Goliath vs. Goliath

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The Mets (and the Cubs) Aren't Underdogs

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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For the first time in at least a decade, the New York Mets are the most exciting thing happening in New York sports. The team is two wins away from its first World Series in 15 years and, let's hope, starting to shift the narrative that they are somehow underdogs.

That goes for the team they are playing in the National League Championship Series, the Chicago Cubs, as well. I get that these two teams have staunchly loyal fan bases that pride themselves on the years of heartache they've had to endure. The memory of the 2007 collapse is still fresh in many Mets fans' minds, while Cubs fans can't believe they're being haunted by yet another Murphy. I'd genuinely be happy for either team to finally bring home a championship.

But let's also stop buying into the self-righteous notion that the odds are somehow stacked against either of them. The Mets might be underdogs in their own city, but they have almost every built-in advantage a Major League Baseball franchise could want. (People older than I certainly remember a time when the Mets ruled New York.) They've earned a scrappy reputation on the field, with a core of young arms and homegrown talent, but they're not exactly the Tampa Bay Rays -- a team that has worked through small-market financial limitations to field admirably successful teams in front of a half-empty ballpark. The Mets are in the largest television market in the country, the most marketable city in the world, and have more than a half century of history and built-in roots in the form of National League New York baseball fans who have always hated the Yankees.

But none of this stopped Mets owners from rolling out Underdog t-shirts in the clubhouse in 2012 (just as they happened to be in damage-control mode after the Bernie Madoff scandal). It's an attitude on display in this Wall Street Journal article in which Jerry Seinfeld and several other of the team's famously funny fans self-congratulatingly explain that the natural inclination of comedians toward pain and disappointment accounts for their love of the Mets. "It's forever the underdog and forever the outsider," said "The Simpsons" voice actor Hank Azaria of being a Mets fan.  "And I think every comedian at their core felt that way when they were a kid."

Azaria might be spot-on in insisting that "no comedian grows up feeling like Lou Gehrig. They grow up feeling like, if they're lucky, Ron Swoboda." But the idea that the Mets are outsiders only rings true if you're limiting your scope to New York City, and even that is starting to shift

To be fair, the Mets actually did play the underdog in the National League Division Series, where they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers and their league-leading, $314 million payroll in five games. By comparison, the Mets' $120 million roster places them 15th, squarely in the middle of the league. But the Mets' relative lack of spending shouldn't be cast as some sort of noble suffering. It's because the principal owners, the Wilpon family, sank a fortune into Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

The Mets had around $500 million invested in Madoff, and had to take on $430 million in loans to cover their debt. (Give credit to general manager Sandy Alderson for fielding this team on a limited budget.) But you can't lump the Mets' ownership in with the individual investors who were Madoff's true victims, who saw their retirement and college funds wiped out. The Mets enjoyed millions in phony profits over the years, and were sued by a trustee on behalf of the Madoff victims, settling for $162 million in 2012.

What's worse, the owners' startlingly poor financial decisions had a demonstrable impact on the field, influencing roster and payroll moves. The Mets deferred payments to players like Bobby Bonilla to be able to put more cash into Madoff funds. One trustee told the New York Times that money that should have been used to cover disability insurance premiums was put into a Madoff account dubbed "Saul's cookie jar," named after co-owner Saul Katz. They essentially saw their Madoff investments as "house money," becoming so dependent on their remarkable returns "that they began to budget them in their business plans," the trustee wrote in legal filings. 

In 2006 -- the last time the Mets came close to the World Series -- the team started the season with the fifth-highest payroll in the league, a little more than $101 million. They would jump to second place in 2008 and 2009, and by 2011, their payroll had reached close to $143 million. It was only after Bank of America gave the Mets a $65 million bridge loan in December 2011 that the team slashed $52 million from its payroll, to $95 million in 2012 and down to $85 million by last season.

After the team refinanced a $250 million loan from Bank of America last year, it was revealed that the terms of the original loan had actually limited the Mets' payroll. That Major League Baseball would allow another entity to artificially cap a team's payroll is almost unthinkable. So, too, is the lack of uproar among fans all too willing to embrace the "lovable loser" narrative without considering management's role in putting a loser on the field.

The same can be said for the Cubs, who, as DJ Gallo writes in the Guardian, are really Goliath, not David. "The story of Cubs history is not one of an overlooked band of scrappers always coming up short, it's a tale of high-profile, highly-paid and over-exposed losers," Gallo writes. It's a cop-out that conveniently serves management's image to blame 106 years without a championship on curses and perceived second-class status. It's the same insufferable attitude pre-2004 Boston Red Sox fans had before they broke through and won their first World Series in 86 years -- another elite, big-market team with nearly unlimited resources that never had any business crying underdog.

Like the Mets, the Cubs' recent financial crisis was self-inflicted. The franchise declared bankruptcy in 2010 after owner Sam Zell drove his Tribune Co. into the ground, but is flush again under TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. Forbes estimates the Cubs to be the fifth-most valuable MLB franchise at $1.8 billion; the Mets place seventh at $1.35 billion.

Compare that to some of the other teams that made the post-season this year: The Pittsburgh Pirates rank 17th in value ($900 million), while the Houston Astros are the fifth-lowest team, valued at $800 million. If  you want to root for a true underdog, try the Kansas City Royals, a team with the third-lowest value ($700 million) yet a higher payroll than the Mets ($125 million). The Royals are also two wins away from the World Series -- their second straight -- an impressive feat given their limited resources and market size. Not to take anything away from the Cubs or the Mets, but the one percent is supposed to win. 

Embracing a teams' undeserved lovable-loser status just takes the heat off management and underperforming players. Mets fans should relish this playoff run while also realizing that in baseball's hierarchy, the Mets are haves, not have-nots. It's okay to Believe, but don't buy the underdog story.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net