Monday, May 23, 2011

Fred Wilpon finds his inner Col. Jessup, and we can't handle the truth

Think back to just over a month ago, when reaching .500 seemed as likely as Irving Picard being invited to throw out the first pitch at Citi Field.

The Mets were in freefall. Losers of five, six, then seven games in a row. Worst record in baseball. Left for dead by just about everyone in the media, locally or nationally, and by many fans as well.

Making mistakes. Looking awful. Not playing the game "the right way," as manager Terry Collins had promised.

Think about how you felt as a Mets fan. Was there any confidence? Any joy? Any optimism? In my case, there wasn't so much optimism as there was faint hope mixed with the knowledge that the season was far from over.

"But it's only April. There are five months of baseball left. Is that good or bad?"

I wrote that in a post after the Mets dropped a 4-3 decision on April 20 to the Astros, a loss that sunk their home record to a dismal 1-8. It was the final loss in a 2-12 stretch that marked the nadir of the Mets' young season.

It was also the night that Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker accompanied Fred Wilpon to a Mets game.

Toobin was working on a piece that would come out just over a month later, a 10,000-word exploration of Wilpon, Saul Katz, Sterling Enterprises, Bernie Madoff and the billion-dollar lawsuit filed by Picard.

The article portrays Wilpon and Katz positively in many ways. They are well-regarded personally and professionally. They are charitable. They are family men. They are self-made success stories who seem like regular guys who worked hard and earned everything that came to them, who went on to do something most baseball fans can only dream about: Own a major league team.

Certainly Wilpon knew who Toobin was and what kind of piece he was working on. Wilpon needed all the help he could get, and a piece that supported the contention that Wilpon and Katz — two "real estate guys" whose investing experience was not much more than trusting someone close to them — knew nothing about Madoff's Ponzi scheme in a magazine like The New Yorker was good press.

And granting Toobin access to the owner's box during a game must have seemed like a good opportunity to show Toobin that while he was the owner, he was at his core a fan, as die-hard as the folks wearing WRIGHT and REYES jerseys in the seats below.

Take what Wilpon said without attribution and it could pass as something almost any Mets fan could have uttered. Should Reyes get Crawford money? Not with his injury history. Is Wright a good kid, a great player, but not a superstar? With his rising strikeout totals and frequent slumps, you could make the argument. That Beltran was 70 percent of what he once was? Duh.

I know what you're thinking. He's the owner. He can't say that, even if it's true and he really believes it. Where are his PR people? What was he thinking?

Maybe he wasn't thinking. Maybe he was. Knowing Beltran wasn't coming back next year (and possibly leaving before that), he had no trouble lamenting the checked strike three against the Cardinals in 2006. (Wilpon seems bitter over Beltran's recent injury history, and possibly over his lengthy recovery last season and then poor performance once he finally came back. And that strikeout against Adam Wainwright clearly still stings, as it does for every Mets fan.) Maybe he wanted to downgrade Reyes and Wright because he wants to keep them but doesn't want the price to go up any higher.

But maybe, given the state of the Mets on April 20, Wilpon wanted to send a message. Like Colonel Jessup in "A Few Good Men," who in his heart wanted people to know he made a command decision and ordered the code red, Wilpon wanted people to know that he was pissed off at how the team was performing. And if that meant tweaking Reyes (who at the time was hitting one-something with runners in scoring position) or Wright (who was in yet another slump) or Beltran (who at the time hadn't shown he could play every day, which he soon would), then so be it.

Again, remember the timing. Do you think if Toobin came to the Mets game on May 19 — a 1-0 win over the Nationals, the team's second straight shutout win, a victory that moved the team to within a game of .500 — that Wilpon would have had anything bad to say about Reyes, who was leading the league in hits and lighting up Citi Field again? Or about Wright, who we now know was playing a month with a broken back? Or Beltran, who was showing remarkable health and consistency, which other teams would almost certainly be looking for? Do you really think he would say that Ike Davis is a great player on a shitty team?

No. Way.

But on April 20, with a writer from The New Yorker at his side, his Mets were playing like crap. So he let fly.

As for the reaction to the story, it was typical. No one quoted the line from Wilpon when he described Reyes as "a racehorse," which is a compliment. Instead, most headlines were along the lines of "Wilpon Rips Reyes." Really?

And then there was Adam Rubin of ESPN. My doctor has advised me not to read Rubin's Mets coverage because I take everything he says with so many grains of salt, I get hypertension. The guy has one of the biggest axes to grind with this organization, it is almost comical that he still covers the team. Could Rubin be a good reporter? Sure. Just go cover a team that you don't personally want (or need) to bury at every turn. Please.

Funny how of all the reactions to Toobin's story, the one I found I agreed with almost completely was by (gulp) Mike Francesa, who basically said that Mets fans want Wilpon to show that he cares, and then when he does, and says things that recall the days of George Steinbrenner, people get their knickers in a twist.

Wilpon, who posed for a photo for the magazine with Reyes, Wright, Bay and Collins, had no comment. It should be noted that The New Yorker had a fact checker run all the quotes by him and they all stayed in the story. Toobin himself said that Wilpon was a "stand-up guy."

Maybe this is just another lesson in accountability, a word we've heard a lot lately in reference to Collins and how it has helped the team manage to claw its way back to break-even despite so many injuries. Wilpon said what he said at a time when he felt the need to say it, and he's not denying it now.

If the players don't like it, that's fine. Prove him wrong. Play with a chip on your shoulder.

That's what a Brooklyn boy would do.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Fred Wilpon's assessment of his players. I love the passion he evinces. It reassures me that the owner of this team is as haunted by the end of the 2006 NLCS as I am. But the manner in which I learned all this smacks of the sloppiness and inattention to detail that has vexed this team in recent years.