Snakebitten or Just a Snake?

by Paul Knepper

The New York Mets have hit rock bottom. Team owner Fred Wilpon is being sued for more than $1 billion by the trustee who’s recovering money obtained fraudulently through Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme. Desperate for an infusion of cash, Wilpon’s been seeking an investor to purchase a minority share of the team for a reported $200,000.

Meanwhile, the Mets are languishing in fourth place, appear to have no direction as a franchise and attendance is down at Citi Field. Just when it seemed the situation couldn’t get much worse for the Mets and their owner, Wilpon bashed his best players and devalued the very franchise he’s trying to sell, in an interview with Jeffrey Toobin for an article to be published in the The New Yorker.

Wilpon took shots at three of the Mets biggest assets,  right fielder Carlos Beltran, shortstop Jose Reyes and third baseman David Wright. He said of Reyes, who’s in the final year of his contract: “He thinks he’s going to get Carl Crawford money,” referring to the seven-year, $142 million contract Crawford signed with the Red Sox this past winter. “He’s had everything wrong with him. He won’t get it.”

Wilpon referred to himself as a “schmuck” for signing Beltran to his current seven-year, $119 million contract following a great post-season with the Astros in 2004. He added that Beltran, who is coming off knee surgery, is “65 to 70 percent of what he was” and also reportedly mocked Beltran by pantomiming the outfielder’s check swing in the ninth inning against Adam Wainwright in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, which ended the series.

Of David Wright, the face of the franchise, Wilpon said: “Really good kid. A very good player. Not a superstar.” The owner did speak positively about first baseman Ike Davis, though he slammed the team in the process: “Good hitter – shitty team – good hitter.”

Mets fans have been speculating for months that the team would move Beltran and possibly Reyes before the trade deadline. Beltran isn’t the player he once was, but is still a solid switch hitter who could contribute to a contending team and Reyes is likely going to demand a lot of money for a injury-prone player. So what Wilpon said came as no surprise, but why say it? There’s a reason why it’s common practice for baseball team’s to discuss player evaluations and personnel decisions internally. By implying that Reyes and Beltran will not be back in Queens next season, he severely diminished GM Sandy Alderson’s leverage in trade talks.

Wilpon may be correct about Wright as well. Over the past few seasons the third baseman hasn’t performed like the superstar the Mets expected him to be. He has however, been a very good player, an exemplary representative for the franchise and a gamer who just played for a month with an undiagnosed broken back. Not only does he deserve better, but why would Wilpon antagonize one of only two marquee players on the team – Johan Santana being the other – likely to be wearing a Mets uniform next season. Wright, characteristically, responded with class: “Fred is a good man and is obviously going through some difficult times. There is nothing more productive I can say at this time.”

Wilpon’s comments are particularly perplexing because he’s not a novice, unaccustomed to dealing with the media. He and Nelson Doubleday Jr. became co-owners of the team in 1986 and Wilpon bought Doubleday out to be become the sole owner in 2002. He also doesn’t have a history of making controversial statements or criticizing his players publicly, like a recently deceased owner across town. The most likely explanation is that the stress he’s under from the Madoff fallout has affected his judgment and possibly his mental well-being.

Toobin’s piece in The New Yorker was supposed to help restore Wilpon’s image and even includes quotes from Madoff himself, exonerating his old friend of any responsibility for the Ponzi Scheme. It reportedly portrays  Wilpon as a bright businessman, though the owner’s own words point to the contrary. Wilpon supposedly referred to his franchise as “snakebitten,”  but it’s the people who lost their life savings to his benefit that were “snakebitten.” The Mets are just run by a fool.


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