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Wilpon's legacy tied to Mets

You have to know Fred Wilpon to know that he would never sell even one percent of the Mets if he did not have to.

That he must now consider parting with 20 or 25 percent must be causing a great deal of pain. 

It also speaks to the gravity of the situation.  

The Mets have always been Wilpon's baby. His spoke about how the team would always be part of his family in a wide ranging interview with Newsday in 1990. 

When interviewed shortly before Bernard Madoff changed the financial world for many, including the Mets, Wilpon again said he would never sell the team.

The 1990 interview was the essential Wilpon. Here it is:

FRED WILPON IS the modest mogul of the Mets. If money, celebrity and ego were all that mattered, the owner of New York's other baseball team could easily compete. He could match George Steinbrenner's tidal wave of publicity that engulfs the Yankees. Wilpon's bank account could allow him to cavort in the lifestyle of another rich and infamous New Yorker, Donald Trump. But that's not Wilpon's style.

Wilpon is what the others are not. He builds no monuments to himself, except for a charitable organization that bears the family name. There is no Wilpon Shuttle, no Wilpon Plaza, no Tour de Wilpon. His Long Island home, down the block from Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday, and a Palm Beach address to watch over spring training are his only castles.

Wilpon's business away from the Mets is real estate, where he's apt to break the golden rule of passing up a good deal if it rivals a good deed.

"This will give you an insight," said Harvey Granat, one of Wilpon's business friends. "I called Fred a few weeks ago. There's a real estate company that has come on very hard times and there may be a major property that's available as a result. Fred thought about it and he said, 'I'm going to pass on that Harvey, thank you.' I said, 'Can I ask why?' He said, 'I just don't want it in any way shape or form known that I'm profiting on someone else's misfortune.' "

Wilpon explained it this way. "How much [money] is enough? I know the guy. He's a nice guy. He didn't do anything wrong. It's just that the market changed and he got in trouble." Contrast that with a comment from the more opportunistic Trump, who has in effect said, "I'll wait for the times to get bad, then I go in."

To be sure, Wilpon's holdings are vast. His financial empire stretches across the country in the form of shopping centers and large commercial buildings. The New York skyline is dotted with Wilpon properties, including a fashionable apartment building that numbers among its tenants Keith Hernandez.

But Wilpon's major acquisition, the Mets, links him to many ordinary people - an emotional attachment to baseball. He valued what a generation cherished: The Dodgers and Brooklyn and the summers of his youth that were consumed with playing and watching the game. Silver spoons were not part of his upbringing. "My father worked on Coney Island Avenue in a funeral parlor and he worked there for 40 years," Wilpon said. "He wasn't an undertaker, he was the manager. He was the manager of this funeral parlor and started out sweeping the floors when he was 15 years old. My father was totally self-educated. He didn't graduate high school and probably didn't graduate grade school. He was working when he was 9. A very intelligent diamond in the rough. He was a very bright man. My grandmother lived in Crown Heights, within walking distance to the ballpark [Ebbets Field]. I remember when a kid could be 4 or 5 and sit on a person's lap and not be charged. It was an extraordinary period of time in an extraordinary area."

Years later Wilpon spoke with Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, about those times he spent in the Dodgers clubhouse, a frill offered boys who worked for Harry M. Stevens, the concession maven. "I can talk to Rachel and she can kind of remember this

little lefthanded kid and those guys probably never treated me as a kid. It was quite extraordinary. It was a thrill just to get into the lockerroom. To the extent that they did not treat me like this little kid, they treated me like I belonged."

Wilpon, 53, was speaking in the Great Neck office of Sterling Equities, where he chairs his multi-million dollar business and offers Dr. Brown's cream soda to his guests. He also has offices in Manhattan. "When I would walk down the street carrying my spikes and gloves, wearing that hat, going to practice, there was a feeling that you got," he said about Brooklyn in the 1940s. When he spoke of the neighbors one could envision them saying "Hi ya' Freddy, have a good game."

It was a street of dreams for a couple of lefthanded pitchers from Lafayette High School who were best of friends. Both of them made it to the major leagues, Sandy Koufax with his arm, Wilpon with business acumen after a promising career was cut short by an arm injury in college at Michigan.

