If you're heading to a Memorial Day barbecue in the New York area this weekend, chances are good that conversation around the cooler is bound to drift to this week's controversial New Yorker article "Madoff's Curveball," by Jeffrey Toobin, which gives an in depth profile of Mets owner Fred Wilpon (of course, the Mets baseball team has done nothing warranting cooler talk by themselves this season).
Since the article's publication earlier this week, thousands of Mets fans have expressed outrage over disparaging comments Wilpon reportedly made about several of the Mets' current stars.
For Wilpon, the timing of this controversy couldn't be worse. The 31-year owner of the franchise must feel like he's steering the Titanic. In the midst of a what could amount to a billion dollar dispute over his involvement in the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, Wilpon has also had to deal with his haphazard and injury plagued Mets, who at 22-24 appear to headed for their third consecutive losing season.
In the past year, a seemingly desperate Wilpon has been increasingly frustrated with his team which he has called "snakebitten." Earlier this spring, Wilpon said publicly that he had interest in selling up to 49 percent of the franchise, which would allow Wilpon to maintain majority ownership while alleviating financial difficulties linked to the Madoff litigation.
If you were listening to WFAN or watching ESPN this week, the following (which amounts to only a couple of paragraphs of the 11-page exposé) is about all you heard:
1. When Toobin suggested to Wilpon in an interview that the Mets were cursed, Wilpon, "gave a sort of half laugh, and said, 'You mean—and then pantomimed a checked swing of the bat."
Of course, Wilpon is referencing Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS in which Carlos Beltran watched a called strike three on an 0-2 count like a deer in the headlights with the bases loaded. Okay, I say, you let that comment slide. After all, that at bat was pretty horrendous.
2. Of Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, Wilpon said, "He thinks he's going to get Carl Crawford money...He's had everything wrong with him. He won't get it."
Since the publication of this article, the media has been deceptive about this comment. Few news sources have noted that Wilpon's Reyes knock came from his owner's box moments after Reyes singled and stole second, to which Wilpon responded "He's a racehorse."
To be clear: Wilpon did not say that the Mets do not intend to keep Reyes, whose contract negotiations have become a subject of popular debate among New York sports fans in recent weeks. Wilpon recognized that Reyes is a special player and despite Mets fans anger over these comments, it would be hard to refute Wilpon's claim.
A career .287 hitter, Reyes has not hit .300 in a season since 2006 and has missed 155 games in the last two seasons due to injury. Although Reyes is a base-stealing machine, he's never clubbed 20 homers or hit 100 RBI. Whether Mets fans like it or not, Wilpon is right. If this guy wants a $140 million contract, the Mets should walk away.
3. About David Wright, Wilpon said, "A really good kid. A very good player. Not a superstar."
Admittedly this is a tough thing to say about your all-star to a reporter, and a seasoned owner like Wilpon should know better. But again, Wilpon may not be far from the truth.
In Citi Field's first season in 2009, Wright hit only 10 homers. He picked up the pace again last year with 29, but the Mets may need to accept that that's the best effort he's got in a pitchers' park. His career highs for homers are 30 and 33 and Wright's average dipped to .283 last year in order to generate the power he needed to get his home run totals up.
Of all of Wilpon's New Yorker criticisms, this was by far the most unfair because Wright has been the Mets' poster boy. Unfortunately, it probably wasn't far from the truth.
4. About Carlos Beltran, Wilpon said, "We had some schmuck in New York [referring to himself] who paid him [Beltran] based on that one series [Astros 2004 postseason run]...He's 65 to 70 percent of what he was."
For whatever reason, Mets fans have seemed most upset by this comment. For the life of me, I can't understand why. The Mets are paying Beltran $119 million and in return they have gotten a guy who has only played 150 games in a season twice in six years. In the past two seasons, the guy has missed a whopping 179 games.
In the seasons he's actually been on the field, Beltran has never hit over .284 for the Mets. More than anything else, Beltran strikes out. In his first four seasons with the team, Beltran struck out a staggering 392 times. Nobody on the Mets roster has earned more money for sitting on the bench in the last two years. No wonder Wilpon is upset.
5. Finally, when Ike Davis strolled to the plate, Wilpon said to Toobin, "Good hitter. Shitty team—good hitter." Later, he said "We're snake bitten, baby."
While this has to be frustrating for Mets fans to hear, again, Wilpon's right. And he's the guy who's paying roughly $140 million a year to watch his team settle into the basement of the NL East. Cursed? Snake bitten? Why not. Johan Santana still hasn't thrown a pitch this year. If the Cubbies and Red Sox were cursed, why not the Mets? I'm letting Wilpon slide on this one. The Mets are pretty terrible, attendance is down and his checkbook is hurting. Call that one a mulligan.
If you were listening to talk radio or watching sports news, that's about the sum of what you learned about the New Yorker article on Wilpon. What you missed was far more interesting.
Detailing Wilpon's rags-to-riches story beginning as a Jewish kid with a modest upbringing in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Toobin chronicled Wilpon's financial success and explained in detail how the multi-millionaire became so hopelessly entangled in the biggest ponzi scheme in American history.
The Madoff-Wilpon connection began, interestingly enough, with Fred's son Jeff, the Chief Operating Officer of the Mets. Jeff went to the same prep school as Madoff's son and the families enjoyed vacations together in Palm Beach, Florida. Long story short, they made friends and the Wilpons, a real estate family by trade, gradually began investing money with Madoff.
The Wilpons never questioned Madoff because they didn't need to. Each year, Madoff was able to give the Wilpons between 10 and 30 percent returns on their investments and the Wilpons never had issues depositing or withdrawing cash with Madoff. In short, the Wilpons were winning and they liked it.
From prison, Madoff wrote to Toobin, claiming that the Wilpons knew nothing about the scheme and were simply not business savvy enough to ask the right questions to understand the devastatingly complicated financial statements. Madoff claimed that despite nearly 30 years of investing, the Wilpons never had enough information or financial statements to adequately understand how the investment plan worked.
The Toobin article may not have said anything terribly revealing about the complicated and largely private legal battle raging between the Wilpons and bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard. At the time Madoff was arrested in December 2008, the Wilpons had $550 million still tied up in the scheme. As a result of years of investing, the Wilpons reportedly gained $300 million of other people's money and made withdrawals from Madoff totaling $700 million.
The result? Picard could be going after as much as a billion dollars from the Wilpon family. It is very unlikely that he will get nearly that much; the two sides will probably settle for a much smaller sum. But if Mets fans are truly angry about Wilpon's comments, for once, the guys in the bleachers might be rooting for a bankruptcy trustee.
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