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SUNDAY SPECIAL / The Odd Couple / Doubleday, Wilpon don't allow tension between 50-50 partners to disrupt the Mets' operations

REGIS AND KATHIE LEE are kaput. Rudy and Donna are

splitting. The Islanders change owners like socks, and Jeff Van Gundy and Pat

Riley stopped exchanging Christmas cards several skirmishes ago.

But Fred and Nelson keep rolling along.

Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday, co-owners of the Mets, are one of the

longest-running shows in the city that never sleeps. Together, they have been

at the helm of their baseball franchise for more than two decades, from their

first team in 1980, when the winningest pitcher was a rookie named Mark

Bomback, to last year's National League champions. For all that, they remain

among the least-known public figures in New York sports.

In a town that loves stars and burns bright with celebrity glare, Wilpon

and Doubleday walk gladly in the shadows. In the city that defined loud, Wilpon

and Doubleday are the quiet men.

"They'd like the team to be the story and not themselves," general manager

Steve Phillips said. "It's a nice way to go about it."

They are an anomaly in the business of sports: a true 50-50 partnership.

Doubleday is chairman of the board. Wilpon is president and chief executive

officer. Each owns exactly 50 percent of the franchise.

As individuals, each man is fascinating in his own right. But the attention

the pair has attracted lately, much to their dual chagrin, has centered more

on what is supposed to be the contentious relationship between them. Indeed, it

has become easier to note the differences that distinguish Wilpon and

Doubleday than to see the many similarities they share.

Wilpon and Doubleday figure to loom even larger as the Mets face what seems

to be an uncertain future. There are questions in the short term: Can they

defend the NL championship they won last season? Will they even make the

playoffs? Did they and Phillips overestimate the quality of this team?

The long-term issues are more pressing:

Where will the Mets play? In a refurbished Shea Stadium or a new

state-of-the-art retro palace?

For whom will they play? Doubleday is 67 and only one year removed from a

liver transplant; Wilpon is 64.

Will their alleged feuding, which has had no impact on the product on the

field up to now, eventually and inevitably take its toll?

"Nelson and I have had 22 years," Wilpon said. "We don't agree on

everything, without any question. But we've never made a decision that isn't in

the best interests of the franchise. Ultimately, we come to agreement."

The process has become more prickly since they purchased the Mets in 1980.

Neither man will discuss their relationship. Their rules of engagement are

honorable and old school: no criticism and no passing judgment, even to give a

compliment.

Wilpon goes no further than acknowledging the normal "disagreements" that

are standard in any business partnership. Doubleday has conceded only that

their relationship has been "strained" at times but says they can continue to

coexist. But anecdotal evidence exists for many baseball insiders who believe

the two men dislike one another.

In 1992, when Doubleday said he might sell his half of the Mets and get out

of baseball before the game self-destructed, he had not yet discussed his

plans with Wilpon. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Dodgers in 1998, major-league

owners approved by a vote of 27-2. The Mets abstained. They couldn't agree:

Wilpon was for the sale, Doubleday against it.

When Doubleday said the Mets were thinking of moving to land near Belmont

Park, Wilpon had no comment. When Wilpon announced plans for a new Shea Stadium

modeled on the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ebbets Field, Doubleday said nothing. When

Doubleday said the Mets didn't need a new stadium and could refurbish Shea

without taxpayers' money, Wilpon said, "If that's what he said, that's what he

said."

Prior to Game 4 of October's Subway Series, each stood on the Shea infield

during batting practice, speaking informally with separate knots of reporters

about their respective and contradictory visions of the future. Last month,

when Doubleday said he wanted to make Phillips "king of the Mets' castle" with

a job description eerily similar to what Wilpon does now, Wilpon declined to

comment.

They sit separately in Shea, Wilpon in a booth on the first-base side,

Doubleday in a suite behind home plate. Though each has a home in Florida not

far from Port St. Lucie, the team's spring-training site, they never seem to

visit camp on the same day. When Doubleday accepted the NL championship trophy

last fall, Wilpon was not on the stage.

