By Mike Steffanos
When I was a teenager I had an itch to travel, despite the fact that I never had any money. I spent a lot of time hitchhiking around the country, and I met a wide variety of people in this manner. Most of were pretty nice, and fortunately none of them were really bad, but I met my share of unconventional and unusual souls.
One of the more interesting folks I ran into was a self-confessed con artist who picked me up one night in South Florida. I can't really attest to his level of skill in his chosen profession, but he was quite a talker and actually very entertaining as he spent several hours expounding on the fine points of separating suckers from their money.
At one point he was describing scamming some rich businessmen and I (in my youthful naiveté) expressed skepticism that people who were smart enough to make a lot of money would fall for what seemed to me to be rather obvious tricks. He laughed at my ignorance and assured me that they were actually rather easy marks. Despite their abundance of wealth they were always greedy for more, and they were used to winning while not necessarily playing by the rules. These were weaknesses that could easily be exploited.
The years have taught me the truth of what I heard that night. Avarice and a blind commitment to increasing wealth have led many of the rich folks we envy into financial ruin or jail, and always seem to be the root cause of every financial crisis. The Bernie Madoffs of the world are skilled at manipulating the greed of those who should be smart enough to know better, but often are not.
This is why I shook my head sadly last month when Fred Wilpon stood in front of reporters in Florida and assured all who listen that he and his family would be "vindicated." Here's Mr. Wilpon himself on the subject, as quoted in the NY Times:
"By vindication, I mean, No. 1, everybody will know we had nothing to do with it, and we didn't know anything about it, and we were duped," Wilpon said.
Watching that interview myself at the time, I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable in the same way that I had years earlier listening to then president Nixon insisting he wasn't a crook.
Don't get me wrong. Everything I have heard about Fred Wilpon over the years would indicate that he is a decent man, and I would doubt very much that he had any real foreknowledge of Madoff's Ponzi scheme. I believe him when he says that he and his family were deceived. I imagine it hurts him when some in the press insinuate otherwise.
On the other hand, vindication isn't a word that I would use to describe being proven foolish and greedy enough to be taken for millions of dollars over a period of years by a con artist. For a man like Fred Wilpon who built a personal fortune navigating the treacherous waters of Manhattan real estate, it seems almost inconceivable that he didn't question why Madoff's success rate was so much higher than legitimate competitors were achieving.
Madoff expertly exploited a personal friendship with Wilpons to insinuate himself do deeply into the business and personal finances of Wilpon, and I could feel sympathy for Fred and company in this manner. We've all experienced being let down by those who we thought were our friends, and that's always a deeply hurtful thing.
But you just can't blame friendship for a failure to follow smart business practices and utilize common sense. Friendship doesn't explain why Wilpon ignored warnings from smart people whose job it was to advise him that Madoff's success rate was literally too good to be true.
Only foolish greed explains why Fred Wilpon, a man who is by all counts smart, honorable and incredibly successful would allow a con artist to insinuate himself so deeply into his world. Whatever Wilpon winds up losing in the process -- his personal fortune, his reputation, perhaps his baseball team -- in his heart he should understand that he truly has no one to blame but himself. In the self-inflicted wounds department Fred is MLB's version of Charlie Sheen.
If Mr. Wilpon believes that vindication entails the legal system determining that he was Madoff's patsy rather than co-conspirator; he's likely to achieve this "victory". In fact, in preparation for this big moment I'm going to take up a collection for some t-shirts we'll send to Fred, Jeff, and Saul Katz for the celebration. They'll say "Duh! Vindicated!" on the front and "I'm with stupid" on the back. They're certain to become collector's items.
I'm not a Wilpon hater. I have occasionally defended him in this space when I thought the media was being unfair. Also, I could truly care less about the personal business of Fred Wilpon and his family. I have problems of my own.
One way that I briefly escape my own cares is my deep love of baseball and the Mets. Now I find myself bombarded on a daily basis with the sad details of Fred's financial folly. Every discussion of the Mets includes endless speculation of how Wilpon's finances will affect personnel decisions, and frankly I'm tired of that.
Even conceding the kindest interpretation of Wilpon's actions with Madoff over the years, they have still brought unfavorable scrutiny to all of his businesses, including the Mets. The Wilpon regime had become an embarrassment to both this team and baseball in general.
Fred Wilpon has been co-owner and then sole owner of a baseball team with a terrific fan base in the greatest city in the world for three decades. Under his watch, the Mets have exactly as many World Championships as the Royals, Orioles and A's -- one. The Twins, Marlins and Blue Jays, among others, have more.
And now his financial folly has created a situation where you can't follow the Mets without constantly being bombarded with the details of Wilpon's financial foolishness.
Moreover, the perception of the Mets as a blundering, bumbling organization grows stronger every year even while the owner and his son are seen in baseball as complicit meddlers in this atmosphere of failure. Perhaps some of this perception is unfair, but you have to believe there is some fire behind all of this smoke.
There is much speculation as to whether the Madoff situation will force the Wilpons into selling this team. I can't speak to that with any authority on that, and won't try.
If the Wilpons do manage to hold onto the club, I can only hope to see and hear much less of them in the coming years. Now that there finally seems to be a real management team in charge the Wilpons need to take a huge step back and let the baseball men run the team. We've seen and heard more than enough from them and about them.
Note: Sorry to make my first post back after so much time about the Wilpons, but their situation is truly the elephant in the room for the 2011 Mets.