No, We're Not Being Unfair to the Wilpons

A scene from the Wilpon's
Going Away Party
When I wrote my post "Look Back in Anger" a week ago, I knew that someone in the media would be coming out with the take that fans were being unfair to Fred and Jeff Wilpon by heaping the lion's share of the blame on them for the poor results of the franchise under their watch. I thought it might take a few months or at least a few weeks for this to appear, but I seriously underestimated. The rotted corpse of the 2020 season wasn't even cold yet when it happened.

Congratulations to those of you out there who had David Waldstein of the New York Times in the pool for who would be the first in print to scold Mets fans for this sin. Waldstein begins his piece with a moving story about how Fred Wilpon and David Sheehan, a lawyer who worked to get Wilpon and the Mets to repay some of the alleged Madoff profits, eventually became friends. It was so lovely, I had to read it through tears. After quoting the Sheehan on how gracious Wilpon was, Waldstein summed up:
Perhaps decades of withering criticism from fans and news media members over how he ran the Mets - some of it fair, some not - had inured Wilpon to public attacks. But no booing could have been worse than that bruising litigation and the staggering financial losses suffered in the Madoff scandal, which almost cost Wilpon and Katz ownership of their beloved team.
Look, it's not that I've never read or heard criticism of Wilpon that was unfair, but Waldstein's wording, "some of it fair, some not", presents it like there was somehow an equal amount of fair and unfair criticism. Sorry, but that really is a false equivalency. You don't run a large market club with as little success as Fred Wilpon did without richly earning the vast majority of criticism directed your way.

I remember back in the early days of my blog, back in 2005-2006, I felt that it was unfair that some people accused the Wilpons of being cheap. Madoff cash was still pouring in, and they were actually spending money back then on payroll. The club was being horribly managed, however, and there were items written during that period that accused Fred and Jeff of too much meddling in the day to day affairs of the Mets. Those calls were coming from inside the house, it was one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball that ownership made the Mets a terrible organization for which to work. The best people chose to work elsewhere, or left the Mets when an opportunity to leave came up.

The problem with the way the Mets were run long predate the Madoff affair, but Waldstein chooses to ignore all of that:
But if the Madoff scandal had never happened, the entire Wilpon-Katz era would probably have a different feel to it, and perhaps not be ending so soon.
As "proof" of this thesis, Waldstein offers up a quote from notorious Wilpon crony Bud Selig, whose behind-the-scene machinations allowed Wilpon to keep control for a decade after his own incompetence should have forced him to sell:
"I believe things would have been different. But you know, in many ways you also have to be lucky in life, and that was some pretty bad luck."
Okay, let's address Selig's quote. Fred Wilpon had enough smarts to become very rich in commercial real estate development in New York, one of the most competitive markets in the world. Yet somehow he never questioned the extraordinary returns he was getting from his Madoff investments, far beyond anything anyone else was producing. Madoff got away with his scheme for as long as he did because of how little regulation truly existed in that time in the financial industry, but people had been questioning his uncanny results for years. Basically, those returns were literally too good to be true. But Wilpon was so dependent on that money to run the Mets that he not only turned a blind eye to it, but doubled down by investing more heavily with Madoff.

So, is it bad luck to blindly to invest so much money in the same place, without even questioning the extraordinary returns? Because, quite frankly, it feels more like willful ignorance to me.

Now, if you and I had made the same mistake, there would be nobody looking to bail us out. I've known financial setbacks in my life, and I paid dearly for my personal mistakes. But I owned up when I screwed up, accepted the consequences and worked hard to get out from under them. I absorbed those hard lessons and tried to learn from them. I didn't asked anyone to feel sorry for me, and I've never used bad luck as a synonym for poor judgement.