It didn't quite happen this way, but it might have. Remember that Barney's commercial where kids were standing on the stoop in old-time New York. Imagine a skinny Sandy Koufax saying, "Well, I'm gonna be a big star with the Dodgers." Little Freddy Wilpon would answer, "Yeah, but I'm gonna own a team."

And so it happened that Sandy and Freddy went off to make their baseball fortune. Sandy made it to the Hall of Fame and Freddy made it to the big leagues, too. Koufax has remained Wilpon's closest friend. "We have maintained that friendship all our lives," Wilpon said. "We talk to each other, we see each other. When he comes up he stays with us. This is a once-in-a-lifetime friendship. If you have one or two of those in your life, you're rich."

Brooklyn baseball is forever gone, but Wilpon finds strong consolation in the Mets. While his contemporary New York millionaires divide and conquer Manhattan, Wilpon goes to Mets games. "Nobody tells me I have to go to every home game, but I love it," he said. "When you talk about that high and mighty circle, I don't want that . . . It just doesn't work for me."

He does not comment directly on the way Steinbrenner conducts his business, but he does say, "What industry do you know where you can get six pages from right to left every day. I know if I want to be on the back page every day I can be on the back page. But I don't think that's important. I don't think that's what the game is all about. It's not about the owners." Wilpon has praise for Steinbrenner. "He's extremely generous. We see only the other side. But I think there's balance. He's done some nice things."

STEINBRENNER is by all accounts a very charitable man - except as it concerns the Yankees, where he is frugal with his patience. While Steinbrenner often tampers from Tampa, Wilpon is often inconspicuous by his presence at Shea. None of Wilpon's employees are filled with trepidation when this boss enters the ballpark. Wilpon does get involved in the Mets, he just doesn't get personal. His baseball people, Frank Cashen, Al Harazin and Joe McIlvaine, indeed have nothing to worry about.

Wilpon just doesn't fire people. "He doesn't give up on people, professional athletes or people in his industry," said Sol Wachtler, chief judge of New York State's Court of Appeals and a longtime friend.

"I'm sure I fired somebody somewhere down the line," Wilpon said, "but I just don't remember the last time. I can sit back and say to Frank Cashen, please fire X, Y or Z. I don't say it but I could. It's not my nature." Wilpon is more likely to derail a firing as he did when it seemed Davey Johnson would not be back to manage in 1990. Wilpon says he would rather see someone step aside instead of being fired.

Wilpon and Doubleday have a combined $ 100 million invested in the Mets. Doubleday keeps an even lower profile than Wilpon. "We get involved only in business areas, budgets, marketing things of that nature, and the league and commissioner's office," Wilpon said. "We do not get involved in plays on the field. Frank has total authority with his people and I think that's the way it should be because no matter how much you think you know as an amateur, you really don't."

Wilpon's executive training came when he was a minority owner of the club. Doubleday is more of a sportsmen, his involvement with the club is like a granddad with his kids. The Mets can do no wrong in his eyes.

"We've been together for 11 years and we have disagreements on different things from time to time," Wilpon said of his relationship with Doubleday. "We sit in my house or sit in his house, we talk about it and maybe one or the other compromises, says okay we'll do it that way. We always settle it between us. It's not something where he would say we're going to do it this way. Even before we were equal owners it never happened. That's to Nelson's credit, by the way. Nelson knows I'm good at certain things and lets me do it. I know he's good at certain things and I encourage him to do it. It's been a wonderful relationship."

Wilpon's other businesses are run in the same nonchalant way. "We never had anyone leave here who didn't want to come back," said Sterling executive assistant Emily O'Shea, who has been with Wilpon for 12 years. "He is such a low-key person, he likes to downplay his position." No ones calls him boss or even Mr. Wilpon. He is just Fred. And if you really get to know him it's just Freddy. If Steinbrenner's theme song is "My Way," Wilpon's is "We Can Work It Out."

"I may be chairman of the board," Wilpon said, "but you come in Monday and we're having a manager meeting, no one lacks the opportunity, from the most junior partner to the most senior partner. No one says you have to do this or have to do that. It's a longer process but I find it works. We will discuss, sometimes ad nauseum, but it gets done because finally everybody says that's the way it should be done. That's a philosophy I'll use when building a building. If I'm building a building, I insist that the structural engineer and the mechanical engineer, people like that, are around the table when we decide design issues or marketing concepts. You might ask what do they know about marketing concepts or design issues. Some of the best ideas have come from the guy who was completely 180 degrees apart in terms of his knowledge of that specific subject." Juxtapose that to Steinbrenner's reference to his baseball people. He hears only the man in the mirror.

