In their last decade of owning the Mets, neither Fred Wilpon nor his COO son, Jeff, spent much time, if any, speaking on the record about the state of the franchise. But it didn’t start out that way.
Previously, Fred sat with reporters in Port St. Lucie for his annual spring training address, but that understandably ended right around the time the Wilpons became entangled in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Beyond that, there were postmortems at the end of some seasons, mostly those involving the firing/hiring of a GM/manager.
And if you go further back, to the turn of the century, Fred used to be the kind of owner whom you would call if the Mets were in a particularly bad slide on the field — just as reporters did with George Steinbrenner — to gauge the temperature up in the owner’s box. He couldn’t compete with The Boss’ back-page material, but his passion for the Mets was similar, if more measured in the public domain.
This became a talking point again this past week when Hal Steinbrenner scheduled Thursday’s Zoom call with the media. Steinbrenner rarely addresses such a large group of reporters at once. He usually holds court with a small handful at the owners’ meetings in June — he said Thursday’s online scrum was supposed to make up for missing that this year — but his willingness to take questions for more than 25 minutes in that forum also spoke to the gravity of the Yankees’ situation.
Short of generating some interest on a day the Yankees were rained out, Steinbrenner’s briefing didn’t accomplish all that much. Earlier in the week, manager Aaron Boone said "the season is on the line" and GM Brian Cashman used a number of damning adjectives to convey how the Yankees "suck," in his words.
Steinbrenner, however, didn’t issue any ultimatums. In this post-George era, owners hire GMs and managers to do the talking in addition to their primary duties. Or perhaps more accurately, absorb the bullets. That’s why Cashman did two on-field interview sessions in the span of four days and Boone has to keep explaining — twice daily — what he’s doing to fix the team.
When Steinbrenner injected himself into the conversation, everything was put on the table, given that he’s the only one in this chain of command who can’t be fired. But he limited his finger-pointing to the players, deflecting the fact that it was Cashman who chose them and that Boone’s chief responsibility is getting them to perform to their potential.
As anticipated, Steinbrenner punted on their futures, saying he prefers to reassess everyone’s status at the end of the season. At one point, he was nudged toward making a playoffs-or-bust proclamation about Boone, given that he’s in the final year of his contract. But Steinbrenner didn’t take the bait his father would have voraciously chewed on.
"That's of course a hypothetical," Steinbrenner said. "And these are things that I really want to contemplate hard on until the season's over. But making the playoffs is important, and the reason it's important is not just because we do it every year and the fans expect it. It's important because it'll show that we've come back, because we ain't there right now. If the season ends today, we're not in the playoffs."
Would officially putting Boone on notice change the course of the Yankees’ underachieving season? No chance. But in the risk-benefit analysis, the safer play was to avoid the media firestorm.
The Boss, on the other hand, relied on grenade-throwing as a corporate strategy.
"He certainly did that a lot," Steinbrenner said. "I think what people forget is that oftentimes it didn't help. Didn't work. And oftentimes, quite frankly, he was criticized for it, right? . . . Doing a knee-jerk reaction to appease this person or that person in the middle of the year when I really don’t think there’s a problem, that’s certainly something I’m not going to do."
Meanwhile, across town, the Mets’ Steve Cohen has taken to Twitter to reach the masses. For once, the Flushing franchise has the richer of the two owners — Cohen’s $14 billion fortune dwarfs that of Steinbrenner's roughly $4 billion net worth — and the hedge-fund titan has been riding the "Not-The-Wilpons" momentum for quite some time now.
Also, the day after Steinbrenner pledged to huddle with his brain trust to troubleshoot the Yankees’ malaise, Cohen was crowd-sourcing trade ideas with his tweeps. But no talk-radio fantasies allowed.
"Let’s play GM," Cohen tweeted. "What would you do to improve the team and are you willing to mortgage the young talent in our farm system to do it?"
Not long after, Cohen tweeted again, "To play GM, you have to say what you are willing to give up to get somebody."
That follow-up was oddly specific, and reminded me of another tweet in spring training, when Cohen asked people’s thoughts on what Francisco Lindor would accept — in the middle of his delicate negotiations with the shortstop. If that felt like a brash rookie mistake from the first-year owner, Cohen still closed the deal five days later, giving Lindor a 10-year, $341 million contract.
Cohen’s social-media presence is a major departure from his private persona before taking over the Mets, and he’s embraced Twitter to directly communicate with the team’s rabid fan base. He also has no problem conducting serious business on the site. In January, within nine hours of former GM Jared Porter being exposed for unsolicited, suggestive texts to a female reporter, Cohen announced his firing on Twitter at 7:55 the next morning.
To our knowledge, Steinbrenner — who at 51 is 14 years younger than Cohen — doesn’t have a Twitter account. But Cohen isn’t averse to the occasional off-the-cuff interview, as he agreed to a pregame on-field session last month at Nationals Park. Of the two, Cohen is definitely more primed to fill the void left by Steinbrenner's bombastic dad, helped by a social-media platform that still was in its infancy when The Boss' failing health hastened his exit from the Big Apple stage.
There will never be another Boss. But as the next generation of Steinbrenner shies away from that role, it will be interesting to see if a 21st century replica eventually sprouts in Flushing. The Mets already have had their midseason firings in the May termination of hitting coaches Chili Davis and Tom Slater, so Cohen and his front office are not above pointing fingers. But Steinbrenner shouldn’t worry about future comparisons to his dad. The real competition is coming from the mega-billionaire now running the operation in Queens.