Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of Fred Wilpon in the New Yorker was published online yesterday. The profile, intended to help shed the belief that Wilpon was complicit in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and improve his reputation, did that, but it made news in a much different way. It showed that Wilpon has more than a little bit of George Steinbrenner in him. In print, he criticized three of his prized players: Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and David Wright. He even called his team “shitty.”
The Mets have not had a good seven months. Wait, let’s dial this back, they haven’t had a good go of it since September 2007. Most recently, however — the past seven months — their financial troubles have dominated the sports and news sections of the local papers, due in large part to the Wilpons’ victimization in the Madoff scandal, as Toobin dutifully reported. The Mets’ average home attendance this season is 28,565 (68.3 percent capacity), ranking them 14th in the Majors, according to the latest MLB Attendance Report.
The finances aside, the timing for this article, and the commentary therein, couldn’t be worse. The Mets just got blasted in the last two games of the Subway Series, having been outscored 16-6 by the Yankees. Furthermore, since the article was published on an off-day, the story’s shelf life was extended an extra 24 hours. Players, coaches, the manager Terry Collins, anyone involved with the organization, will have to answer questions about this for another day. Once again, the focus on the Mets has shifted off the field.
Yankee fans have seen this many times over the years with George Steinbrenner: Pick a Billy Martin hiring-firing episode; the Howard Spira investigation of Dave Winfield; the Don Mattingly mustache/mullet fiasco; Hideki Irabu is a “fat pussy toad;” the David Wells and Gary Sheffield negotiations. Hell, pick one. We came to expect stuff like this over the years with George, and then Hank filled the void, even if he was a pale comparison to his old man.
But for Wilpon, who as Toobin shows, is a diehard baseball fan, student of the game, and bleeds with every pitch, this behavior is stunning. Forget the fact that Wilpon’s assessments of Beltran, Reyes and Wright are sound. (Some have argued that Wright’s numbers are superstar-worthy. They’re not. Wright is a star, but winning an MVP and/or a World Series to elevates players to “superstar” status.) The Mets need all the good PR they can muster right now. Downgrading the left side of your infield, two players that define this generation of the Mets and their fans, is an invitation for Defcon 5 level Damage Control.
For those who haven’t seen excerpts or read Wilpon’s quotes yet, here they are.
First, on Beltran:
…There is the matter of the quality of the Mets teams. At one point, I mentioned to Wilpon the theory that the Mets might be cursed. He gave a sort of half laugh, and said, “You mean”—and then pantomimed a checked swing of the bat.
Any Mets fan (I am one) would understand the reference. The Mets took the 2006 National League Championship Series to a seventh game against the Cardinals. On October 19th, in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets were down, 3–1, the bases were loaded, and Carlos Beltran, the team’s star center fielder, came to the plate. With two outs and the count 0–2, the Cards’ pitcher, Adam Wainwright, threw a looping curveball on the outside corner. Beltran twitched, froze, and watched strike three.
Wilpon later said Beltran, who has been beset by knee injuries the past two seasons and has arguably been the Mets’ most consistent player in his return this season, is “65 to 70 percent of what he was.”
On Jose Reyes, the impending free agent and perhaps the Mets’ most tradeable asset:
“He’s a racehorse. … He thinks he’s going to get Carl Crawford money. … He’s had everything wrong with him. He won’t get it.”
And finally, on David Wright, the face of the franchise:
“A really good kid. A very good player. Not a superstar.”
Let’s take each of these individually.
Re: Beltran, Wilpon called himself a “schmuck” for giving the switch-hitting center fielder a 7-year, $119 million deal based on his breakout postseason in 2004 for the Houston Astros. Toobin didn’t mention this, but it’s interesting Beltran took that contract and thrust himself in the spotlight. The chronicles of Buster Olney and Tom Verducci revealed that Beltran wanted to be a Yankee so that 1) he could inherit the centerfield job from a declining Bernie Williams, a fellow Puerto Rican whom he idolized; and 2) given the superstar players and uber egos in the Yankee clubhouse, Beltran thought he could hide. The Yankees did not want him, though. Instead, they traded for Randy Johnson, and also signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, hoping to solidify a pitching staff that was reeling after blowing a 3-0 ALCS lead to the Boston Red Sox. (Sounds like a familiar refrain. “We need pitching, we’re not focused on position players.” More on this later.)
Wilpon’s astute observation that Beltran is 65-70 percent of the player he was in his prime, is lost amid the gesture mimicking the failed check swing. It was the nonverbal equivalent of calling Beltran “Mr. May.”
On Reyes, Wilpon made it clear he’s not going to pay the shortstop the big contract he’s seeking. Reyes’ value on the open market is yet to be determined; the most common number tossed about by reporters apparently in the know, and talkies projecting Reyes’ worth, is about $90-$100 million over a five- or six-year contract. Reyes is one of the most dynamic players in the game, but persistent injuries — his good health this season notwithstanding — and flakiness he has shown in the past still trails him. Some personalities on WFAN have suggested the Yankees may want him. General Manager Brian Cashman refuted this notion, telling Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts two weeks ago that the priority is pitching, not position players.
And David Wright … One can only think of the contentious negotiations of Derek Jeter’s contract over this past winter, Hank Steinbrenner’s comments about the palatial compound Jeter is building near Tampa, and the back and forth that played out in the tabloids.
Local writers — both beat folks and columnists — excoriated Wilpon for the way he publicly dumped on the faces of his franchise. Mike Pelfrey told the Times’ David Waldstein, “Maybe next spring when we have our media workshop, Fred can come and sit in.” (Thanks, Tyler Kepner, for the great tweet).
Defenders of Wilpon may argue, “He’s paying these guys millions of dollars. If he’s not getting the return, he’s justified in his criticism.” That’s one view, yes. But if you’re as hands-on and supportive an owner as Wilpon is reputed to be, instilling that support and confidence is of utmost importance. Public criticism of your players, especially when that’s not known to be part of your M.O., crosses a line and is viewed as a breach of trust. How are his players supposed to view him now? How much tougher has he made the jobs of his general manager, Sandy Alderson and the braintrust of J.P. Ricciardi and Paul De Podesta? After these comments, does he expect that free agents would even want to come to New York for the Mets? What kind of reference sell would current Mets players make? Now, probably a reference to the Phillies to see if they have a void.
The Daily News reported that Wright was the first to respond to Wilpon’s comments. In an e-mail, Wright demonstrated his maturity and professionalism, saying “Fred is a good man and is obviously going through some difficult times. There is nothing more productive that I can say at this point.”
Wright may or may not have read Robert Fulghum’s poem “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten,” but he ascribed to many of the tenets outlined in the text. Mr. Wilpon would be wise to adhere to the following:
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Clean up your own mess.
Let’s see how many he follows through on in the coming days.