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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Why I'd Own a Team

Before the latest round of Wilpon news erupted, I had been thinking about owning a baseball team. I don’t mean that in the “I had some spare zillions lying around and was looking to buy one,” but rather why people (very rich people) would do it. Usually owners come to the fore when there’s bad news or big decisions at hand. For example, when an owner starts meddling in the purview that is usually left to the GM or manager, it’s not unusual to hear a fan say, “Well, if I owned the team, I’d do whatever I wanted. After all, it’s my team!”

Sort of makes sense, sort of doesn’t for reasons that are pretty obvious. Yes, if you own the team, you can indeed do whatever you want, so if you think your roster needs another pitcher, or that there’s too much bunting being strategized in the dugout, it’s technically your call. But with rare exception, that sounds like a good way to make an organizational mess.

I think I’d own a team for one reason — to buy happiness. This is assuming I had enough money to buy what is commonly believed unbuyable. But I’m pretty sure that’s what people with loads of money tell the rest of us. Of course we can buy happiness, or at least purchase items that figure to make us happy…though from what I can tell, the Mets don’t make the Wilpons very happy. But that’s probably because we never see them in situations where happiness is the appropriate emotion to exude.

They’re firing a manager, they’re not happy. They’re firing a general manager, they’re not happy. They’re hiring replacements, the best they can put forth is a mix of concern and determination. They announce they’re building a new ballpark, they seem less happy than pleased with themselves. And when they have to explain, via conference call, that unfortunate circumstances have them looking for a buyer to pick up a minority share that they’ve never shown an inkling to sell, they don’t sound at all thrilled.

It’s not easy owning the Mets, apparently, and the owners seeming so unhappy whenever they make a public appearance wouldn’t figure to be much of an advertisement if you’re attempting to sell a stake in the New York National League franchise. Yet I have come across evidence that owning a baseball team can make a rich person practically ooze happiness.

Last week, I spent a little time in proximity to the current owner of the former New York National League franchise, known since 1958 as the San Francisco Giants, and known since November 1 as the world champion San Francisco Giants. Bill Neukom was in Manhattan on a goodwill mission. He brought the trophy the Giants earned in the 2010 World Series and the legend one of his predecessors stole following the 1957 season. Neither the trophy nor the legendary Willie Mays were back in New York for keeps, but Neukom and his people thought it would be a great thing to make both available to interested parties for a couple of midwinter days.

Neukom and his people were right. The trophy was a welcome sight to New Yorkers who, for one reason or another, still root for the Giants. That didn’t include me, but Willie Mays is another story. Willie Mays has always been another story where New York baseball is concerned. Willie Mays is, among other things, the link that allows the owner of a team that hasn’t played home games at 8th Avenue between 155th and 157th Streets in more than 53 years to bring his entourage and championship bauble back to the scene of sublime.

One week ago, Willie wowed an auditorium of Harlem schoolkids who go to class almost exactly on the spot where the Giants played home games for generations. Never mind that the Polo Grounds were torn down in 1964. Never mind that the children who composed his audience — and, for that matter, their parents — were too young to have seen Mays play any of his career, even the last two years of it (1972-73) as a New York Met. He’s Willie Mays, he was the best player the Polo Grounds ever housed, and in the context of his visit last week to P.S. 46, he not only was another story, he had another story.

Mays, the kids had learned, not only played baseball right there, he lived right around the corner. Those famous pictures of him swinging a stickball bat weren’t a PR stunt. That was what he did when he wasn’t taking on the National League as a legend-in-the-making. Kids would come to his door on St. Nicholas Place and ask Willie to join them in their game; Willie would say yes. I’d say “imagine that,” except you don’t have to. It really happened, and a bunch of kids in the 21st century got to hear about it first-hand. Talk about an enduring legacy. Mays was adopted by Harlem in 1951 and as he told the students of P.S. 46 (who had studied his life as part of a schoolwide project), he never stopped thinking of that neighborhood as his home.

