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Thirty Years With the Wilpons

In the three decades since Fred Wilpon entered our consciousness, oftentimes the best thing about the ownership group he’s played a major part in running was who he was and who they weren’t.

First, it was outstanding that Doubleday & Company, Inc. — 95% majority owners of the New York Mets as of January 24, 1980 — wasn’t a remnant of the original Payson operation. Joan Payson may remain a beloved figure in team history, but the mess she left behind after she died in 1975 decayed quickly. Her chairman, M. Donald Grant, ran the organization into the ground before running himself out of town. Her daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, took over and all but threw a shroud over the ground into which the Mets had been run. Charles Shipman Payson, Joan’s Red Sox fan husband, showed no interested in upkeep and parted with not a dime in that direction.

By appearing competent and willing to invest, the Doubleday group, which included 5% stakeholder Wilpon, couldn’t help but win goodwill if not a whole lot of ballgames at first. Nelson Doubleday was installed as chairman, Wilpon became president and they left the prospective empire-building to Frank Cashen. They bought a ballclub, but they also bought time.

In doing so, Doubleday and Wilpon were not George Steinbrenner. That was also outstanding to consider in the early and middle 1980s. Back then, being a Steinbrenner had almost no redeeming features. The principal owner of the New York Yankees spent and blustered and fired but he hadn’t won anything for a while. He kept blustering nonetheless, and while it was entertaining, it didn’t win him or his club kudos or titles. The Mets way, the Doubleday/Wilpon way, was the way to go. You saw them hold a press conference when they bought the club and, after that, you basically never heard from them again. Nobody minded. It seemed classy and professional and appropriate in contrast to the hyper hands-on Steinbrenner, whose approval ratings had been heading steadily downhill since the day he took out a newspaper ad apologizing to New Yorkers for not winning the 1981 World Series.

Doubleday didn’t seek publicity [1] — he was not to be found in either the clubhouse celebration that followed the 1986 championship or the parade up Lower Broadway the next day. Wilpon’s profile wasn’t all that high either. He may have accepted the Commissioner’s Trophy from Peter Ueberroth on October 27, but he wasn’t writing any columns in the New York Post that month. George Steinbrenner, however, was. (What the hell, he had nothing else to do.)

Less than three weeks after the Mets defeated the Red Sox, the composition of ownership changed. Corporate machinations dictated Doubleday & Co.’s publishing interests be sold to a German concern. They weren’t buying the Mets. Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, who were not associated in any meaningful way until 1980 (Wilpon wanted to purchase the Mets but couldn’t meet Charles Payson’s price without Doubleday coming aboard), became 50-50 partners. The transition appeared seamless to the outside world. Doubleday and Wilpon were the names with which Mets fans were familiar, so when Sterling Doubleday Enterprises was formed on November 14, 1986 in an $80 million deal, it didn’t seem to represent a sea change à la the sale of January 24, 1980.

“Fred and I have had a good partnership for seven years,” Doubleday said in the Mets’ 1987 media guide, “and I know we will continue to have a good partnership. “There will be no revolutionary changes in the control of the Mets,” Wilpon agreed in the same introductory article. “Operations will continue just as they have since 1980.”

It didn’t play out that way. We still didn’t see or hear much of Doubleday and Wilpon for the next few years, but behind the scenes, as documented in Andrew Rice’s thorough 2000 [2]New York Observer [2]examination of their relationship [2], things were changing. By then it was common knowledge that Wilpon and Doubleday were partners in name but not in spirit. When they showed up in the clubhouse to jointly receive the Warren C. Giles National League Championship trophy, it was the first time in a while they had been seen together in public.

As Rice explained a decade ago, Doubleday wasn’t happy that Wilpon became his equal partner in the first place. Wilpon, according to Murray Chass, writing in the [3]Times [3] in 2001 [3], took advantage of a first-refusal clause in 1986, one that “Doubleday apparently had been unaware of”. More friction developed with the more authority Wilpon gained/usurped. A turning point in the relationship, wrote Rice, came as the wreckage of 1993 piled up in Flushing. Cashen was gone, the Mets were in disarray and Wilpon stepped up [4] to publicly accept responsibility for a team that was dismal on the field and hopeless off it. That summer — Bobby Bonilla threatening Bob Klapisch; Vince Coleman tossing lit firecrackers at children; Bret Saberhagen spraying bleach on beat reporters — was the Met equivalent of August 1974 in the Nixon White House. There existed a perception no one was in charge of the asylum. Fred Wilpon said, in essence, “I am.”