Okay, here's a paragraph in Waldstein's piece that particularly rubbed me the wrong way:
But in the 19 seasons since the group bought out Doubleday, the Mets made the postseason just three times, and fans grew weary of its reign. Whether it was because they could not, or would not, spend more money on top players, many fans vilified the owners, particularly the Wilpon duo, for the team's failures.
I mean, freaking seriously? Show of hands, how many of you reading this believe that our only fault with the Wilpons was that they failed to spend enough money on players in the last few seasons? Yeah, me neither. The issue is very much NOT that the Wilpons were tight with the purse strings over the last decade. That is a immense oversimplification of the problem that many of us have had with ownership.

The Wilpons could have chosen to go into several different directions after Madoff. What they never did was to figure out a realistic budget and hire someone really smart to gameplan how best to go forward under that budget. There are teams in markets much smaller than New York that have enjoyed much more success than the Mets have. Better judgements would have led to more success, which in turn would have eventually brought in more revenue, which would have allowed more spending organically. Some people would have still complained, of course, but it's a lot harder to argue with good management and the resulting success.

What the Wilpons chose to do was to obfuscate the depth of their financial distress, boldly proclaim that it had no effect on the budget or payroll, and worried more about selling tickets and blowing smoke up everyone's rear ends. The end result was that the club charted an erratic course that tried to navigate a middle path that shot for mediocrity and often fell short of even that. It was ultimately a road to nowhere, as the almost unimaginably poor results clearly demonstrated. By all accounts, even the front office regimes of Sandy Alderson and Brodie Van Wagenen were never given clear, definitive spending guidelines from which to operate.

Tim Britton had a piece in The Athletic yesterday that I felt offered a reasonable summary of how thoughtful fans look at Wilpon's tenure, and why we're not in a hurry to shower forgiveness on Fred Wilpon:
Fred and Jeff Wilpon oversaw a culture of micromanagement heavy on scapegoating and light on accountability or transparency. They intervened in every aspect of the major-league team's day-to-day operations... They remained willfully opaque about the state of the franchise’s finances, not merely to the public but also to their own front office, which often operated without knowing the parameters of the club’s budget. The front office had to conduct offseasons on two parallel mental tracks: what the team should do to improve, and what the team would be permitted to do to improve. The result was a succession of teams seemingly built to win 84 games.
The Wilpons thus made it nearly impossible to properly evaluate their executives’ performance, as GMs had to manage up at least as much as they managed down. Jeff Wilpon has made explicit in recent years what has long been understood: Every personnel move went through him.
The Wilpons alienated those closest to the organization - be it long-time minor-league affiliates, devoted alumni or one of the most passionate fan bases in sports.
The line that really rung home for me was noting the "succession of teams seemingly built to win 84 games." It seemed like the main objective was to convince us fans that our team could be competitive rather than attempting to build the best club that resources would allow. If there is one thing that I believe damns the Wilpons more than any other, it is that. I don't care how much Fred Wilpon is anecdotally acknowledged to love the Mets, his desperate attempt to hold onto the club doomed it to be exactly what it was most of the time, a cheaply spackled-over pretender rather than a well-designed contender.

By all accounts Fred Wilpon is someone that most people who know him consider to be an agreeably likeable human being. While Jeff Wilpon doesn't have that kind of a reputation, I'm sure that you might like him as long as you didn't have to work under him. I don't wish ill for either one of them, but I won't excuse them for just how dismally deficient their stewardship of this franchise was. You could have picked some other wealthy individual at random, and gave that person control of the New York Mets in 1986, the year that Fred Wilpon became partners with Nelson Doubleday. The odds are pretty darned good that the results would have turned out better, because you'd almost have to try to do worse.

I try to maintain some perspective on things that I am passionate about, including my lifelong fandom of the New York Mets. The dire events of 2020 clearly demonstrate the difference between the letdown caused by your team playing terribly and true tragedy. So, as much as I am resentful of how badly Fred and Jeff ran the team that I love, I don't hate them, nor do I wish anything bad to happen to either of them. But that doesn't excuse them for doing a demonstrably terrible job. And I feel no compulsion to forgive them or let them off the hook for how awful they were.