Even last year's presidential election - the ultimate 50-50 power struggle

- provided grist for those so inclined: Doubleday gave $1,000 to Bush, Wilpon

gave $1,000 to Gore, according to a Web site that monitors campaign

contributions.

One former Mets executive was blunt in his assessment of the pair: "They

hate each other."

But there are numerous insiders who caution against reading too much into

appearances. They say Wilpon and Doubleday are not nearly as antagonistic as

people think and never have let their feelings for one another hinder them from

developing a successful franchise.

"They have been very good at working out any disagreements they might have

amongst themselves out of the eye of the public; in actuality, out of the eye

of almost anyone," another former Mets executive said. "Even people who are on

the staff aren't going to see that ... That's to both their credit."

Phillips concurs. "The perception is a little different than the reality,"

he said. "There will be issues that not everyone will agree on. That's normal

... Oftentimes, that sort of 50-50 situation could paralyze an organization.

It's never done that here."

The latest evidence is this: According to both Wilpon and Dick Cummins, a

member of the Mets' board of directors and Doubleday's longtime friend and

financial adviser, Doubleday is now on board with Wilpon's dream of a

modern-day Ebbets Field for the Mets.

"Nelson questioned some things," Wilpon said. "We've gone over those

things. He's seen what's happened because of that, and I think if you talked to

Nelson now, he's very satisfied."

Doubleday declined to be interviewed for this story, according to the Mets

media relations office, but Cummins agreed that Doubleday is ready to back

Wilpon's plan. Both Wilpon and Cummins expressed optimism that a deal with the

city will be completed before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who would love his legacy

to include new stadiums for both New York baseball franchises, leaves office

at the end of the year.

"The city's come up with a much more realistic proposal, which will cost us

a lot more money but will cost us money in a different fashion," Cummins said.

"We're going to pay a lot more money for this ballpark, much more than any

ballpark in the history of baseball."

Wilpon said: "I'm very hopeful. You can put an underline under 'very.'"

Doubleday and Wilpon even share an association away from the Mets.

Doubleday owns two golden retrievers he received from an accomplished dog

breeder in exchange for a charitable contribution to the Baker Institute for

Animal Health at Cornell University. The breeder was Judy Wilpon, Fred's wife.

So how to read the shifting tea leaves of this complicated alliance between

two enormously successful men? How to interpret the fact that Phillips

recently instructed Mets employees not to talk to a reporter about Wilpon,

Doubleday or their relationship?

Wilpon bleeds baseball, attends nearly every home game and is much more of

a day-to-day, hands-on presence than Doubleday, who will show up at Shea for

three or four days, then disappear for a month traveling or tending to other

business matters.

"It's not an in-your-blood kind of thing with Nelson," one of the former

executives said.

There are those in the Mets' hierarchy who believe Doubleday says what he

says simply because he loves to rattle Wilpon's cage.

"Nelson tends to shoot from the hip and he will say things and he will say

them at surprising moments sometimes and Fred's not like that," the former

executive said. "That leads to some situations that you don't always

anticipate."

Perhaps the executive was thinking of the time in 1997 when Doubleday,

absent from the team for some time, announced he was back and part of the

action again, a declaration he made ... from his home on Nantucket Island.

Wilpon called the various characterizations of their relationship

"regrettable." He said he and Doubleday are not childhood friends but rather

business associates, "and I think it's been fine, contrary to what people are

going to say, which we don't have much control over."

As for the business deal they made in 1980, that has turned out pretty

well. The highlights include the World Series triumph in 1986, last year's

Subway Series, and playoff teams in '88 and '99. As an investment, the return

has been spectacular. The franchise they bought for a then-record $21.1 million

is now valued by Forbes as second-highest in baseball to the Yankees at a

robust $454 million.

Doubleday and Wilpon were brought together by then-Islanders owner John O.

