Fred Wilpon can't win for losing

Fred Wilpon won Monday morning just as clearly as 16 college basketball teams won over the weekend, and yet he should not bother grabbing any scissors, climbing any ladders or cutting down any nets.

The owner of the New York Mets made a smart deal, finally, when he avoided a trial and settled with the trustee representing Bernie Madoff's victims. The headlines say Wilpon, Saul Katz and partners accepted a bill for $162 million, but the actual payoff should end up considerably south of that.

Believe it or not, the agreement allows Mets owners to pursue the $178 million they claimed they lost with Madoff in other accounts, and to apply whatever they recover to their tab. They might end up paying as little as $29 million, and, oh yeah, they don't have to cough up a dime for three years.

This deal is so good, in fact, it sounds like Madoff arranged it from behind bars.

But after dodging an inevitable series of embarrassing courtroom disclosures, a possible judgment of $300 million and change and the likely surrender of his ballclub -- never mind the tattered remains of his good name -- in the event of a defeat, Wilpon needs to understand something:

He's still a net loser in every conceivable way.

The Mets are a big-market joke with small-market bottom lines, and Wilpon's dreadful decisions in business and baseball are to blame. His fan base wants him out, and even the Mets' loyal, good-natured customers were hoping for some outcome before a judge and jury that left them with a new rich guy in charge.

So when Mario Cuomo, the Kissinger of this case, told reporters outside federal court in Manhattan that this resolution would allow Mets owners to "return to normalcy," no season-ticket holder was seen popping open a bottle of chilled champagne.

For Mets fans, normalcy is a team in the world's biggest, noisiest marketplace that slashes payroll by more than $50 million. Normalcy is a team that can't afford to keep Jose Reyes while sharing a city with the Dream Team Yankees. Normalcy is a team that can't keep its employees out of trouble or its fragile players out of the tub.

Normalcy is a team staring at its fourth straight losing season and a projected plunge into last place.

In the immediate wake of his "victory," Wilpon said his first order of business was to return to his spring training base in Port St. Lucie, Fla., for an attempt "to bring the New York Mets back to the prominence that our fans deserve and the city of New York deserves."

Prominence? Mets fans would settle for mere relevance and competence first.

Even on the day he was successful in showing he wasn't "willfully blind" to Madoff's staggering fraud, Wilpon inspired no faith in his ownership. "Stick with us," he said outside the courthouse when asked for his message to the fans.

"We'll be there. We have done it before, twice, in the 33 years. We will do it again."

Actually, the Mets have done it once on Wilpon's watch, in 1986, unless he's suggesting the five-game loss to the Yanks in the 2000 World Series counts as a triumph just for showing up. Derek Jeter was the MVP of that Series, and in the weeks that followed another all-world shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, made it clear he wanted to level the playing field for his favorite childhood team, the Mets.

But instead of making a legitimate bid for the free agent, and showing some Steinbrennerian stomach for the fight, Wilpon took a pass and tried to win a losing battle for public support by painting A-Rod as a perk-obsessed jerk.

Yes, that absurd non-courtship says it all about Wilpon's time in charge.

So does a night at David Wright's locker last May, after his boss ripped the third baseman, Carlos Beltran, Reyes and the entire team in The New Yorker. Wright is among the more agreeable and approachable athletes you could ever meet, another Mr. Met without the big head.

Only that night, when questioned for 15 minutes and 32 seconds about Wilpon's published comment that he isn't a superstar, Wright refused to speak the owner's given name. When told by a reporter halfway through the session that he'd yet to say the word "Fred," Wright went on and on without, you know, saying the word "Fred."

The issue wasn't whether Wright qualifies as a true superstar (he doesn't). But after scrambling from one team charity event to the next, after serving as a credible voice and face for a laughingstock franchise, Wright deserved better from Wilpon, as in a lot.

Same goes for the fans who kept showing up at cavernous Citi Field, a beautiful gathering place that, of course, traumatized the home team's sluggers. Even when Wilpon got it right, he got it wrong.

Somehow the Mets came up with the money to scale down the fences, this as they owed $65 million to Bank of America and the Bank of Bud Selig, loans now repaid. The commissioner didn't give his longtime friend, Wilpon, the Frank McCourt treatment, and it looks like Selig's patience paid off.

In the end the trustee for Madoff's victims, Irving Picard, settled for an infield single, leaving his counsel, David Sheehan, to congratulate Wilpon and Katz and to describe them as partners in compensating those who had been robbed.

The language of this blood sport had changed considerably, allowing Wilpon to feel like a guy with a 10-game lead in the NL East. "Now I guess I can smile," he said. "Maybe I can take a day off."

He shouldn't bask in the moment for too long. The winner of this settlement remains a net loser at the ballpark, where Fred Wilpon has been a lousy steward of the New York Mets.