Bill Neukom’s the man who brought him home. Brought Willie, brought the trophy, brought a ton of goodwill and brought an aura of genuine happiness to P.S. 46. The Giants owner, terrifically tweedy and resplendent in his trademark bowtie, didn’t try to compete with Willie in that auditorium, but reporters and the like found him in the front row when Willie’s talk was done. It wasn’t hard to spot the bowtie, or the beaming face.

Something struck me as I listened in on the tail end of his informal Q&A — nobody was “handling” Neukom, who made his zillions as a lawyer for Microsoft. He was standing around, talking about how wonderful all this was as if he was a person and those talking to him were other people. Processing this kind of approachability as something I wasn’t hallucinating, I decided to be a person about it myself and go up to him when the small knot of inquiring minds broke up.

And there I was, just chatting with the owner of a Major League Baseball franchise. It wasn’t anything official (I didn’t introduce myself as quasi-media) and it wasn’t anything deep. I simply communicated to him the one overriding observation I had formed in the preceding minutes.

“You must be having the time of your life.”

He was, he said. And it showed. Neukom — who, by the by, used to be a minority stakeholder in the team he now runs — spoke softly about feeling “humbled” by the reaction to the winning the World Series and the excitement that the Giants’ trophy tour had wrought in Northern California. The opportunity to come to New York and connect with those who remained Giants fans despite the transcontinental distance involved meant a lot to him. Neukom, as well as team president Larry Baer, were very careful and respectful about treading on the reigning local teams’ physical territory, even in January, even for something as harmless as a trophy exhibition. Baer said the Giants sought and were granted permission from the Mets (and Yankees) about bringing their act to New York. And Neukom wasn’t exactly trying to raid Manhattan for fans. This came off as an almost spiritual journey for the Giants, and Neukom was very happy to be giving his franchise’s history its due.

Caught up in the moment, perhaps, and because I was merely quasi-media (my Mets hoodie may have been visible underneath my winter coat), I was compelled to editorialize, and told the owner of the San Francisco Giants, “You do this stuff much better than the Mets do.” I meant the reaching out and caring about the past and understanding how it’s a platform for the present and future (not winning a World Series trophy, though that, too).

“Thank you,” Neukom responded. “That really means a lot.”

I saw Bill, Willie, their trophy and the rest of the San Francisco traveling party again the next morning. The occasion involved, you might say, the demographic polar opposite of meeting elementary school children and sharing a piece of the New York Giants legacy with them. This audience was mainly old-time Giants fans, the loyal and — if you ask me — incredibly forgiving folks who stuck by the Giants for more than a half-century despite the Giants abandoning them. That crime against baseball humanity was Horace Stoneham’s doing (with an assist from the diabolical Walter O’Malley), so I guess you can’t blame Neukom, who’s three owners removed from 1957, for there being San Francisco Giants.

If he couldn’t bring a bunch of seniors their baseball team where they fell in love with it — moving the Giants back to the PG is off the table — he did the next best thing last Saturday. Neukom set up members of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society (to which I belong as something of a latter-day fetishist) in a ballroom at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue with the following makegood:

• Willie Mays

• Buster Posey

• Joey Amalfitano

• Brian Sabean

• the World Series trophy

• continental breakfast, even

The bottom line from this act of black-and-orange generosity was an hour-plus of story-telling and marveling and mouths hanging open. I mean, c’mon, Willie Mays was in the room — could you avoid being agape? When it was announced each group member would be handed a copy of Willie’s authorized biography, and that Willie would autograph it…I’d plot it for you on a graph of some sort, but, really, it was off the charts.

You know how much it cost to get into that ballroom? Nothing of a monetary nature. The Giants were doing this because they knew New York Giants fans existed and congregated on a regular basis and that most of them continued their allegiance as San Francisco Giants fans. Neukom gave a little talk in which he tipped his cap to the Giants’ roots, how everything they are in San Francisco was built upon what took place in New York from 1883 through 1957, and how all he wanted was for the Giants fans in the room to keep it going: bring your kids and grandkids into the fold; bring your friends and neighbors, too.