Pickett Jr. Doubleday and Wilpon were Locust Valley residents serving on the

board of education of exclusive Greenvale, a Glen Head school with grades from

nursery to ninth grade. Pickett was chairman of the board. Wilpon, a successful

real-estate developer, spoke to Pickett about putting together a group to

purchase the Mets. Pickett called Doubleday of the renowned publishing family.

Thus was a partnership born between two men whose backgrounds could not

have been more different.

FRED WILPON was, and still is, a Brooklyn kid. His father, a self-educated

man, managed a Coney Island funeral parlor for 40 years.

Wilpon loved to play baseball. He was pretty good, too. When he pitched for

Lafayette High School, the first baseman was his best friend, another lefty by

the name of Sandy Koufax. With typical self-deprecation, Wilpon says Koufax

had yet to be discovered. But when the two boys spent the summer of 1953 at

Ebbets Field with their beloved Dodgers, it was Wilpon who pitched batting

practice day after day so the team could evaluate him. Koufax was along for the

ride.

As a child, Wilpon often sat in the stands on his father's lap. Later, he

worked for concessionaire Harry Stevens, a status which often got Wilpon into

the clubhouse to mingle with his heroes. Almost every night, Wilpon's parents

would bring up Ralph Branca in conversation. Not as an example of resilience or

humility or learning to cope with defeat-Branca, after all, was the Dodgers

pitcher who threw the fastball that Bobby Thomson turned into the "shot heard

'round the world" in 1951, delivering the NL pennant to the hated Giants. No,

the reason Branca was cited night after night was that Branca had gone to NYU.

"My parents never went to college," Wilpon said. "They said to me every

night, 'Please, you can play ball, you can sign a contract, first go to

college.' "

So Wilpon became the first member of his family to attend college.He went

to Michigan on a baseball scholarship. A sore arm two years later ended his

playing career. But he met his wife, Judy, at Michigan.

The family's association with the Mets began with Judy Wilpon, who became

one of the first employees of the club in 1962 as a secretary, after Fred

tapped some old Dodgers connections. Look closely and you might see Judy and

Fred in some of the photos of the groundbreaking ceremony at Shea.

After graduating in 1958, the Wilpons got an apartment in Sheepshead Bay in

Brooklyn. Fred began selling office equipment. But he was unhappy with the

business. Finding another occupation was difficult. "At that time, Jews were

not allowed in every business," said Wilpon, who is Jewish. "I tried to find a

business I could go into that I might like."

He hit upon real estate after taking a walk around Manhattan and noticing

"apparently Jewish names" on the signs of numerous companies. He devoured every

book on real estate in his local library, then landed at Arlen Realty.

Wilpon used the experience he gained at Arlen in the acquisition and

renovation of properties to found Sterling Equities in 1972, and built a

real-estate development company that has bought and developed more than 14,000

apartments and 7 million square feet of commercial and retail space around the

country. Wilpon has offices in Great Neck and on Fifth Avenue and has

properties scattered about Manhattan. Sterling also operates three investment

funds.

In 1992, Wilpon met a guy in an airport who pitched Wilpon on the emerging

field of biotechnology. The result was Pathogenesis Corporation, a publicly

held company whose accomplishments include development of a drug that improves

the quality of life for children with cystic fibrosis. Wilpon and associates

sold the firm last year for $750 million.

As a businessman, Wilpon is considered a shrewd negotiator. Witness the

clause deftly slipped into the Mets' contract with the city for Shea: The team

has first dibs on any new stadium built with city funds. If Giuliani wants to

help his beloved Yankees, in other words, he has to take care of the Mets, too.

Wilpon is a passionate builder who wants to be involved in every detail,

right down to the style of chandelier hanging in the lobby. That's part of the

fun, he says. He gets enormous satisfaction out of walking past a building he

erected or renovated, but concedes that the feeling would pale next to the

sense of fulfillment he would feel by bringing a new Ebbets Field to Queens.

"Monumental," he said softly.

The man loves baseball. He glows as he talks about bringing the game back

to Brooklyn in the form of the Cyclones, a Mets farm team that begins play next

month in a charming new park right next to the beach on Coney Island.

