New Sandy Alderson book offers revealing view of Madoff-impacted Mets

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Sandy Alderson. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Mets general manager Sandy Alderson is entering his fifth season in his current role. One common question asked about Alderson, given the significant amount of public dissembling he's had to do on behalf of the team's owners thanks to Fred Wilpon, Jeff Wilpon and Saul Katz's massive investments with Bernie Madoff, is what keeps him in the job.

Baseball Maverick, a new book about Alderson by veteran sports journalist Steve Kettmann, follows the familiar arc of the past few Mets seasons, with Alderson hopeful in summer and fall about adding the pieces necessary to compete the following year, fading to spring, when Alderson's desires are dashed.

Alderson's cooperation for the book was total: Kettmann thanks Alderson for "more than a hundred interviews for this book".

Neither Kettmann nor Alderson make any pretense about what stops the Mets every time: It's the money.

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"I'd been working on this book for nearly four years when I suddenly found myself wondering: Why was Alderson cooperating?", Kettmann writes on page 331. "Part of the answer was simply that I'd asked him at the right time, just as the Former state charities bureau regulator was taking over as Mets GM. ... Then, when the Mets' finances went belly-up, and Sandy lost his father, the joy went out of it temporarily—but Alderson had given me his word to cooperate on a book project, and he wasn't going to back out."

That read on Alderson dovetails with what I've heard from many who know him about his desire to stay on and hopefully finish an improbable rebuild into the headwind of massive financial problems from ownership—a combination of stubborness and an understanding that at 67, this is probably his final chance to build a baseball team.

While the Wilpons appear as distant, ephemeral figures in Kettmann's book—not quoted in any interviews with the author, who seemingly spoke to everyone but them, including former commissioner and Wilpon enabler Bud Selig—their responsibility for exacerbating Alderson's challenge makes many appearances in the book.

Chapter 10 is titled "The Madoff Mess."

Kettmann quotes Alderson saying in 2011, "The nice thing about being involved in just the baseball end is that I can separate myself from the Madoff situation by just being direct and honest with people and saying, 'OK, I knew about Madoff, I knew the Mets owners had lost money with Madoff. I can't have any credibility with the public if they think I'm a shill for Fred, Saul and Jeff."

That quote is concurrent to a year in which Alderson repeatedly asserted that Mets payroll would stay high, while gradually revising his number downward throughout the season. So the gap between what Alderson knew and what he spoke about publicly cut both ways for him.

What the book makes clear is that Alderson knew early on that ownwership's financial and legal problems were going to pose a problem to baseball ops, though that turned into a bigger problem than he even could have imagined.

"Immediately after the Madoff litigation was made public, I realized that was going to have some impact on what we were going to be able to do," Alderson told Kettmann on page 153. 

But it is still possible to follow the public financial rationales the team used within Kettmann's book, with Alderson and Kettmann's gradually increasing frustration as they failed to be promised firewalls to end the ongoing austerity.

Alderson spoke with David Wright in the winter following the 2012 offseason, and Kettmann describes Alderson's excitement over Wright's buy-in this way, on page 162: "Yes, he [Alderson] believed deeply in the plan they had in place to build toward a team in 2014 that would have deadwood millions off the books at long last. The Mets in 2013 would still be paying Johan Santana $31.5 million in salary and buyout, even though he wouldn't pitch at all; $16 million to Jason Bay for having released him; and another $6.5 million to reliever Frank Francisco, who would be limited by injury to less than seven innings of work. Once they cleared that salary, they would have options."

Of course, the fact that those players disappeared from payroll merely meant the team dropped to $85 million in 2014 payroll—the continuing debt financing of hundreds of millions against the team, S.N.Y. and the stadium wasn't going anywhere. It still hasn't.

Contrast this optimism about changing finances with this, from Kettmann, on page 235: "The wonder going into the 2014 season was that the press gave the Mets as much of a break as it did. Part of it was simple disbelief. They couldn't really be planning to hold their payroll down around $85 million, could they, despite being a team in the largest market in the country with their own cable network and a shiny new ballpark? They couldn't possibly propose crawling into the 2014 season with a payroll among the lowest in all of baseball, could they?"

