Monday, May 23, 2011

Madoff’s Curveball: Will Fred Wilpon be forced to sell the Mets?

  • Mike Lupica

    Fred Wilpon goes rougher on Mets players than on Irving Picard, channels inner George Steinbrenner

    Originally Published:Monday, May 23rd 2011, 9:04 PM
    Updated: Tuesday, May 24th 2011, 1:53 AM

    New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon tosses around blame in the recent New Yorker story in much the same way that late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (below) did in his time.
    David Handschuh/News
    New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon tosses around blame in the recent New Yorker story in much the same way that late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (below) did in his time.
    Paul Hawthorne/Getty

    Jeff Toobin, who wrote the big New Yorker piece on Fred Wilpon, called Wilpon a "stand-up guy" Monday. The problem is that Wilpon doesn't have a leg to stand on these days. He is under attack from the Madoff trustee, Irving Picard, he has to sell part of his baseball team and perhaps part of his network, his team has to fight to stay around .500. This is when the owner of the team turns himself into Boss Wilpon and goes after his own players. Steinbrenner had timing like this in the old days.

    In fact this is the way Steinbrenner used to do business, in a lot of years when he was a bad owner talking about players performing a whole lot better than he was. Wilpon throws some punches but is like a fighter leaving himself wide open as he does.

    So this is where we are: Already in a world of trouble, Fred Wilpon makes more trouble for himself, just not in court papers, in his own suite at Citi Field. It happened for Toobin the way it has happened for a lot of us, an interview subject gets talking this way and even as you can't believe what he is telling you, you begin to realize you would have to hit him with a baseball bat to make him shut up.

    That is why after an interview in which Wilpon uses the inelegant word "schmuck" to describe himself, he ends up looking like even more of one, even to Mets fans who can't disagree with much of what he said about Jose Reyes and David Wright and Carlos Beltran. I don't.

    Steinbrenner used to say everything about everybody, even Don Mattingly, then trash the Bronx for good measure. Now we build monuments to him. And by the way? The Yankees weren't always on top when he would start running his mouth. He went 18 years without winning the World Series before Torre's Yankees put him back on top, got suspended from baseball in there, never seemed to shut up.

    Now Wilpon won't shut up with Jeff Toobin one night when the two of them are watching the Mets play dreary baseball at an empty, dreary Citi Field. The Mets were a bad team that night. Now they have gotten a little better, are trying to be a team their fans want to watch, and the piece comes out with Wilpon saying what he says about Reyes and Wright and the rest of them.

    Of course this will be treated like the crime of the century around here. It's not, even if Wilpon ought to be on a plane to Chicago today to talk to these players face-to-face and explain to them what he was doing. Or what he thought he was doing. Reyes isn't worth $140 million and Wright, whom I like as much as any ballplayer in town, isn't a superstar. Beltran isn't what he was. All true.

  • The New Yorker
  • Reporting & Essays

Our Local Correspondents

by Jeffrey Toobin May 30, 2011

“We’re snakebitten, baby,” Wilpon said. Clockwise from left: David Wright, Wilpon, Jason Bay, Terry Collins, and Jose Reyes. Photograph by Steve Pyke.

Nearly a decade ago, Fred Wilpon, the chairman and chief executive of the New York Mets, had his first meeting with the architects of what would become Citi Field, the team’s new ballpark, in Queens. “The first day the architects came to the site, they started saying blah, blah, blah, and I said to them, ‘Let me tell you how this is going to work,’ ” Wilpon told me recently. “ ‘The front of the building is going to look like Ebbets Field. And it’s going to have a rotunda—just like at Ebbets.’ And then I said, ‘Guess what. Here are the plans for Ebbets Field.’ And I handed them over.”

As we spoke, Wilpon was walking through the rotunda of the new stadium, which opened in 2009. The façade does indeed resemble that of Ebbets Field, the home of the late Brooklyn Dodgers. The rotunda serves as a memorial to the life and work of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier when, in 1947, he joined the Dodgers, and who, for his achievements on and off the field, remains Wilpon’s hero. Photographs of Robinson line the rotunda walls, and in the middle of the vast room an aluminum sculpture of his number, 42, rendered in Dodger blue, stands as a kind of shrine.