OK, maybe technically he was recruiting on nominal Met soil by then, but I couldn’t blame him. Neukom, Baer and their staff had come to New York ostensibly for the Baseball Writers dinner that night. They could have flown in and flown out as one presumes others who swing by to pick up awards do. But they spread baseball cheer in January. There isn’t a lot of revenue to be harvested from stopping off at a school in Harlem, but Neukom’s team did that. The Polo Grounds vets invited into that Hilton ballroom aren’t going to suddenly order a ton more merchandise or plan cross-country trips to AT&T Park, but Neukom’s team gave them a great big thank you for hanging in there practically forever. The Giants would go on and display their trophy for long lines of San Fran expatriates and other Giant diehards twice last Saturday — other than the pride of saying “we won, we’re happy, we’re happy this makes you happy, this is for you, too,” there was nothing tangible to be gained from it. But Bill Neukom and his people did it anyway.

What a great reason to own a team.

I wrote two pieces for ESPN New York about the Giants revisiting their old borough last weekend. If so inclined, you can find them here and here.

And if you were wondering what to do on your next snow day, take a cue from Bruce Slutsky and grab a copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets.

25 comments to Why I’d Own a Team

  • Inside Pitcher

    Kudos Greg. And I’m thrilled for you that you had such a wonderful experience :)

  • 5w30

    I’m passing around this electronically to just about every baseball fan I know. The New York Baseball Giants did retake Manhattan for a short moment last week, and you’re right. You’re right about Bill Neukom. Pure joy, much like stories of the younger Mays when he broke into the big leagues. Sheer, unadulterated pride and happiness.
    Would any brand of a Wilpon become instantly happy a la Dr. Seuss’ Grinch if the Metsies won a World Championship under their ownership? Hard to say.

    • One guy’s got a trophy, the other guy’s got problems. Not exactly equivalent circumstances by which to judge. But it struck me that I saw more joy out of Neukom in a few minutes than I’ve ever seen emanating from Flushing, even in the good times. One of the links above will take you to an interview with Neukom in which he talks about having been a Giants fan all his life. Have you ever gotten the sense that fandom comes into play with the Mets owners? Mets fandom, I mean?

      • Have you ever gotten the sense that fandom comes into play with the Mets owners? Mets fandom, I mean?

        If we go any further down this Madoff rabbit hole, we’ll most certainly get our answer. And, to be perfectly honest, I’d rather not find out this way.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by 5w30, Greg Prince. Greg Prince said: Why I'd own a baseball team. #Mets #Giants http://wp.me/pKvXu-20U […]

  • “I think I’d own a team for one reason — to buy happiness. This is assuming I had enough money to buy what is commonly believed unbuyable.”

    Classic, brilliant lines.

  • Brilliant as always, Mr. Prince.

    As for the Wilpon thing, I’m still not sure if this is good news or not.

  • Tom in Sunnyside

    I just wonder who would want to pony up the cash, individually or as a group, to be a 25% owner with the Wilpons owning the other 75% and having complete control. That is, without buying that 25% at a significant discount to the franchise’s real value, all sorts of covenants and first shot at buying the next 26%.

    • One assumes if you’re going to hand the Wilpons upwards of $100 mil that you have certain rights written in. Newsday.com reprinted a 1990 piece praising Fred to the hilt and one of his things was getting input from everybody on a given project in all his businesses. That was 21 years ago, but one assumes a certain collegiality still reigns.

      Like I said, Neukom was a minority owner once. One never knows where a presence (and covenants) might lead.

  • Joe D.

    Greg,

    Thanks so much always sharing with us these wonderful experiences which most of us don’t have the opportunity to participate in.

    I think one would feel more sincerity coming from the late George Steinbrenner, who definitely owned the team for fun and joy (and, of course, profit) than the Wilpons who own the team for the fun of making profit. The Boss, agree with him or not, was open and honest whereas we know everything said by Met ownership is scripted and full of bull.

    • I’ll play Wilpon’s Advocate to a certain degree here, Joe, and suggest Fred was never dying to be out front and has never been comfortable as a public figure. And if they’re scripting, they’re not proofreading carefully.

      They’re not the most sympathetic sorts from a distance, but I’ve never had it in me, as a fan, to dislike the Wilpons. I think they mean well, in their own way. I just don’t think it’s translated fully to results.

      • Joe D.

