NEW YORK — Though Derek Jeter's is the most famous farewell tour going on this season, Bud Selig has been enjoying himself at Major League ballparks throughout 2014 as well.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen — ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry," MLB commissioner Selig said on Tuesday, seated at a podium, addressing the members of the press gathered in the Citi Field press conference room. "Obviously, I am here today on my ballpark tour — I think this is No. 20. So I have 10 more to go, and four more scheduled, and I'll probably do the rest [in] the offseason. But I've enjoyed this immensely, and I'll throw it open to you!"
The commissioner has been well-received. Usually, as he's about to arrive, the press gets an advisory that he's coming, and press conferences are held. The A's on Aug. 18, the Dodgers on Sept. 4, the Giants on Sept. 10.
The same cannot be said for fans of the Mets, particularly those paying attention to the commissioner's role in propping up the team's current ownership. No advisory came to the media about Selig's presence, not even to the beat writers. Some questions, you'd imagine, the Mets and Selig would prefer not to face, whether about the sexual discrimination lawsuit brought against Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon by a former team vice president, Leigh Castergine, or the years Selig has propped up the team's ownership financially.
Back in 2011, Selig had an owner in Los Angeles, Frank McCourt, in severe financial distress.
McCourt attempted to hold onto the Dodgers by signing a television deal with Fox that included a significant up-front loan. Meanwhile, he cut his payroll all the way down to $83 million.
When Selig first denied McCourt's request to finalize the television deal, then ultimately wrested control of the team from McCourt, these are the benchmarks he cited publicly for doing so. Selig denied McCourt even the chance to accept a $30 million loan. And here's what he said on the day MLB took control of the Dodgers: "I have taken this action because of my deep concerns regarding the finances and operations of the Dodgers and to protect the best interests of the club."
The reason was a simple one: McCourt was using assets of the Dodgers to help bail him out of a financial hole, one exacerbated by his ugly divorce.
Selig's legacy is pretty safe in Los Angeles, though anger over letting McCourt get a hold of the Dodgers in the first place wouldn't be unreasonable. The new owners mushroomed payroll well over $200 million, the Dodgers made the NLCS last season, and they are likely heading back to the postseason in 2014.
There was another team with deep financial difficulties in 2011. The Mets, as you've probably heard by now, are owned by Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, who invested virtually all of their money with Bernie Madoff, while using the liquidity in their Madoff accounts to essentially finance most of what the Mets did, not to mention create SNY, the team's regional sports network.
But while Selig took a hard line to McCourt, he's the reason the Wilpon/Katz ownership group has survived this long. He allowed them to borrow $430 million against their ownership stake in the team in 2009, and $450 million against their ownership stake in SNY in 2010, just to keep their heads above water after their Madoff holdings disappeared overnight.
MLB loaned the owners $25 million in 2011, then approved a bridge loan from Bank of America in Nov. 2011 (with the loan from MLB past due), right around the time the team was pretending it could afford Jose Reyes.
"I don’t have any concerns," Selig said in Oct. 2011. "I do have a lot of concerns but I am happy to say the Mets aren’t one of them."
His answer on McCourt, in that same story, was a bit briefer.
"We are in litigation," he said.
He's also issued a series of anodyne responses, variations on the "No concerns" theme, to any question about Mets finances ever since. When the lawsuit against Wilpon and Katz, brought by the trustee for the Bernie Madoff victims, settled in 2012 because the trustee determined that ownership was out of money?
When the team continued cutting payroll, landing them among the bottom fifth of teams, and borrowed additional money against their stake in SNY just to finance debt accrued by their parent company, Sterling Equities?
But of course, there's having no concerns about the ownership group surviving, something that happens when an unprecedented doubling of SNY's value over the past two years allows for more borrowing (also approved by MLB), and there's concern about how diverting that money away from the team itself, and to ownership's hungry creditors, serves anybody other than Wilpon and Katz. It shouldn't matter a bit to Selig how Wilpon and Katz survive financially — he's the commissioner of baseball, not the commissioner of Sterling Equities.
