PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. - Even for the New York Mets, a franchise that has grown accustomed in recent years to brutal collapses, sink-hole contracts, crushing injuries and internal strife, the scene that greeted the team's pitchers and catchers as they jogged to their stations for the first workout of spring training Thursday must have been jarring.
There, in the infield grass, leaning against a cheap folding table and surrounded by microphones and cameras, their owner was explaining to the assembled media why: a) team owners were not complicit in what was arguably the most infamous Ponzi scheme in history; b) they would not have to sell the team as a result of the scandal; and c) all hope was not lost for a reeling franchise whose financial woes caused them to sit out the winter's free-agent market almost entirely.
"I love the New York Mets," principal owner Fred Wilpon said. "This is part of my DNA. So we're going to do everything we can possibly do to see that we bring competitive teams here."
Such extraordinary reassurances were made necessary by the involvement of the Mets' ownership in the massive scandal surrounding the fraudulent investments of Bernard Madoff - whom Wilpon described as his friend for 35 years and his investor for 25 years before Madoff's scheme unraveled two years ago.
In a $1 billion lawsuit unsealed this month, Irving H. Picard, the trustee for Madoff's victims, alleged that Wilpon and his partners knew, or should have known, about the fraudulent nature of Madoff's investments, and that they profited from those investments. On Thursday, Wilpon made an impassioned and defiant denial of those claims.
"We were duped" by Madoff, Wilpon said, as the Mets' pitchers and catchers worked out behind him. "We did not know one iota, one thing about Madoff's fraud. We didn't do anything wrong. If anything, we trusted [someone who had been] a friend for a very long time. That betrayal is very difficult for me.
"Having said that, we will be vindicated."
Wilpon's claim of innocence was backed recently by Madoff himself, who told the New York Times in a prison interview that the Wilpons "knew nothing" of the scheme. On Thursday, Wilpon declined to answer a question about Madoff's comments.
Although Wilpon said he would fight until he and his family were fully vindicated, he has cooperated with Picard's investigation - submitting some 700,000 "pieces of paper" requested by investigators, he said - and vowed he would also cooperate with former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who was appointed as a mediator in the case.
"We have nothing to hide," Wilpon said.
As for the question of whether the Mets' owners benefited from Madoff's scheme, Wilpon said, "We never benefited [in] any other way [more] than any other victim. We got the same kind of returns. We never got any special returns. It was over a long period of time. We lost a half a billion dollars the day [Madoff] went under, cash money. I personally put in money within three weeks of him going under. . . . I wouldn't risk my family's money if I thought there was anything wrong."
It is still too early to tell how the Wilpons' entanglement in the Madoff scandal will affect the Mets' on-field product. But already the family, in an attempt to raise capital, has started seeking minority investors to purchase up to 25 percent of the team. One could extrapolate that any negative outcome to the lawsuit could result in the Wilpons' needing to sell a bigger share of the team, or even losing the team entirely - but Wilpon said Thursday that selling the team "isn't on the table."
If the team's spending on players this winter is any indication, the Mets could be entering an era of forced austerity. The same franchise that in one not-too-long-ago offseason (2004-05) threw a total of $194.5 million at three free agents (Carols Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Kris Benson) managed to spend only about $8 million on free agents this winter.
Still, because of raises due to arbitration-eligible players and some backloaded contracts, the Mets' 2011 payroll projects to be around $145 million, up nearly 20 percent from a year ago, when they finished in fourth place for the second straight year. The critical test of the franchise's commitment to spending on payroll will come next winter, when some $50 million in contracts comes off the books.
"There's flexibility to go up," Jeff Wilpon, Fred Wilpon's son and the Mets' chief operating officer, told reporters on Wednesday, "and there's flexibility to go down."
As Wilpon wrapped up his media briefing, thoughts could turn back to the Mets' many other problems - how soon until injured left-hander Johan Santana, their $137.5 million ace, will be able to pitch again, and whether he will ever return to his Cy Young form; whether closer Francisco Rodriguez has truly changed his ways following an assault charge and an anger-management course last year; whether they can get any return whatsoever for the $12 million they will pay wayward left-hander Oliver Perez this year; and so on.
But those issues would seem like minor nuisances for the Mets compared with the carnage that could arise under some of the worst-case scenarios currently confronting their owners.