New York Mets 25 Years Later: Amid Madoff Mess, NY Is Waiting for '86 Encore

Dave WhalenCorrespondent IFebruary 11, 2011

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The precise moment is seared into the memories of generations of New York baseball fans, the soundtrack provided by the late Bob Murphy, whose epic call—“The Mets will win the ballgame!”—echoed with equal parts astonishment and inevitability.

But a quarter-century after Ray Knight turned for home and the Red Sox watched “in stunned disbelief,” there is scant time for reflection in Flushing, amid increasingly ugly news stemming from the Bernie Madoff fiasco.

Irving Picard, the court-appointed trustee to recoup losses suffered by Madoff victims, is seeking to recover at least $300 million in fictitious profits from Fred Wilpon and his partners, forcing the Mets owner to abandon his preferred fantasy that the Madoff fallout has had no impact on the organization and reportedly seek additional ownership partners.

It is a less than ideal backdrop for the silver anniversary of the '86 champs, but another reminder that New York’s other baseball team is now further removed from its last World Series win than Mookie Wilson, Gary Carter and company were from the franchise’s inception in 1962.

If Madoff symbolized the egregious avarice of the investor age—massive fraud enabled by a combination of lax oversight and complex investing instruments at once made more widely accessible and incomprehensible but to a select few—those Mets of the mid-80’s also epitomized their era’s excesses. They were loud and arrogant and destined for police blotters and rehab centers, but offered an unbeatable high for one amazing summer and sublime fall.

But the next decade brought resurgence in the Bronx, a dazzling quartet of aces in Atlanta, the Disneyfication of Times Square—and a spate of self-loathing in Flushing.

Edge was out, and no move better highlighted the club’s identity crisis than the trade of outfielder Lenny Dykstra to a division rival. Dykstra played and lived with an abandon that earned him adoration from fans and nearly killed him when, after a night of drinking, he wrapped his Mercedes around a tree in suburban Philadelphia.

The Mets spent freely in an effort to rebuild quickly, but all they got in return was a pair of expensive metaphors.

Within days in 1993, pitcher Brett Saberhagen sprayed reporters with bleach in the Shea clubhouse and outfielder Vince Coleman injured three fans in the Dodger Stadium parking lot when he hurled lit fireworks at them.

Whether the team was blown up or whitewashed, it was clear New York had to start over.

Not until trading for Mike Piazza early in the 1998 season did the Mets regain some standing, finally returning to the playoffs the following year and winning the National League pennant in 2000, before dropping the Subway Series.

But these turned out to be the Dot-Com Mets—quick money if you got out fast enough, but lacking a sustainable business model. The team had dealt away or neglected its youngest assets, and so poured bad money after good in a spree that landed an overweight first baseman with bad knees and a Hall of Fame second baseman with a bad attitude.

It was a clumsy attempt to stay relevant with the club’s ostensible rival in the Bronx, and it cost everyone their jobs.

Now, the deal that heralded yet another false dawn—the Carlos Beltran contract—is set to finally expire, as the team turns the page on an era that took it to within a whisper of the World Series in 2006, but ended in paralysis (Beltran v. Wainwright), collapse (2007-2008), demolition (Shea) and, of course, Bernie Madoff.

To oversee their latest rebuilding the Mets have turned to Sandy Alderson, one of the most respected executives in the game, and surrounded him with Moneyball devotees who promise a cold-hearted and data-driven reexamination of how the team does business.

The club has $45 million in expiring contracts due to come off the books at the end of the season. What does not go to Picard should theoretically give Alderson flexibility to reshape the roster.

Still, it is the Madoff fallout that dominates as pitchers and catchers prepare to report. (Or, as they are calling it in Philadelphia this year, “aces and catchers.”) This week brought news that the sides have recruited former New York Governor Mario Cuomo to mediate a potential settlement.

By the time Picard is finished, the deal Wilpon gave Oliver Perez may resemble a bargain, and Mets fans may recall previous spending binges as carefree days when at least the club had easy money to burn.

Happy anniversary.