Whether it was a role he took on with reluctance or relish (and he’s been described as possessing an inner Steinbrenner [5]), Wilpon emerged bit by bit as the man in charge. There was no unquestioned baseball authority figure on the premises — Joe McIlvaine had succeeded Al Harazin who had succeeded Frank Cashen, but neither Harazin nor Joe Mac was vested with the degree of autonomy Cashen held. And Doubleday? The mid-’90s not a great period for him, as Rice recounted in 2000.

[I]n the spring of 1994, a book about the ouster of baseball commissioner Fay Vincent by a group of owners led by Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf quoted Mr. Doubleday, a Vincent ally, telling league presidents Bobby Brown and Bill White: “It looks like the Jewboys finally got you.” A former employee told Newsday that Mr. Doubleday had said similar things in his presence, but only “when he was drinking.” Mr. Wilpon, who is Jewish, stood up for Mr. Doubleday, saying: “It’s not like Nelson to talk that way.”

After that, one person familiar with the team said, Mr. Doubleday disappeared from the scene and Mr. Wilpon took charge, with a more hands-on approach. He has installed loyal subordinates who have frequently come into conflict with executives loyal to Mr. Doubleday.

It was Fred Wilpon, not Wilpon and Doubleday, who held the notorious 1997 press conference in which McIlvaine was dismissed (while the Mets were enjoying their first winning season in seven years) and assistant GM Steve Phillips was elevated. It was, however, Nelson Doubleday who was seen as coming out of hibernation to push Phillips toward trading for Mike Piazza in 1998 [6]. Doubleday promised he’d involve himself more in Met matters from there, but was generally unseen around Shea after Piazza was re-signed that October. Wilpon, meanwhile, had begun planning for a replacement to Shea Stadium, a goal not shared by Doubleday. On the road to the 2000 World Series, while real estate wizard Wilpon was working on making what would become Citi Field a reality, Doubleday came out in favor of renovating Shea [7].

Not communicating and not agreeing on fundamental matters like “where are we gonna play?” was no way to run a ballclub. Despite the Mets winning a pennant in this apparently dysfunctional atmosphere, something had to give. After a rumored sale to Cablevision fell through, it was Doubleday who gave in, selling his half of the Mets to Wilpon [8] for approximately $135 million on August 23, 2002.

Was the best part of Wilpon owning the majority of the Mets that he wasn’t Doubleday? Or did concentrating all power in one man and, eventually, his son, send the Mets once more on the road to what feels like ruin?

It can’t help but be a hypothetical question. There’s no definitively answering whether we as Mets fans would have been better off with a continuation of the evolving Wilpon-Doubleday synergy, no matter how weird it must have been to work around. There’s no telling whether we would have been better off if it was Doubleday who bought out Wilpon, even if Piazza is often credited to his side of the ledger. Nelson did not present the steadiest persona in his later years as co-owner. Based on its record with the Knicks and Rangers, I think we’re all glad Cablevision never bought Doubleday’s piece of the Mets; if he’d have sold to Charles Dolan, how can we imagine the best out of anything else Nelson Doubleday might have done to/for the Mets? But what if somebody or some other entity had bought the team?

If any of these alternate realities had come to pass, and the Mets weren’t primarily the Wilpons’, would the Mets be in better shape at this moment?

The truth is the Mets were in yet another of their periodic humiliating death spirals when Wilpon bought out Doubleday. A month hadn’t gone by when the underachieving 2002 Mets went from bad to stupid amidst allegations of marijuana use and Bobby Valentine’s weird reaction to them — affecting a stoner pose [9] during a press conference addressing the pot revelations. The stupidity only deepened when Fred Wilpon, with nobody holding him back, fired Valentine as manager and hired Art Howe, alleging Art Howe “lights up a room”. Valentine may have pretended to light up a joint, but the other guy lit up absolutely nothing. Outside of Howe’s immediate family, nobody ever saw in Howe what Wilpon somehow detected.

The Art Howe decision, the lowballing of the very available Vladimir Guerrero, the infamous “meaningful games in September” soundbite and the trade of Scott Kazmir (whoever’s call that was) all fed the perception that the Mets were, by 2004, back where they were when Fred Wilpon injected himself into public view in 1993. They were a mess.

