Fred Wilpon strolled into the first-base dugout during batting practice Tuesday wearing a monogrammed blue striped shirt and sporting a million-dollar smile. Trailed by his longtime bodyguard, he walked up the dugout steps and out to the field and began a long, animated conversation with Terry Collins, the manager of his baseball team.
Yes, the Mets still are Fred Wilpon's baseball team, much to the chagrin of a sizable segment of the fan base, and much to the obvious delight of the 78-year-old owner.
If anything has been proved about Wilpon's stewardship of the Mets in the post-Madoff era, it's that he is a survivor. No wonder he walks around Citi Field as if he owns the place. He still does, and that in itself seems like a pretty big upset.
There he was tossing a baseball to a reporter, joking about showing off his splitter and knuckleball. There he was shaking hands with Nelson Figueroa, the former pitcher who now is an SNY analyst. There he was putting his arm around third-base coach Tim Teufel and telling anyone who would listen that Teufel's daughter is getting married in a couple of weeks. There he was talking with trainer Ray Ramirez, which makes sense, given that about half of the expected 25-man roster is on the disabled list.
Though he hasn't consented to an interview of more than a few words in two years, Wilpon has mastered the art of small talk. When he is around -- which is often, as he promised he would be before this watershed Mets season began -- Wilpon seemingly will chat about anything with anyone.
But Wilpon will not do interviews about his team, even when his team was in the middle of an 11-game winning streak in April and a little crowing would have been acceptable. Wilpon is content to let general manager Sandy Alderson speak for the organization, whether the questions are about baseball matters, financial matters or anything else that matters.
After a lengthy period in which even his peers inside baseball wondered if Wilpon would be able to hold on to control of the Mets, if anything, his stature inside the game has grown, thanks to the help of Bud Selig (the old commissioner) and Rob Manfred (the new one).
Selig, on behalf of MLB, floated Wilpon a $25-million loan so he could buy time to get the Mets' finances in order. Manfred, upon taking over in January, named Wilpon head of the owners' finance committee, which was treated as a punch line but is a real thing.
Then there are the players. Wilpon loves chatting with the players during batting practice, and, presumably in the clubhouse when members of the media are not around. His messages are almost universally upbeat, positive, grandfatherly.
Near the end of spring training, Wilpon addressed the team en masse and spoke about his desire to win after six straight losing seasons. It wasn't a fire-and-brimstone speech, but it helped set a tone that the owner expected better things in 2015.
Things have been better. The Mets are in second place in the NL East at 26-21 after defeating the Phillies Tuesday night. They have weathered injuries to Zack Wheeler, David Wright, Travis d'Arnaud and most of the bullpen. They have starting pitching to deal and should be able to add offense once trading season begins.
Home attendance is up nearly 2,000 fans per game over last season, which has to make Wilpon smile even more broadly. Why wouldn't it? He's still here. And by the looks of it, so are you.