Kettmann doesn't identify the "they", though it is clearly the ones controlling the spending. And this isn't merely Kettmann's take, but Alderson's.

"But caution about spending, extreme caution, would remain the rule," Kettmann continues. "Alderson found himself sustained through the winter by his sense of humor and the joy he'd always taken in the absurd. His own situation was in many ways absurd and he knew it. He took the job with the Mets with the expectation of being able to put in place a system ... on the one hand, with a payroll robust enough to move forward in a timely way on improving the team. Instead, because of the way the Madoff scandal engulfed the Mets, Alderson was back to the baseball version of duct tape and ingenuity, trying to get by on less."

Alderson himself speaks to this in Chapter 18, which begins: "Consider the plight of the Mets by 2014: The club's payroll of right around $85 million represented not only a vertiginous dip from the $149 million in 2009... but it was the lowest for the team in fifteen seasons..."

As Alderson told Kettmann on February 10, 2014, at the conclusion of the offseason talked about so optimistically earlier in the book: "We got the payroll up over $85 million, which everyone was waiting for us to do or not do," Alderson says on pages 244-45. "It sure would be nice if we could add to our bullpen. The perception of the team would be completely different. Right now people think we're incomplete, and you know, they may be right."

Amusingly, the next paragraph begins a story on Fred Wilpon dropping by Alderson's office to do "a little brainstorming on how to shift the culture around the team."

But just as suddenly, the Wilpons disappear again, which makes sense: This is a book about Alderson, after all.

The book follows Alderson to a speech he gave at UC Berkeley jointly, with the man he mentored, Athletics general manager Billy Beane. Kettmann points out that Beane, though still running the team whose finances were so dire they created the very need for "Moneyball" in the first place, "could conceive of deals—and even increases in payroll—without worrying about too much nettlesome oversight from above; he and Wolff would talk things through, and sometimes the owner would talk Beane out of a rash idea, but if Beane believed strongly in the move, the move was likely to happen."

The implicit comparison to Mets ownership is obvious, especially when Kettmann points out in the following paragraph that "the Mets were actually being outspent by the A's, they of the dumpiest-stadium-in-baseball ignominy."

And on page 311, after recalling the slump that encompassed David Wright's 2014 season, Kettman adds this: "It was a depressing reminder for the Mets of their unworkable financial situation. They were limited to a payroll of $85 million, a huge portion of which went to pay Wright his $20 million salary." Any pretense that the salary cuts were coming from Alderson, as had been the public line for years, or that operating in such a fashion had anything to do with Alderson's plan were cast aside.

And yet, even Kettmann, eager to end on a high note, quotes Jeff Wilpon in September 2014 saying the team is ready to "show more 'payroll flexibility,'" never mind the repeated, discredited use of that exact phrase by both Wilpons and Alderson himself.

The Mets in 2015 are undeniably better, and the talent Alderson has brought in, through the farm system and in trading expensive major leaguers for young prospects, is the reason.

And yet, even now, he's been limited to an absurd extent from above. A 79-win team on the cusp of contention signed two major league free agents all winter, failed to address holes Alderson has publicly (and repeatedly in the book) cited as well. Alderson, earlier this winter, described a desire to add another lefty reliever. The Mets didn't, and now their top returning lefty, Josh Edgin, has an injured elbow weeks before the season even begins.

Things could go right for the Mets. But as Alderson makes clear in repeated references to the failed pitching prospect from his time with the A's, Todd Van Poppel, they can also fall short, especially as reliant as the Mets are on young players and absent the financial resources to add to the talent base, let alone put together any kind of fallback plan.

If it doesn't go well, this may well be the reason for Alderson's cooperation with Kettmann's book: to get his story about what really happened out there, before ownership has the chance to tell it a different way.

Or as Alderson puts it himself on page 236, in a chapter that makes it clear Alderson would have happily and more aggressively pursued Robinson Cano, last winter's most expensive free agent, if only he'd had the resources: "Madoff wasn't even a topic of conversation in my interview for the Mets job. I didn't raise it. Maybe I should have. The bottom line is, I would have taken the job anyway. It just added to the challenge."