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Selig giving Mets time to address debt

One more season of this, and no more.

It's easy to understand why commissioner Bud Selig is refraining from taking action against the New York Mets' ownership.

It's likely that forces outside of baseball will determine the fate of Mets majority owner Fred Wilpon and his partners.

But if the uncertainty threatens to linger into next offseason -- and it's never a bad idea to bet "the over" in such matters -- then Selig must make a move, once and for all.

Selig's wait-and-see approach, while frustrating to many Mets fans, is no different than his approach on most issues. He prefers teams to resolve their own problems, without interference from the commissioner.

Only in rare exceptions (read: Frank McCourt) is Selig pro-active, and only if no better options are available.

Wilpon is not McCourt, who used the Los Angeles Dodgers as his own personal ATM and failed to build trust with Selig after purchasing the team in 2004.

No, Wilpon is the game's second-longest tenured owner, a loyal soldier to Selig, a well-respected proprietor who reinvested in his team, albeit poorly in many instances.

"He's been a great owner, loves his team," Selig said recently. "He's everything you'd want in a local owner. He's had some economic problems not caused by himself, and I have a lot of faith in him that he's working his way through that."

Well, here's the problem: At some point, Selig's obligation to the best interests of baseball will outweigh his obligation to Wilpon.

Most Mets fans, bracing for the impact of a $50 million payroll reduction, would argue that Selig should be at that point already.

But Selig is betting that the Mets' picture will become clearer over the next several months -- and he indeed may be proved correct.

The way the Mets see it, they are on the verge of raising $200 million from minority investors. That money will help them pay back a $25 million loan to baseball, a $40 million bridge loan to Bank of America and part of a $375 million loan on the team.

The Mets also believe they will prevail over Irving Picard, the trustee for the victims of Bernard L. Madoff. Picard initially sought $1 billion in claims against Wilpon and his co-owner, Saul Katz, but U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff already has knocked down that figure.

Rakoff threw out most of Picard's claims, leaving him to seek about $386 million. For Picard to claim more than about $83 million, he must prove that Wilpon and Katz were "willfully blind" to Madoff's wrongdoing -- something that the owners deny.

The trial is scheduled to begin March 19. Even a lesser judgment against Wilpon and Katz might not amount to $83 million, if the owners collect some or all of the $160 million they say they are due from the Madoff estate.

Another optimistic sign for the Mets, in the view of some industry observers, is that McCourt is likely to sell the Dodgers for more than $1.5 billion by April 1, the deadline for him to pick a new owner.

One industry expert says the Dodgers and Mets are not comparable; the Dodgers' value is based in part on the billions they will command in their next local television contract, while the Mets are locked into a "last-era" deal with their own network, SNY.

Another insider, however, disagrees, saying the Dodgers' deal will raise the value of the Mets to more than $2 billion, a number that, at the very least, would make banks more comfortable with the team as an asset.

Put it all together, and the potential for fresh cash, minimal damage in the Madoff case and a high, post-Dodgers valuation is enough for Selig to give Wilpon every opportunity to get the Mets back on track.

Yet many in the industry, mindful of the Mets' bleak financial picture, are skeptical that Wilpon will survive.

The Mets contend that loans on SNY and their new park, Citi Field, are not part of their overall picture, but any way you slice it, the team's debts are staggering. So are the franchise's losses -- an estimated $120 million over the past two years.

A big verdict against the Mets in the Madoff case only would add to the team's obligations. Even a relatively light judgment could stretch the owners to the limit.

And this season, with no Jose Reyes, no Carlos Beltran and seemingly little chance of contending in the NL East, team revenues could fall sharply.

Third baseman David Wright, earning $15 million, could be the next to go. The Mets, rather than make the mistake they made by keeping Reyes, could trade Wright if the team flounders and Wilpon remains in limbo.

Of course, with pitchers and catchers yet to report, the Mets are dreaming of comebacks by last year's underachieving veterans and breakthroughs by some of their youngsters, quietly thinking that the team could surprise.

Anything is possible, even with Wright, left fielder Jason Bay and left-hander Johan Santana accounting for nearly two-thirds of the Mets' $90 million payroll.

Who knows? Maybe the economy will improve, helping bring more fans to the park.

The Mets might need such a miracle.

For now, they are not likely to receive any more loans, not from their banks, not from baseball. And the Madoff verdict, no matter how it goes down, almost certainly will be appealed. Years could pass before the ruling is final.

As one supporter of Wilpon says, "My heart says this can all go away, be worked out, get resolved. My head says it's not going to be that seamless or clean."

Selig still sees hope rather than an owner who is only prolonging the inevitable. But the commissioner will need to use his powers of persuasion on Wilpon if, by the end of the season, no resolution appears within reach. This is the National League's New York franchise, not some struggling small-market operation.

It's impossible to imagine Selig confronting Wilpon the way he confronted McCourt, taking control of the Dodgers' day-to-day operations, calling McCourt unfit to own the Dodgers, seeking the sale of the team through a court order (the six-month legal battle between the two ended when McCourt agreed to sell the club).

The pressure on Wilpon, if Selig ever applied it, would be gentler. And many baseball people believe that Wilpon, if he sensed that the end was near, would do the right thing rather than damage the sport.

The end is not yet near, not with so many variables in play. But at some point, the best interests of the game must come first.

One more season of this, and no more.