        Hi Greg,

        I never felt like a second class citizen until my first visit to Citi Field when being restricted from most entrances and having to take a staircase to finish our trek to the upper promenade when those with money are instead greeted with handshakes at the gate.

        I’ll never see left field from the third base side of that level since building an expensive restaurant in left was more important than providing fans in the upper deck a complete view of the field. Then management first says people were over reacting by not being used to sitting in the outfield and this was normal for most ballparks. I don’t consider 20 feet past third base as an outfield seat.

        I don’t consider outfield walls with slants and varying heights along with infield seats that jut out to change the direction of a ball hit down the line by a 90 degree angle as “excitement” (the exact word Jeff Wilpon used) but a gimmick to stimulate more interest in the park and thus an insult to fan intelligence and little consideration to the players who could suffer serious injury.

        This has nothing to do about being out front but rather controlling from the front.

        Of course, I don’t know them personally so there is no way to like or dislike them on a personal level. This also has nothing to do with the success or failure of the team on the field, for they have (up to now) spent the money. It’s because they demonstrate a lack of concern for the fan without the big pocket book that gets my ire and that is something they brought upon themselves.

        • I don’t really disagree that the Wilpons have proven themselves generally misguided, tone-deaf and poor planners. I’m just saying I don’t think they’re venal.

          • Joe D.

            Agree with you Greg, they are not corrupt individuals but regarding the operation of their ballclub and it’s relationship to the fans, they haven’t shown much as far as integrity and sincerity is concerned. When they make it where I can see Jason Bay going to his right, where we can chose where we want to enter, lower the prices, have fans from the upper deck come down to throw out the first pitch a couple of times and don’t fire managers in the manner they did Willie Randolph, then maybe I’ll change my mind.

  • Dave

    Nice job, Greg. “You do this better than the Wilpons” is not necessarily the biggest compliment one can give (kind of like telling a supermodel that she’s prettier than Ernest Borgnine), but it does hit the nail on the head.

  • WalterA98

    Greg,

    Another great article. Concerning why the Wilpons are eagerly looking for a strategic partner that is willing to buy up to 25% of the team, the bottom line is that the Wilpons are looking to settle the lawsuit with Picard. The roughly $250 million from the minority sale would go towards the settlement. This means that the Wilpons are BROKE as anything. Now, concerning your article I would like to add a few things IF I OWNED the Mets the things that I would do:

    1. Get rid of the ugly black jerseys, black and blue hats and the Dodgers-looking uniforms. I would only use the traditional pinstripes at home and gray at home, all with the beautiful blue caps with orange stitching.

    2. Rename Citi Field. Rename it Metropolitans Park.

    3. Rename the “Jackie Robinson Rotunda” and call it the “Shea Rotunda.” Get rid of any Dodgers stuff.

    4. Employ a Mets Jazz Band (like the one they had in the 70s) that welcome all patrons as they enter the Shea Rotunda. This band would also play throughout the aisles during the games.

    5. Add markings throughput the parking area where Shea Stadium once stood where memorable Mets moments occurred (Swoboda’s Catch, Buckner’s Position, Jones Position, etc).

    6. Bring back Banner Day.

    7. Tell the Yankees “we are taking back New York.”

  • Do you think they’d bend the rules this once and let this Neukom fellow own 25% of the Mets? Sounds like he’s a lot more Payson than Wilpon. And that continental breakfast with Buster Posey would have cost you $300 or $30,000 in season ticket spending if someone else we know had put it together. And there’d be no championship trophy as a guest of honor.

    • Syndicate baseball in the 21st century: We could become a happier version of the Cleveland Spiders.

      As far as the price of entry, I have a sense that if a trophy somehow fell into Met hands, there would be some kind of surcharge or it would be made a perk. “The Excelsior Glimpse,” perhaps.

  • Mets adhd

    Too bad MLB won’t let us fans buy the team a la the Packers.
    They are afraid to let us know how very rich the teams are.

    • Jacobs27

      I was thinking along the same lines when the Packers won and the Wilpons continued to find new meanings for the word ‘lose’.

      Imagine if we New Yorkers owned the Mets? Hard to imagine that not being an improvement on this…