Four times annually, baseball's ultimate powers convene in a swanky hotel to discuss the game's most pressing matters. The owners' meetings feature commissioner Bud Selig, his deputies and ownership representation from all 30 clubs.
On Aug. 19, 2004, the locale was the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia so everyone could see the Phillies' new ballpark. Major League Baseball turned over its podium to Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon to announce the news that Selig's contract had been extended.
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"I've been in baseball for more than 25 years," a beaming Wilpon said that day. "And in that time, I've never known anybody more dedicated to the sport, more devoted to the game" than Selig, whose contract with the owners was extended through 2009.
Wilpon was designated ownership spokesman, and Wilpon formally brought up Selig's extension for an official vote (it passed unanimously).
Whenever Selig has needed an ally during his 18-plus years as the game's CEO, he could turn to Flushing and know he had support from Wilpon and the Mets, one of baseball's most important franchises.
Now it's Wilpon who is in dire need of help. And as strong as his relationship is with Selig, that bond might not be enough to bail out Wilpon and the Mets' other owner, his brother-in-law, Saul Katz, from the clawback lawsuit filed against them by Irving Picard, the trustee for victims of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
"I think Bud as the commissioner has been extremely supportive," Wilpon told Newsday on Thursday.. "As my friend, he has been supportive like my brother. He is fully up to date. I talk to him all the time. I've talked to him in the past as to what was happening, not about this but about everything. He's fully up to date.''
Although Selig is waiting for more information, he could help the Wilpons by trying to find a buyer for the 25 percent of the Mets they want to sell. If the Mets are struggling to cover expenses, he also could help by giving the Wilpons a line of credit from Major League Baseball. Or he could simply help by meeting with the Wilpons and listening to them, as he already has done.
"I would guess that [the friendship] is only important on the margins," Fay Vincent, Selig's predecessor as baseball commissioner, said in an interview. "The elements here are so big, so much out of everyone's control . . . I think that [Wilpon] and Bud have very different objectives."
Selig will protect his ally
At the least, Selig will do what he can to protect Wilpon in a way that the commissioner wouldn't for, say, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who has worn out Selig's welcome with his headline-grabbing divorce and subsequent financial problems. Selig met this month with Wilpon, Katz and Wilpon's son Jeff, the Mets' COO. Although Selig could help McCourt in many of the same ways he could help the Wilpons, he has yet to take a formal meeting with him.
If the Picard suit ultimately forces the Wilpons and Katz to sell the Mets, Selig - whose current contract runs through next year - will lose one of his staunchest allies, as well as one of his best friends in the game, in Fred Wilpon.
"Of all the people I knew in baseball, it's hard for me to think of another owner as close to Selig as Fred is, with the exception of [White Sox owner Jerry] Reinsdorf," Vincent said. "I think they are like brothers."
When Wilpon joined the baseball fraternity in 1980, he purchased a small percentage of the Mets and became team president. Six years later, he became a 50-50 partner with Nelson Doubleday and quickly got to know Selig, who had owned the Milwaukee Brewers since 1970.
"As far as I can remember, they at least spoke to each other on the phone," said Frank Cashen, the Mets' general manager from 1980 through 1991. "I know they connected."
"They just grew to be very close friends," said Sal Bando, a Brewers player and general manager under Selig.
The friendship formed from their common profession and leadership styles, and they became two of the game's most powerful owners. Where Yankees owner George Steinbrenner ruled with bombast and reveled in public arguments, Selig and Wilpon gained stature for their ability to work behind the scenes and build a consensus for changes they wanted.
Selig and Wilpon worked together on baseball's four-member finance committee in 1983, and in 1988, they made up the selection committee that recommended National League president Bart Giamatti as the successor to departing commissioner Peter Ueberroth.
After Giamatti died of a heart attack on Sept. 1, 1989, Vincent replaced him. In 1992, Selig headed a group of owners that forced out Vincent with an 18-9 no-confidence vote. Wilpon did not take an active role in what amounted to the coup that put Selig - still the Brewers' owner - in the commissioner's chair.
Once Selig took control, however, he again had a staunch ally in Wilpon. From New York, Wilpon publicly lobbied for his friend to switch from "active commissioner" to the full-time post.
"If Bud decides to take the job full-time, I would be ecstatic,'' Wilpon told reporters. "No one understands the game more and has better relationships with people . . . You've got to know Buddy. Buddy's been doing this for six years, and there's not been a conflict.''
Wilpon to the rescue
In 2002, when Selig seriously considered dissolving the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins, word leaked that Selig had taken a $3-million loan in 1995 from a company controlled by Twins owner Carl Pohlad. Baseball rules and history frown upon such inter-team transactions.
Wilpon again came to his friend's defense, calling criticism of Selig "outrageous. You're talking about two men [Selig and Pohlad] of the highest, highest integrity. I'm offended by making it a cause célèbre. It pains me.''
In more recent years, Wilpon stood out for enthusiastically embracing many of Selig's initiatives.
The commissioner has tried to limit teams' spending on amateur draft picks, imposing "slot" prices for each selection in the first few rounds. Most teams have shrugged these off and violated them, but the Mets almost always adhered to slot, prompting former general manager Omar Minaya to lament to Newsday in 2007, "It's tough when you are operating [by the slots] and not everybody operates by the slotting system."
The Mets also have supported the World Baseball Classic, one of Selig's most important ventures. Although the Yankees complained publicly about their players risking injury in the March tournament, the Mets encouraged their players to participate and didn't complain even after some players - most notably Oliver Perez and J.J. Putz in 2009 - seemed to return worse for the experience.
Families close, too
All the while, Wilpon and Selig remained personal friends, and that relationship extended through the families. Last year, Wilpon's wife, Judy, flew to Milwaukee to attend the 75th birthday party of Selig's wife, Sue.
That shared history, however, now seems relatively insignificant compared with the narrative that Picard has presented concerning Wilpon, Katz and Bernard Madoff.
"For the two of them, very uncomfortable situation," said Vincent, who added that he worked with Picard at the Securities and Exchange Commission for about 35 years and considers him a "good friend . . . Everything's out in the open now. Bud can't give Fred any particular elements of grace. What Fred really needs is money."