Wilpons get assist from Beltran

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- As he weighed the pros and cons of surrender, Carlos Beltran surely did not consider the positive impact his own brand of community service -- a self-imposed transfer to right field -- would have on the men struggling to sign his paychecks.

But Fred and Jeff Wilpon and their partner, Saul Katz, as much a breakout star of the Madoff lawsuit that Roger Clemens was of the Mitchell report, owe their ex-center fielder a bonus -- if only they could afford to give one -- for ending the New York Mets' quarterback controversy by volunteering to play on Angel Pagan's flank.

Too bad Beltran didn't also offer to donate the balance of his $119 million contract to a nine-figure settlement fee to be named later.

The Mets needed something, anything, to steer the daily narrative away from the ever-exploding Bernie Madoff scandal and the very real possibility that the Wilpons will have to sell the team, the whole team, to cover their tab.

"This is a huge hurdle for us to get over," Terry Collins said of the Beltran bump.

A hurdle? Yes. But a huge one?

Go ask the Wilpons if they agree with that.

By doing big business with a common crook, Bernie Madoff, the Mets owners have set a new DEFCON standard for organizational angst. The trustee for Madoff's victims, Irving Picard, wants up to a billion dollars from the men running the Mets, who have a reported $400 million in debt on the team. And oh by the way, major league baseball wants its $25 million loan back, too.

The Wilpons are a bad country road removed from their claim that this ungodly Madoff mess would affect their other businesses but not the team, a stance that always defied common sense.

So maybe they will follow Beltran's lead and take one for the team. Maybe they will acknowledge they've forever lost the paying public's trust and sell controlling interest in the Mets to let the healing process begin.

Or maybe they will continue to use ignorance and naiveté as swords and shields and fight the bloody fight for the remains of the family legacy.

"The Wilpons are going to do everything they possibly can to hold on to this team, because the Mets mean everything to them," said one source who's had extensive dealings with Fred and Jeff. "This is going to be like an MMA fight, and the loser is going to be carried out on a stretcher."

It looks and sounds like the Wilpons will go down swinging, even though they are tapped out and fully aware that they are on their own the rest of the way with Picard. Bud Selig might be a dear friend of Fred's, but he's done assuming the role of sugar daddy on this one.

All of this leaves beaten-down Mets fans searching for a reason to devote their time and attention to the team. Monday morning, Beltran approached his manager and gave them one. He told Collins that he was demoting himself for the betterment of the Mets.

"Those are the types of guys you want on your team," David Wright said of Beltran. "It's a great gesture, and it's one I think that's a very selfless move on his part."

Beltran said he made the move for the sake of his recovering right knee, for the sake of his worthy protégé, Pagan, and for the sake of simply moving on. Of course, with Scott Boras among those he consulted on the move, Beltran might have been looking after himself a bit, too, as a less demanding outfield position might keep him fresher and healthier in a push for a new contract next fall.

But this was no time to be nitpicking an otherwise encouraging Mets development. If Beltran giving up center field today isn't quite Derek Jeter giving up shortstop tomorrow, at least it's a sunshiny diversion from the ominous clouds above.

"You're hoping and praying that it goes like this," Collins said of Beltran's sacrifice, one the manager believes will "send a huge message through the clubhouse."

Collins wasn't the only Met to embrace that article of faith.

"What Carlos did, that kind of stuff is contagious," Wright said. "Especially when it comes from someone who's accomplished as much as he has, there's no question that's going to have a positive impact on a lot of people."

Somehow, some way, will that positive impact on the players translate into a positive impact on the owners?

"The biggest positive thing for them," Wright said, "is to get off to a good start and win baseball games, and that will make everyone in here feel better about themselves.

"I'd like to do it for the Wilpons, I'd like to do it for Mr. Katz, I'd like to do it for the fans, I'd like to do it for my teammates, and I'd like to do it for me. You want to have each other's backs. When you come to the park every day, it's like an extended family and you're going to look out for one another."

The Mets need to cover for each other like no other team in the market. Look around.

The Yankees are the Yankees, with or without Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee. The Jets are the toast of Rex Ryan's town, and the Giants don't have to return to 1986 to relive their most recent championship glories. St. John's is enjoying the same kind of renaissance enjoyed by the Knicks, who beat the Heat in Miami because two stars who embraced New York (Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire) stopped one star who ran away from New York (LeBron James).

Meanwhile, the Mets keep losing on the field and off, sometimes with closers and clubhouse guys getting arrested, sometimes with owners getting sued.

So nobody cared to recall Monday that Beltran wanted to be a Yankee instead of a Met, so much so that he considered writing a book on his first year in the Bronx, a year that wasn't to be.

The ex-center fielder inspired people to talk about baseball and team play, reminding everyone that sometimes there is a little joy in Metville.

The Wilpons and Katz should throw Beltran a banquet, even if they need to go with a cash bar.