By Ray O’Hanlon
Relax, Mike Piazza, your $90 million is quite safe. It won’t be heading east to Kerry.
The New York Mets have finally paid money to help in the restoration of a Famine-era sailing ship. But the hands that took hold of the long-awaited check are shaking in disbelief this week.
After five months of waiting for what they hoped would be at least a four-figure check arising from “Irish Night” at Shea Stadium last August, officials working for the Famine Ship Limited say they are shocked and disappointed over the sum which the Mets have finally coughed up.
Eight hundred and fifty five dollars. No change.
“We couldn’t believe it. I mean, have you ever made a donation to someone for 855 bucks,” said Famine Ship Limited spokesman Jeff Cleary.
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Cleary said his first reaction was to consider sending the check back to Shea faster than a Mark McGwire homer.
But he added that the Famine Ship Limited believes that it is obligated to send what money it receives from the Mets to Blennerville, Co. Kerry, where work is proceeding on the restoration of the Jeanie Johnston.
The check for $855 will work out at roughly _600, a tiny fraction of the estimated _4.6 million cost of restoring a ship that made 16 transAtlantic voyages between 1847 and 1855 without losing a single passenger.
But whether it’s passengers, fans at Shea or dollars on a check, the differences between the Famine ship boosters and the Mets rests entirely on numbers.
The Mets have taken the position that the amount of money they would pay out was always contingent on the number of extra fans which the Famine Ship Limited was able to place in Shea Stadium for Irish Night, last Aug. 5.
When the Echo broke the story last September, Charles McCabe, whose services are retained by the Mets to find, develop and promote events such as Irish Night at Shea, expressed the view that the ball club was not liable for much, if anything.
This despite the fact that 35,571 tickets were sold for Irish Night ’98, held on Wednesday night, as opposed to 33,823 for Irish Night ’97, which took place on a Saturday.
McCabe told the Echo at the time that the Famine Ship Limited’s share of receipts was to be based on the number of corporate and other tickets actually sold by the group.
“Jeff Cleary and his group did not come through from a corporate perspective,” McCabe said. “Their hearts were in the right place, but they didn’t sell enough corporate tickets. Nothing came in over what the Mets could have brought in themselves.”
And it was McCabe who was the first outside the Mets organization to know just how much the ball club considered the Famine Ship Limited’s effort to be worth.
The $855 check and a covering letter was mailed to him at his Manhattan office two days before Christmas.
The letter was sent by William Ianniciello, Mets vice president for ticket sales and services.
It read in part: “As per the terms of the agreement between the Mets and the Irish “Great Famine” Project as summarized in my May 4 letter, please find the enclosed check of $855 as a donation to the project.
“The check represents 90 mezzanine and box seats at $9.50 donation per ticket.
“Sale of upper level reserved seats totaled 4.929 tickets, short of the amount at which donations would be applicable.
“The only project-related group purchase of upper box seats was for 75 tickets at the reduced price of $7, with the express understanding by the purchaser that no donation was applicable when buying at the discounted price.”
Cleary and his group have argued that Famine Ship Limited bought $4,000 worth of tickets itself and that the Mets sold tickets to Irish organizations based on the fact that it was Irish Night.
Cleary believes that, at the very least, the Jeanie Johnston project should have received a payment based on the difference between the 1997 and 1998 crowd totals.
By his estimation, that would result in a check of $11,183 as opposed to the one cut for $855.
The plan to raise money on Irish Night for the Jeanie Johnston was launched last May at a reception held at the Irish Consulate in Manhattan attended by former Tanaiste and Kerry TD Dick Spring, the primary political patron of the Jeanie Johnston project.
In a press release coinciding with the event, the Mets made it clear that it was happy to be involved with the project.
“When the Famine Ship project was brought to the Mets attention, we were immediately excited to be able to help out the team of young people from different nations who have come together to build the replica ship.”
By this week, that excitement had apparently cooled somewhat. Geis did not return calls before presstime Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Jeanie Johnston is due to sail to North America next year stopping off at as many as 20 ports in the U.S. and Canada including the Mets hometown of New York. President Clinton has indicated an interest in meeting the ship when it arrives in Boston.