It must’ve seemed like such a good idea to Fred Wilpon at the time. Then again, so did Jason Bay.
An interview and profile in the New Yorker to tell his side of the story. A chance to respond to the media that he took it on the chin from for so long; to Irving Picard and his scurrilous accusations about being a willing partner in one of the biggest financial scams in recent memory; to the persistent questions about the Mets financial situation and to the Met fans, his customers, damning him on the radio or the internet.
In 11,000 words, he would get to tell the story of a blue-collar kid from Brooklyn who made it good, who lives and dies with the Mets and was completely blindsided by his one-time friend. It was a PR slam dunk if handled right. The real Fred Wilpon, all in 11,000 exquisite, kid glove words published in a major magazine.
Perfect……or would have been if the article was 10,900 exquisite, kid glove words.
Had it just been those 10,900 words, Jeffrey Toobin’s portrayal of the Wilpon family would have done nicely. Wilpon’s climb up the ladder of the ruthless New York City real estate market shows him as a true entrepreneur. Everyone, including Sandy Koufax, compliments him as a gentlemen and businessman. His Brooklyn roots and schoolboy pitcher days are explored. A surprised Met fan greets him in Citifield and seems genuinely thrilled by it. It’s made clear how much he suffers over the Mets.
The Madoff relationship is portrayed as a friendly one, with pains taken to stress how no one knew or had suspicions of a Ponzi scheme. Parts of the article help state the case against the lawsuit, accusing Picard of using “excessive zeal” in going after Wilpon and of “something troubling” about a key part of his complaint. No mention is made of Sterling Enterprises falling for Steve Israel’s Ponzi scheme. Their $450 million diversification in a separate entity, Sterling Stamos, was established because of concerns that Madoff might retire, not due to Ponzi suspicions. And then there’s my favorite line to show that it wasn’t “heavy, heavy returns” that enticed Wilpon to invest with Madoff:
The returns were not spectacular, but they were steady; indeed, that was the core of Madoff’s appeal. In bull and bear markets, Madoff returned about ten per cent a year to Wilpon.
Yeeeeeah okay. I might not be an economic whiz but ten percent a year return is spectacular.
So the stretch marks were there but all in all, it’s a well-written, insightful article, detailing the Wilpon history pre/post Madoff and the Mets with a slight patina of rose coloring. It wouldn’t have changed popular opinion that the team needed to be sold, but at least many would get to hear their side. It would have worked in 10,900 words.
But the article didn’t work as hoped because it wasn’t 10,900 words, it was 11,000. An extra 100 words meant to show everyone what a real fan Fred Wilpon was. Wilpon called the team he was in charge of “shitty”, “lousy” and “snake bitten”. He openly expressed regret about Carlos Beltran’s contract and made light of Beltran’s lowest moment (the Game 7 strike three in the 2006 NLCS). He said that soon-to-be-free-agent Jose Reyes “has had everything wrong with him” and wasn’t worth Carl Crawford’s salary. And he called David Wright, the main representative of the Mets franchise for the past six years “not a superstar”.
For a guy who is known for being too nice and is praised in the article as a gentlemen, those 100 words throughout the essay dissing the team and the players stuck out like a black man at a Barry Manilow concert. At first, the comments by themselves weren’t earthshattering. Most Met fans would agree with them. Plus the responses to the quotes as the story blew up seemed overblown. The player’s trade value has been hurt because Wilpon stated the obvious? No, the only way Fred Wilpon could hurt a players trade value is to hit them with a wrench or make a comment like “Reyes is a meth head who runs a puppy fighting ring”.
But after you read the article in full and the more you thought about it, the stupidity of the comments became overwhelming. What was to be gained from slagging his team and players? Whatever the message that the Wilpon family wanted to get out, it wasn’t getting out. All of it was going to be overshadowed by those uncharacteristic statements. Wilpon’s clumsy stab at channeling George Steinbrenner and empathizing with his beaten fan base torched whatever good was to come from the New Yorker piece. Instead, the ineptness of the Mets franchise and his stewardship returned to the back page. Another PR nightmare. Fred Wilpon stepped in shit, again.
Why did he do that? Was he off his meds? Did he really think that the best way to endear himself to his fan base by showing that he was angry and in charge? Or more likely, was this the venting of a frustrated, angry, beaten man who sees that his days of owning the Mets are coming to an inglorious end? That might be the most likely. David Wright put it best in his standard classy response to the comments:
“Fred is a good man and is obviously going through some difficult times.”
Wright also added that “There is nothing more productive that I can say at this time.” At least someone on the Mets knows when to stop talking.