobby Bonilla sucked, yes, but lots of free agents turn out to suck. And there are lots of New York Mets free agents that we don’t like. And even the contours of the deal, to pay Bobby Bonilla this annual installment, the degree to which it was that unusual is way overhyped.
And yet it’s remembered with humiliation because of Bernie Madoff, because at the moment in 2011 when Bonilla started getting his $1.2 million checks, the Mets were broke. The whole thing took on a grifter-and-rube dynamic at the worst moment. And if it hadn’t been for that, well, who cares what what the multibillionaire Wilpons are giving him? It’s just rich guys trading checks. But Madoff made it into something only the Mets could pull off.