Or as it he put it, when he stepped in and took control of the Dodgers from McCourt, his concern should be "to protect the best interests of the club."
Still, he said back in May, when he denied the New York Times story that Katz wanted out, and the Mets are hemorrhaging money: "Major League Baseball has all the economic information. This idea that I should have reason to be concerned is just wrong."
So here's the question I put to Selig, beginning his press conference:
"In 2011, when denying the Fox TV deal and taking control of the Dodgers, you cited the slashed payroll and attempt to use Dodger television resources for owner debt. In 2014, the Mets now have a payroll at or below the 2011 Dodgers, and have acknowledged using team and television resources for owner debt. Please tell me any specific differences between the two situations that led you to permit the current Mets owners to do so, and please be as specific as possible."
Simply put: if there really were specific reasons to treat Mets ownership differently for doing precisely what he cited Frank McCourt for doing as he took McCourt's team away, here was the perfect opportunity to tell us why.
"Well, I'm not sure I quite understand your question, but let me try to answer it, and you tell me how I did. There are big differences. I think I've covered this subject many, many times.
But, and I don't want to go back into the whole Frank McCourt situation, because there were enormous ramifications there — many of which perhaps weren't public. As far as I'm concerned, I've said it in the past, and I'll say it again, I don't have any problem with the way the — with the Mets' financing, with what's going on. As far as all of our economic rules — and we have a myriad of them — they are in compliance with 'em. They're doing fine. The Dodgers were not in compliance with any of them."
Let's leave aside that we already know the Mets are not in compliance with, for instance, the debt ratio rule for MLB teams. And let's leave aside the unlikely (though not impossible, given McCourt) idea that the Dodgers managed to run afoul of all the MLB economic rules.
Why, exactly, did the commissioner allow Wilpon to do what cost McCourt his team? I began to reiterate the specifics, such as Dodger payroll, and Selig cut in.
"But that was only one of many factors. I mean, that has nothing to do — I don't quarrel with people who do payroll things. I watched it work — I'm trying to make a point to you. I've seen people who are very critical of clubs, and all of a sudden, X years later, those clubs are very competitive, and all the detractors are gone."
The point is a non-sequitur, of course. Sandy Alderson has managed to rebuild the team's farm system quite well, something he'd certainly have been able to do as well, if not better, with additional resources. (Privately, his lieutenants will be the first to tell you this.)
The question isn't whether the Mets needed Alderson to do this — it's whether allowing ownership to siphon off a huge portion of the team's annual revenue for their own debt was in the interest of the Mets as he did.
So I returned to the question of the other issue he'd publicly mentioned, which was the use of team resources to pay off McCourt's own debt. It's also something the Mets have acknowledged doing.
"So what, specifically, if you can name anything different between — because those are the only two things you cited at the time."
"There are a lot of things different," Selig responded, with some annoyance. "But let me just try to boil it down. I think I've answered it, but let me do it again."
Just to reset here, I'd asked for a single specific difference between the two situations. He'd neglected to provide any.
"They were out of compliance with every one of our internal economic rules. The Mets are in compliance with all of them. Big difference. Big difference."
So, to review: McCourt ran into huge financial problems, attempted to loot his team's television revenue to survive it, and lost his team. Wilpon ran into huge financial problems, attempted to loot his team's television revenue to survive it, and is in compliance with all of MLB's financial rules.
Apparently, MLB's financial rules look to Selig the way the law looked to Richard Nixon.
"If the President does it, it's not illegal."
By the way, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson recently said, of increasing payroll in 2015:
"It's gonna be prohibitive."
The team needs a left fielder and a shortstop. It would seem to be in the best interests of the club to have an owner capable of providing money for them, either via free agency, or via the ability to acquire a player with a decent salary in a trade.
But Bud Selig's tenure ends at the end of the year. The New York Mets, and their finances, won't be his concern.