The Wilpon Message: I'm Too Stupid To Have Known About Madoff
You all have New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon wrong.
Yes, his comments to the New Yorker magazine, in which he denigrates his primary assets -- his hapless baseball club and its few remaining star players not convalescing at a hospital -- do make the man seem like something of a jackass. But that's the point. What Wilpon is saying is what any casual baseball fan already knows: He's an idiot. He's so much of an idiot that it really is possible to believe that he socialized with Bernie Madoff and his entire family for years while Madoff managed his money and had no inkling that the profits were less than kosher. This is the subtext of the current Wilpon story that is now titillating much of the sports and financial worlds.
For those of you who need a little catching up, Fred Wilpon is a real estate guy from Long Island who -- unfortunately for those of us who suffer the ceaseless misfortunes of the New York Mets as personal events -- has run the Mets since 1980. In recent years, Wilpon has been locked in a morbid, albeit entertaining competition with Jimmy Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks, for claim to the title of The Stupidest Man in New York. Dolan seemed to have that one locked up for good, thanks to a series of hopelessly inept moves: paying tens of millions of dollars to players who pretty much never played, then defending his basketball chief, Isiah Thomas, from ugly sexual harassment charges (before eventually settling them) and THEN letting it leak that Isiah might come back for another stint -- the equivalent of, say, digging of General Custer's body and sending him to Afghanistan to oversee the troops there.
But then came a game campaign from Wilpon to get back in the race, aided by his Long Island comrade-in-arms, Bernie Madoff. As news filtered out that Wilpon had been a major investor in Madoff's funds, the baseball world absorbed the implications of the Mets owner suddenly discovering that he was short to the tune of tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars. Surely, this would spill out onto the field.
The Mets are reliably major participants in the annual free agent sweepstakes, when they throw scads of money at whatever flawed but available player super agent Scott Boras has managed to transform into Babe Ruth that year in a futile effort to compensate for the previous year's embarrassing disappointment.
The new post-Madoff Mets would no longer have the kind of dough to play that game, Indeed, in the free agent festivities that unfolded before this current season, the Mets, if memory serves, signed a third string catcher, added an outfielder so poor he was discarded by the Washington Nationals and re-signed a pitcher whose throwing arm is missing something called the ulnar nerve. They might as well have thrown up a banner around Citi Field, the unfortunately named park where they play, declaring: "WHAT THE HELL, IT'S ONLY A GAME."
For a time, here was the narrative at work in the tabloid press that dominates the New York sporting scene: The Mets owners gave their money to Madoff, who stole it. Now, the team would suck even more than usual. In short, Wilpon played the victim, with fans absorbing the collateral damage.
But that story changed earlier this year as the seal was lifted on a federal lawsuit filed against Wilpon and his longtime partner, Saul Katz. Irving Picard, the trustee tasked with recouping the gobs of money that Madoff stole from credulous rich people, argued that, far from a victim, Wilpon was part of the con.
The Wilpons and Madoff went on vacations together. They dined together. Their sons had hung out since high school. Could Wilpon have known his pal was a crook? And how could he have received a steady stream of winnings and not asked some basic questions about its provenance? The lawsuit injected all of these questions into the conversation.
For Wilpon, the imperative became clear: Prove to the world as expeditiously as possible that he is a man with a stunning capacity to fail to take heed of ample warning signs.
Recall that the day Wilpon fired back a legal response to Picard's assertions that he was a Madoff accomplice was the very same same day that the Mets cut perhaps their most abominable free agent signing (and Boras client), Oliver Perez. Perez, a Mexican lefthander, possessed what is known in baseball as incredible stuff. He had a nasty slider, an elusive curve, a powerful fastball. Alas, he suffered from some sort of mental condition that prevented him from getting much of said stuff in the strike zone. What stuff got near the plate had a tendency to land very far away, as the hitter circled the bases triumphantly. An Ollie Perez game was the source of deep anxiety among the Met faithful. Each time he took the ball seemed to offer the possibility that something never before seen might happen, a self-immolation on the mound, perhaps.
All of this was known to observers of the game before the Mets handed Perez a three-year, $36 million guaranteed contract before the 2009 season. All of this became better known in the years that followed. Indeed, Perez was so awful and so perplexing that the Mets finally just said goodbye to him this spring, before the season began. They paid him the $12 million he was owed on his last season and sent him away.
And they did this, swallowed $12 million on a wholesale failure, the SAME DAY they filed court papers saying they had not known about Madoff's shenanigans. Surely, the subtext was not hard to divine: "Oh yeah, Picard. You think we were in on it with Madoff? You think we we knew? We didn't even know enough not sign Ollie Perez!"
So it goes with the latest seeming act of self-destruction from Wilpon, his interview to the crafty New Yorker writer (and Met fan!) Jeffrey Toobin. Wilpon finds himself desperately having to sell off a slice of the Mets to raise funds. His general manager, Sandy Alderson, must decide whether to trade off the last remaining players of value (two of them in their last year under contract), collecting some prospects in exchange so he can rebuild.
And what does Wilpon tell Toobin? The shortstop, Jose Reyes -- now actually having a terrific year -- is constantly injured and not worth the money he will demand. The outfielder, Carlos Beltran, is a huge disappointment who has little left in the tank. The face of the franchise, David Wright, is a nice man and a decent player but "not a superstar."
Much of New York is now calling for scalps. In the New York Post, Mike Vaccaro has penned this: "A Plea to Wilpon: Sell Mets Now." In the Daily News, Mike Lupica likens to Wilpon to the late Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner, who had a famous penchant for saying terrible things (though also one for winning.) Indeed, what Wilpon did in denigrating his players was the equivalent of putting your house on the market, then standing outside to tell everyone who passes by that the place is infested with bed bugs.
But that seems to be the very point. Wilpon is no longer just a baseball owner. He's a man desperately trying to avoid handing over what little remains of his fortune to Picard. (He would rather hand over Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. Maybe they could spend the rest of their careers entertaining Bar Mitzvah parties at the Long Island synagogues whose congregations Madoff fleeced?)
Here again is the real meaning of Wilpon's otherwise disastrous interview with Toobin: If there is one thing he ought to be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt in a courtroom, on a baseball field -- or anywhere else for that matter -- it's his boundless capacity to not know all sorts of important things.