Wilpon also is a fierce protector of the game's integrity. In 1993, Wilpon

went into the Mets' clubhouse and chastised the players for embarrassing the

team and the city with such off-field shenanigans as throwing a firecracker at

fans (Vince Coleman), squirting bleach at reporters (Bret Saberhagen) and

cursing a reporter and threatening to show him the Bronx (Bobby Bonilla).

Wilpon later announced that Coleman never would play for the Mets again. Wilpon

also is immensely proud of the team's many community programs; the Mets, he

says, bring more kids to home games free of charge than any team in baseball.

For Wilpon, purging bad actors and reaching out to the community are part

of the territory. "It's certainly not the normal business," Wilpon said. "It's

not like my real-estate business here, where you buy a building or you build a

building. That's sort of cut and dried. This is not. This is a public trust and

you can't run it just as a business."

At 64, he's in terrific shape. He gets up at 5:30 a.m. seven days a week

for a 1�-hour workout. He runs his various businesses by day and arrives at

Shea by night and shakes his head when people ask him why he works so hard.

"I don't work," he said. "I do what I do. It's a joy. To get up in the

morning is an absolute joy. So I don't work. I'm not telling you when I got out

of college that I knew how I was going to support a family and all those

things. I came from very modest circumstances. But this is a joy."

GROWING UP on the North Shore of Long Island, Nelson Doubleday had an

isolated childhood, one his younger sister Neltje once described as "two rich

kids sitting in a big house with lots of nannies and maids."

But there was baseball in his background, too. He is a distant relative of

Abner Doubleday, who once was thought to have invented the game. Often, alone

in that big house, Nelson would listen to Dodgers games on the radio.

He attended a string of proper prep schools - Greenvale, then Eaglebrook in

Deerfield, Mass., and renowned Deerfield Academy itself-and played football,

baseball and hockey on the club level. After graduating from Princeton in 1955

with a degree in economics, he spent three years in the Air Force before

joining family-owned Doubleday and Co., the firm founded by his grandfather in

1897. Eventually, Nelson became chief executive officer.

All along, he seemed determined to live up to a legacy handed to him nearly

at birth. When Doubleday was an infant, Rudyard Kipling dedicated his famous

poem "If" to little Nelson, his publisher's grandson. The poem concludes:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Doubleday grew into what often is described as a man's man with the

requisite hearty laugh and a bawdy sense of humor. He was a prankster as a

youth, a practice he continued into adulthood when he reportedly sent a present

to friends at a stuffy brokerage house: a crate of squealing piglets.

Between homes in Long Island, Florida, Nantucket and Europe, his 125-foot

yacht Mandalay (which he sold last year; he still owns several smaller

vessels), the annual pheasant-shooting vacation in England and his many

business interests, Doubleday always has traveled extensively. He never had a

passion for the family business and seemed to take after his father, who said,

"I don't read books, I sell them."

Nelson seemed to treat publishing as a family responsibility. He approached

it with a distinctive management style, one he called MBP, management by

party. He liked to round up a contingent of executives for three- and four-hour

lunches at the renowned restaurant "21," a practice that continued with the

Mets.

"Nelson enjoys nothing more than taking eight or 10 members of the staff

out and having a good time and talking about last night's ballgame or

whatever," a former Mets employee said. "Let's face it, he has the wherewithal

to enjoy a very nice lifestyle and he enjoys that kind of thing. The problem

was it would go on for two hours or more and you kept looking at your watch and

thinking you have so much stuff to do back at the office."

Phillips said Doubleday uses those front-office lunches as a way to "get up

to speed" on the Mets. They might go to Cafe on the Green at the foot of the

Throgs Neck Bridge, or even into Manhattan to "21."

"It's the kind of setting where Nelson can get his update," Phillips said.

It's also part and parcel with his need to treat friends well. People often

describe Doubleday as the most generous man they know. When the Yankees and

Mets played their first Shea Stadium interleague game in 1998, Doubleday threw

an outdoor tent party. When his wife noted the brutal heat, Doubleday quickly

dropped some $65,000 and had the tents air-conditioned.