When Citi Field opened, the Brooklyn focus drew some criticism. After all, the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957, and Ebbets Field was demolished shortly thereafter. Only the very oldest fans have any first-hand memory of the place. The Mets, who had been in existence for almost a half century, were virtually ignored in their own home. “All the Dodger stuff—that was an error of judgment on my part,” Wilpon told me. Still, the ballpark combined the guiding preoccupations of Wilpon’s professional life—baseball and real estate. More than that, the stadium, in its architectural homage to Ebbets Field, underlined the omnipresence of Brooklyn, where Wilpon grew up, in everything that followed.

Wilpon, who is seventy-four, has run the Mets since 1980—for more than half his adult life. He has the rolling, slightly pained gait of an ex-athlete, a well-trimmed crown of silver hair, and a taste for fine tailoring, even in casual clothes. He walks the corridors of Citi Field with such a proprietary air that it’s not necessary to make out the bodyguard, hovering at a discreet distance, to recognize that he is the boss. Wilpon has a deft touch with fans. “I bet my husband that you were the guy who owns the Mets,” a breathless woman said to him. “You win,” Wilpon replied.

In the past two years, the Dodger problem at Citi Field has largely been addressed. The team added a Mets Hall of Fame, just off the rotunda, and plenty of banners and photographs of the Mets’ storied and eccentric existence are now spread around the ballpark. The Mets are a family business, run by Wilpon, his brother-in-law Saul Katz, the president of the team, and his son Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer. Jeff supervised the construction of Citi Field on a day-to-day basis, but Fred has an almost tactile sense of every inch. “See the floor here?” he said, as we walked in the corridor outside the Mets’ locker room. “The concrete we put in was too slippery for the guys when they got out of the showers.” So a new, pebbly surface was added, in the Mets’ colors of orange and blue.

Wilpon was making a circuit to visit players and coaches before a mid-April night game. The Mets were off to an awful start. A loss the previous evening had given the team the worst record in the National League. (“THAT STINK? IT’S THE METS,” read the headline in the Post.) Wilpon stopped at the coaches’ locker room and chatted with Mookie Wilson, the first-base coach and long a favorite of both Wilpon and the fans. Mookie (who has almost never been known by anything but his first name) came up with the team in the early eighties and played in the Mets’ last World Series victory, in 1986. (“You want to talk about old?” Wilpon said later. “When Mookie came up, he always had this little kid running around his ankles in the locker room.” That was Mookie’s kid Preston, who went on to play for a decade in the major leagues. “Now that little kid is retired!” Wilpon said, with a laugh.) Wilpon inquired after the health of Mookie’s wife, who has been ailing, then commiserated about the team’s troubles. “We didn’t see these problems in spring training,” Wilpon said. He chuckled with Dan Warthen, the pitching coach, about a member of the staff who tends to dawdle on the mound. “Tell him to throw the fucking ball!” Wilpon said. As we walked on, toward the training room, he said to me, “Those guys are proud. They are teachers. It drives them crazy to lose.”

Three pitchers, including Jason Isringhausen, at thirty-eight the senior member of the staff, were perched on training tables, their arms iced and swaddled in yards of Ace bandages. Wilpon asked how they were doing.

Fine, they said, almost in unison.

“What are you doing in here if you’re fine?” Wilpon said.

They all laughed.

“C’mon, guys,” Wilpon said, more seriously. “One game at a time, one game at a time.”

He repeated the message when he stopped in to see Terry Collins, the manager, and Sandy Alderson, the general manager, who are both new this year, their predecessors having been dismissed after several seasons of dismal results. Wilpon stepped through the tunnel and onto the field, where the Houston Astros were finishing batting practice. He came upon Pedro Beato, a boyish six-foot-four-inch rookie pitcher with a broad smile displaying a mouthful of braces. Beato, who is twenty-four, was born in the Dominican Republic but went to high school in Brooklyn. Wilpon had shaken hands with the other players, but he gave Beato a hug.

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