The only name-calling Wilpon does with his players is to call them for help with a charitable effort. "Ask Sid [Fernandez] the first time he went to St. Mary's Hospital. He said, 'Am I gonna see little kids who are going to die?' I told him 'Your position as an athlete may help them die with a smile on their faces.' "

When one of his players have troubles, such as the cases of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, Wilpon's first thought is not how it will affect the won-loss column. "The message he sends is one that is useful to the individual," Mets senior vice president Al Harazin said. "When people are sick or in trouble he's there to be helpful. He's good about those human kinds of things."

Wilpon said, "I've had conversations with Straw about life when it was appropriate. Doc, too. Darryl had a behavioral problem that kind of made you wonder. We knew he wasn't on drugs, we know that. But we also knew that he was unhappy. The players know that Nelson and I like them as people. They don't spend time in my home, I don't take them out to dinner. But I'm concerned about them and I think they know that."

FORMER YANKEE and Met Rafael Santana, said, "Fred is great people. He's very friendly and he always respects his players. Everybody likes Fred. He pats you on the back. He's the type of guy who can't walk by you without saying something nice. He's one class individual."

Added Howard Johnson, "Fred has always tried to be like one of the guys. He's not one to make guys feel insecure around him. He's always smiling. You get the feeling he really cares about you. He's probably the reason this organization has risen."

Wilpon's heirloom is the Mets. It is also his legacy. "I have no further ambitions to do anything different than what I'm doing," he said.

His dream, it turned out, was owning a baseball team. As Judy, his wife of 31 years, said, "I guess every boy dreams if they can't play, they'd like to be involved somehow. When he heard of the Mets being for sale, he started to pursue."

Except for the bank account, Judy says Fred is the same person she has known all these years. "We used to take the subway into work from our apartment in Sheepshead Bay and he'd look around and say 'One day we'll have enough money so we can drive in and afford the parking instead of taking the train.' I said great, whatever. He always wanted something that didn't have a ceiling on it. He never wanted to work for a company where he could get to $ 15,000 tops. He always wanted to work where he could expand to his capabilities."

Wilpon is like few other owners. His role was clearly defined when as a member of the Player Relations Committee during the recent lockout and ensuing contract negotiations he made it known that the owners should make the best deal they could and let the games begin. In a sea of hard-liners, Wilpon kept the talks from sinking. Said Donald Fehr, head of the players association, "[If you] are suggesting that if he had the authority to make the deal without having to consult or represent other owners, I don't think it [the lockout] would have gone many days. He is certainly, what's the word, his tone is softer. His manner of speech is demonstrably less strident. He is more logical. I think he attempted to understand the issues and concerns of the players."

Steve Greenberg, the deputy commissioner who got to know Wilpon at the negotiating table, said, "I came to have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Fred was without a doubt the person who most steadfastly kept his eye on the ball throughout that process. Fred came to the process with a series of questions which we jointly had to answer. He never let us get too far afield in terms of letting emotions take over.

"Ultimately, when we got down to wee hours [March 18] when the players did reach what I really thought was their bottom line - at that point in time the season was hanging by a thread - Fred was the one who said, 'It's the same question I've been asking for a month. In the context of what we're trying to accomplish can we reasonably expect a better deal a month from now than we can get by accepting this deal today and factor into that the tremendous damage, political, economic and emotional we will suffer if we wait a month?' I think that line of thinking ultimately helped the PRC reach the conclusion that the deal on the table Sunday night should be accepted and we should get on with it," Greenberg said. "Fred is someone who does not pound the table for effect, but I will tell you on a couple of occasions I did see him get irritated and it really is quite effective because when Fred Wilpon gets irritated you know it's not for effect, you know that something is very, very important to him. When he gets irritated and wants to make a point he does it in an emphatic fashion. It didn't happen often, when it did it was very effective."

Wilpon approaches the Mets in the same way, with his eye on the ball. "I want to have an organization, the best organization for decades," he said. "We can't tell what it'll be 20 years from now, but we can plan. It's just part of my life."

And perhaps the day will come when Wilpon will construct a new stadium for the Mets. Maybe he would build it in Brooklyn.


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