Doubleday and Co. stagnated and struggled through the latter part of his

stewardship. Analysts blamed Nelson's hands-off managing and his preference not

to tinker with things that have been successful. But when it became necessary,

he acted. Jobs were cut, entire imprints eliminated and a string of radio

stations sold. When the company rallied, Doubleday was able to sell it to a

German concern for nearly $500 million in 1986.

Despite his patrician upbringing and enormous wealth, there is a touch of

the common man in Doubleday, who has been known to wait on lines at concession

stands at Shea. Finding himself stuck in traffic on his way to the first

Yankees-Mets interleague game at Yankee Stadium, he got out of his limousine

and walked the final three-quarters of a mile. At the final home game in 1993,

Doubleday invited the 3,000 or so fans present to move down to the field boxes,

where he personally thanked as many as possible for their loyalty through a

dismal season.

Then there was the time in spring training when a shipment of shoes

addressed to then-third baseman Howard Johnson ended up at the Florida home of

Doubleday's Hobe Sound neighbor, Howard Johnson, the 28-flavor guy. Doubleday

picked up the shoes himself and delivered them to the other HoJo.

In the early 1980s, Doubleday reportedly was part of an eclectic group of

CB radio aficionados who called themselves the Cuckoo's Nest Convoy. They

talked on their way to work in Manhattan every morning. Doubleday's handle was

the Bookworm, and he greeted his CB pals at Shea with scoreboard signs that

read, "Welcome Cuckoos."

Doubleday is zealous about his privacy. Few people outside his inner

circle, for example, knew he had liver-transplant surgery in April 2000 (his

health is vastly improved, say those who know him). Doubleday, who has said he

stopped drinking about two years ago, said he was told cirrhosis was not the

cause. Later, he conceded he didn't realize how sick he had been and said his

doctors told him he was two days from dying. Holding court on the Shea infield

before one of the Subway Series games, he said, "My win is being here, standing

on this turf, not looking up through it."

Though Doubleday is more reclusive than Wilpon, he is more colorful when he

chooses to speak. He was on an especially good roll last fall, commenting on

Wilpon's new stadium proposal: "You don't want to try to build the Taj Mahal

and end up with an outhouse." And on Shea: "If you sit up in some of the red

seats, you're in another zip code you're so far from home plate." And on his

relationship with Wilpon: "Nobody's stalking anybody with an ax or anything

like that."

Doubleday's first foray into sports ownership was a 2-percent stake in the

NHL's California Golden Seals. Later, he became one of the original minority

partners of the Islanders, holding the second-largest share behind Pickett. In

1992, he started a golf-equipment company in Florida with Jack Nicklaus and

convinced Nicklaus to make his only appearance at Long Island's senior

tournament, then called the Northville Long Island Classic. The men still are

partners.

"Nelson is great, one of the sharpest men I've ever met," said Amy Walker,

marketing director of Nicklaus Golf Equipment. "We have many conversations

about what we need to do about marketing, that sort of thing. He's so much fun."

When Wilpon and Doubleday bought the Mets in 1980, the team was dreadful.

The first four years included two last-place and two fifth-place finishes. The

watershed came in 1986, when the team galvanized the city by winning the World

Series against the Red Sox. Though Wilpon knew full well the significance of

victory, Doubleday reportedly wept during a rare interview and confessed he

never had understood until then what the Mets meant to New York.

The year was significant for another reason. Going into that season,

Doubleday's publishing company owned 95 percent of the Mets with Wilpon holding

the other 5 percent. When Doubleday moved to sell the company, Wilpon

exercised a contractual right of first refusal on the sale of the Mets. Lore

has it that Doubleday was not aware Wilpon held such a right. After

negotiations, the pair emerged with the 50-50 split that continues today.

Some Mets-ologists say that was the beginning of the alleged falling-out

between the two men. Others say feelings turned hard in the mid-1990s, when

Doubleday was quoted in a book called "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of

Baseball" as having made anti-Semitic remarks. Wilpon publicly defended his

partner, though many felt he privately was very upset.

