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Why I’d Own a Team

Before the latest round of Wilpon news [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4]. 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 [5] 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 [6]. 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 [7] 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 [8] 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 [9], 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 [10], 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 [11] 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 [12]and here [13].

And if you were wondering what to do on your next snow day, take a cue from Bruce Slutsky [14] and grab a copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets [15].