PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
'Ready to grill me?" a bouncy Fred Wilpon asked reporters yesterday morning in the Mets' clubhouse. Then he jokingly grabbed an incoming scribe's coffee cup and offered it to the rest of the group.
You could label it as "awkwardly aggressive, proactive goodwill." The Mets' principal owner appeared even a little nervous at Digital Domain Park as he prepared to meet with reporters while his pitchers and catchers held their first 2011 workout.
I'm not sure how much Wilpon's outreach and access helped his family's cause, which prompts this question: Are the Wilpons, so often private when they should have been public, now making themselves visible when they should be hiding?
"The one thing that no one ever, ever, in 50 years in business, questioned was my integrity," said Wilpon, with his son Jeff (the team's COO) sitting next to him. "And you all have questioned my integrity. And I intend to go through with whatever is necessary to vindicate that and get on with our lives."
We can't sit here and profess to identify with Fred Wilpon's sentiments. He is 74 years old, and his reputation and his empire have been challenged like never before with the Irving Picard lawsuit stemming from the December 2008 collapse of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
It's fully understandable that Wilpon wants to fight. "The truth will come out," he promised.
Yet the Wilpons' standing seems to drop every time they open their mouths. So as much as we want openness and accountability, it might just serve the Wilpons' best interests to, well, stop opening their mouths.
Their most recent losing streak commenced with their Jan. 28 announcement that they would consider selling a minority share of the Mets. Suddenly, their adamant defenses of the previous two years - that they were not in trouble financially, that they hadn't been holding back on obvious roster needs - fell flat.
Now they want us to think that they have been wronged twice over: first by Madoff and then by Picard.
The Wilpons' public-relations strategy appears to be: 1) Shoot down straw-man arguments, and 2) Talk tough. Sometimes at the same time.
They continually insist they didn't know of Madoff's Ponzi scheme, although Picard's lawsuit explicitly covers the notion that the Wilpons should have known, not that they absolutely did know.
Wilpon conceded Thursday that he might have been naive - "if you want to look at it that way, yes" - in not questioning the legitimacy of Madoff's business.
The talk of "vindication" seems to be little more than bravado. When reporters followed up by asking whether "vindication" means paying no money to Picard, or whether such words mean that there will be no settlement talks, Wilpon backed down quicker than Jose Reyes diving back into first base on a pickoff attempt.
It used to be that we ripped the Wilpons for not being more present and accountable. They didn't show their faces often enough during times of team crisis, instead relying on brief statements or allowing clumsy-speaking delegates such as Omar Minaya, Jerry Manuel, Willie Randolph or Art Howe to represent the franchise. Such inaction struck the wrong chord during difficult times.
So you sort of commend Fred Wilpon for standing up for himself, his family and his franchise. Until you watch and listen to the act, and you realize that the Mets' owners are creating yet another unwanted debt.
One involving public relations and credibility.