"It's pretty obvious they come at things from two different angles," one

Major League Baseball official said. "But I've never heard of an instance of

where they stand on opposite sides of an issue regarding our office."

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who counts both owners as friends but is

especially close to Wilpon, said he never has had a problem with Wilpon or

Doubleday or been called upon to mediate a dispute between them.

"I wake up at 3 in the morning worrying about lots of problems. I never

wake up worrying about the Mets," Selig said. "If I were to rank the 30 clubs

on ownership problems, this is one that has caused me nary a problem."

Both Wilpon and Doubleday are traditionalists when it comes to baseball.

Their love of the game as an institution is evident. Both opposed the ouster of

commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992 (Wilpon served on the search committee that

recommended Selig). Both deplore what Wilpon calls rotisserie baseball: the

mindless assemblage of free agents without developing a solid core. Wilpon also

played a key role in the 1990 spring-training lockout negotiations, emerging

as a voice of calm and reason, and took to the radio to personally apologize to

fans in 1995 after the end of the 7�-month players strike.

The owners stay out of the Mets' baseball decisions, Phillips said, though

he seeks their input on big decisions (the non-pursuit of Alex Rodriguez, for

example) and keeps each informed about potential deals.

Both Wilpon and Doubleday pride themselves on treating employees as family

(the occasional general manager firing aside), and the notion of giving is

important to both. Doubleday donates liberally to various charities. Recently,

he welcomed 150 sponsors of the Friends of Nantucket Public Schools into

Harborside, his Nantucket home, for a fund-raising party.

"It's a big project ... and Nantucket is an expensive place to host a large

cocktail party," said Jenny Garneau, vice president of the Friends group. "He

doesn't disclose to us how much it costs ... We're very lucky. He's been very

generous to our community."

Wilpon, who serves on the boards of several charitable organizations,

requires all executives at Sterling to spend at least 10 percent of their time

on pro bono work. He also funds numerous college scholarships personally and

through his foundation, always insisting on anonymity, and revels in letters

from recipients updating their unnamed patron on their progress and future

plans.

As for Wilpon and Doubleday's future, it probably will look a lot like the

present. Wilpon says the two talk on occasion, but they are more likely to

communicate through intermediaries. They sit together at important league

meetings and, whatever their personal differences, continue to stop butting

heads in time to find consensus on big decisions (as they did when it came time

to pony up for Mike Piazza's contract).

Has their 22 years together been frustrating? At times, probably. But

Wilpon also has found the experience of ownership, even joint ownership,

fulfilling. When Bob Tisch, one of Wilpon's best friends, was contemplating

purchasing half of the football Giants, they sat down for a four-hour lunch.

"I urged him to do it because I thought he was right for it and the quality

of his life would be enhanced - and it was a 50-50 joint venture," Wilpon

said. "It's been a quality-of-life issue for me, a wonderful quality-of-life

issue for me."

Though Wilpon says he has yet to contemplate retirement, he wants his share

of the Mets to stay in the family. Son Jeff, an executive with a Mets

subsidiary responsible for the design and construction of the new stadium, is

the heir apparent. "Jeff and others," said Wilpon, who has three children in

all.

When Cablevision tried to buy the Mets two years ago - both Wilpon and

Doubleday were interested - the deal reportedly fell through at least partly

because Wilpon, who would have been named managing general partner, insisted on

a significant role for Jeff.

Doubleday has four daughters from his first marriage, as well as a stepson

and a stepdaughter from his second. It has been widely presumed that none has

designs on the Mets. Not so, said Cummins, Doubleday's financial adviser.

"There's great interest in this family in the ballclub," Cummins said.

So it goes. In a way, Wilpon and Doubleday are like the married couple who

might be growing apart but stay together for the house and the kids. Neither is

getting out, not with a new home on the way. Fred has Jeff waiting in the

wings. Nelson has his clan.

It's like Cummins said. There's no reason this partnership might not

continue for a long, long time.

New York Sports