Then they weren’t. Omar Minaya became the general manager, was given “authority and autonomy” [10] and the Mets improved. Fred was the owner, but Omar served as the man in charge, at least until last summer when Minaya, in the middle of a desultory campaign, put his foot in his mouth when turning the Tony Bernazard story into the Adam Rubin story [11]. Omar stopped appearing regularly in front of cameras and microphones. The owner was taking a more active role, but by now it was Jeff Wilpon, Fred’s son, acting in that capacity. Fred’s dream was opening the Ebbets Field lookalike in what had been Shea’s parking lot. It got done. Once the Mets were playing inside it, it would be Jeff who would absorb the criticism when the organization would inevitably do strange things like call out Carlos Beltran for getting his knee fixed [12]. Now it’s Jeff who’s more than ever the man in charge. Fred didn’t want the franchise being sold to Cablevision or anybody because he wanted that. He wanted the Mets to stay in his family.

It has. Fred is still chairman, but it is increasingly Jeff’s show. We’ve lived and rooted under Wilponian influence for thirty years and, unless there’s a momentous change of heart or turn in financial fortunes, we’ll have countless more years of it. Jeff Wilpon is the chief operating officer of the New York Mets. He’s not going anywhere.

Which means what for us, exactly? In recent months, and for much of the last year, really, I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t read or heard somewhere the suggestion or demand by a Mets fan that the Wilpons sell the team. The catalogue of grievances is varied as it is long. The bottom line seems to be that the Wilpons, personified mostly by Jeff these days, are a long-term impediment to our happiness [13]. They are not enabling our enjoyment of our favorite team; they are, instead, exacerbating our aggravation [14] from it by their accumulated actions and nonactions.

I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that assessment, but I have to ask, in all sincerity, what do you want from the owners of your ballclub? I mean that literally: what do you want from them?

When things are going well, we don’t toast the merits of our club owners. We just accept that things are finally going the way we want and, perhaps, we hope nobody screws things up down the line. Three years ago, even with the 2002-2004 track record a matter of public record, the Wilpons were not a continual object of our collective scorn. I doubt any of us gave them much thought at all, save for special occasions [15]. The man they put in charge had transformed a fourth-place finisher into a division winner and projected perennial contender in just two years. They gave Omar Minaya the resources and Minaya produced instant results.

The other night, SNY reran the 2006 division clincher. I watched the ninth inning and clubhouse celebration yet again. It was the last massive joygasm Shea Stadium ever experienced. We won something big, something we hadn’t won since 1988. Nobody who wore a Mets uniform or made a Mets decision was considered suspect then. Everybody was part of the team that night. If Minaya was awesome, so, by implication, were the guys who employed him.

(Eerie shot by SNY’s cameras while the Mets indulged in their group hug: the despondent opposing manager soaking in the celebratory scene, wondering when he’d get a chance to lead his clearly irrelevant team to this kind of revelry. The manager was Joe Girardi. And, come to think of it, the clinched-against club was the Marlins.)

That September 18, 2006 was, to date, the high point of the Minaya Mets underscores that things haven’t gone to plan since. We won the NLDS, lost the NLCS painfully and then failed to return to postseason play. Three years ago today you could not have convinced most Mets fans — and certainly not me — that this would be our three-year fate. If you had solicited opinions on Fred Wilpon or Jeff Wilpon in the winter of 2007, you might not have won an unqualified endorsement of their savvy, but you likely would have given them a benign or at least begrudging tip of the cap for getting us as far as we had come.

Ain’t nobody doing that now.

Is everything since the promise of 2006 evaporated the Wilpons’ fault? On one level, no more so than it was all their doing that the Mets gave us 97 wins, a division title and a playoff series triumph over the Dodgers. On another level, if we follow the Fred Wilpon 1993 model wherein he stepped up to take tacit responsibility for the behavior of his club and the image of his organization, then blame away. I don’t know if that’s fair, but the buck has to stop somewhere.

Which doesn’t tell us what it is we want from these Wilpons if a sale isn’t imminent or from their hypothetical buyers.

We want our team to win, naturally, but when they’re not doing that, we want to believe we’re not far from doing so.

We don’t want to be teased.

We don’t want to be let down.

We don’t want to be condescended to, I think.

We want to be listened to.

We want to be heard.

We want honesty.

We want hope until we can have results — but surely we want results.

We want value.

We want smarts.

We want good players.

We want likable players.

We want fun.

We want our collective interests taken to heart.

We want a lot.

We want what we want. We’re fans. We have an endless agenda when we’re not getting enough (or much) of what we want. We have no way of obtaining it for ourselves. That’s ultimately up to ownership. Ownership puts the baseball people in place. Ownership frames the business operations. Ownership is where the buck stops. We occasionally take out our firing frustrations on managers, general managers and club executives, but it is our owners who we expect to make things right as soon as possible and keep them right for as long as possible…with as few interruptions in service as possible.

That’s what we ask of the Wilpons as they begin their fourth decade running the Mets. Can we ever expect it?