If you or I did as poorly at our jobs as Fred and Jeff have performed in running this club, we would have been fired a very long time ago. Nobody would feel the need to make excuses for us. This slow motion train wreck has been going on for decades, way too long to ascribe it to "bad luck."
When I need to form a fair judgement on someone, I always try to put myself in their shoes. I imagine myself as someone with enough money to purchase the baseball team that I love. Would I have attempted to have a lot of input on the direction my club was going to go? Could that even have translated in me being too involved, at least for a time? Of course. Anyone could be forgiven for taking some missteps based on caring too much.

But at some point I would have needed to take a step back, look at the poor results, and question what was my own culpability in those bad outcomes. I would need to have someone whose opinion I trusted advise me on what I was doing wrong. I would then need to be humble enough to be willing to admit my mistakes and change my course. Trust me, my personal journey has been filled with many examples of exactly that. But Fred Wilpon never seemed to do that, did he?

Again putting myself in Fred's shoes, I have to believe that people tried to explain to him what a disruptive force Jeff had become in the club's front office. I can't blame a man for loving his son and being somewhat blind to his son's faults. But, if it was me, at some point I needed to recognize what was happening and take steps to change the responsibilities of that son to alleviate the problems. By all accounts, this is something Fred Wilpon never did.

Anyone can make mistakes, but when the same mistakes keep being made over several decades it's simply not bad luck. It's incredibly bad judgement, indicative of larger problems including a good dose of arrogance. If I was the person guilty of that blind, willful arrogance and never addressed my own shortcomings and culpability in the matter, you'd be right not to forgive me for what that cost the team you love.

Fred Wilpon didn't create baseball. It was Joan Payson, a couple of decades before Fred came into the picture, who was the person responsible for bringing National League baseball back to New York. Fred's money allowed him to buy into and eventually control the New York Mets, with it's existing large fan base and all that came along with it. Nobody begrudges him for any money he made from owning the club. All we asked of the man was that he'd be a responsible steward of all that he inherited, and he fell far short of that goal.

If Fred Wilpon looked at his situation when Madoff crippled his finances and made an adult decision to sell for the good of the franchise, there would be a far better opinion of him among the vast majority of fans. If he kept the club but was humble and realistic about the finances, insisting that the club be run in the most efficient manner under realistic parameters, the Mets would have undoubtedly done better this past decade. He might have even kept control of the club without completely alienating the fanbase. If he had effectively reigned in the worst excesses of his son, he might have had better people working for him. Better decisions would have been made, and we might be in a very different place right now. A far better place for both the owner and all of us who love the New York Mets.

I almost certainly will not write another long post on the Wilpons again, even though Mr. Waldstein's piece won't be the last one attempting to excuse their utter failures. I think I finally got all of this off my chest, and prefer to look forward from here on. If there is one true gift the close of the Wilpon era has given us, it's the ability to look ahead with genuine hope that this all will get better.

As a result of this, Steve Cohen is enjoying an almost complete honeymoon with Mets fans currently. I'm sure that he well understands that this won't last forever. He'll get criticized, too. But if the club is run in a first class manner and could delight its fans more than it lets them down, he will never be reviled as the Wilpons have been. Sure, he might hear some grumbling when a big free agent signs elsewhere, but I doubt very much he will take that personally.

Okay, I am out for today. Thanks for stopping by. We'll be posting throughout the offseason. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

Comments

  1. There will be folks who revive the old joke, "Aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" Aside from that, Mets fans, how was the taste of the bottom?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Reese, When you disagree with the plan - or lack thereof, I keep having a guy feeling that it will all go horribly wrong at some point. That's how I have felt about the Mets since Jess Orosco struck out Marty Barrett.

    Mike - You hit the nail on the head in so many ways on this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Watching the way the Wilpons ran this club was like watching the person in a horror movie who decides to enter the dark room by themselves.

      Delete

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