MLB can take stand NFL didn't in vetting Jeff Wilpon accusations with severe potential consequences

·MLB columnist
MLB can take stand NFL didn't in vetting Jeff Wilpon accusations with severe potential consequences

A lawsuit Wednesday alleged that Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer of the New York Mets, harassed and later fired one of his senior vice presidents because he didn't agree with her pregnancy. If this is true – if these disgusting, abhorrent acts of misogyny receive even one iota of confirmation – one of Bud Selig's final acts as commissioner must be to rid Major League Baseball of this nepotistic fraud once and for all.

Selig, or his successor Rob Manfred, must do this because baseball needs to tell the world it is a safe place for women. That its top executives won't scoff and sneer and bungle the issues that face women every day like the NFL did the Ray Rice case. MLB shouldn't do this as a reaction to Rice; it should because it is the right thing to do. Whether it's a left to the jaw or a barrage of dehumanizing insults, a system that allows any kind of mistreatment toward women is broken.

Baseball likes to consider itself a progressive sport, dating back to Jackie Robinson's breaking the color line and through today, with Billy Bean serving as an ambassador to the LGBT community. Women occupy a number of high-ranking positions in baseball. One such woman worked as a senior vice president for the Mets. Her name is Leigh Castergine, and she ran ticket sales for the Mets until Wilpon fired her three weeks ago after demeaning her for nearly a year with churlish comments about being pregnant without being married, according to her lawsuit.

The idea of a Wilpon playing moral superior – of someone from the family that profited off the Ponzi scheme Bernie Madoff used to cripple lives holding himself in such esteem – dovetails with the stories of social and emotional incompetence that have chased him during his years running the Mets. It takes a remarkable level of ineptitude to make Jim Dolan look like the more competent of the New York sports scions.

The lawsuit alleges Jeff Wilpon told Leigh Castergine that when she gets a ring, she will make more money. (AP)
The lawsuit alleges Jeff Wilpon told Leigh Castergine that when she gets a ring, she will make more money. (AP)

For years, Selig's soft spot for the Wilpon family has allowed him to overlook their need for a loan to stay afloat amid the Madoff chaos, their mismanagement of a jewel franchise into the sort that operates like a low-revenue pauper, their public flubs that made #LOLMets a thing. Selig enabled the Mets knowing majority owner Fred Wilpon planned on gifting the franchise to Jeff, an underqualified bully who never would have sniffed sports-franchise ownership were he not bequeathed his last name.

Now MLB faces this reality: Jeff Wilpon sits on the board of directors for MLB Enterprises and MLB Network. The former group procures national broadcasting, sponsorship and licensing deals, and the latter is the public face of the sport. It's one thing to have a reprobate in ownership; it's another to give him a position of power in rooms where billion-dollar deals are negotiated.

Does a company really want to do business with an entity that confers power on a man who allegedly told a Mets employee he is "old fashioned and thinks [Castergine] should be married before having a baby"? A man who told her that "when she gets a ring, she will make more money and get a bigger bonus"? A man who, in front of a room of executives, laid out two rules for dealing with Castergine, according to the lawsuit: "Don't touch her belly and don't ask how she's doing; she's not sick, she's pregnant"?

If this is the sort of behavior MLB represents, it's just as bad as the NFL. Sports can be a miserable place for women, a cesspool of sexual harassment and abuse. It is incumbent on leagues not just to remind women they are a vital part of the sporting experience but actively encourage their involvement. Hopefully, more women in positions of power equal less Neanderthal behavior from a sporting culture awash in it.

Because nowhere should a woman have to hear what Leigh Castergine allegedly heard. When considering whether to accept an advertisement from an electronic cigarette company in February, the lawsuit alleges, Wilpon said: "I am as morally opposed to putting an e-cigarette sign in my ballpark as I am to Leigh having this baby without being married."

My ballpark. Mine. That's how Jeff Wilpon carried himself for years, as the cock of the walk, the all-knowing executive who, in reality, knew only how to take a proud franchise and run it into the ground. He directs the Mets with the vision of a mole, and people around the sport – from players to agents to executives – wish he would learn to burrow into the ground like one, too.

The lawsuit alleges that Wilpon fired Castergine on Aug. 20 because she hadn't met sales goals. He allegedly said "something changed" and she wasn't "as aggressive as she once had been," and all of this came after Castergine went to a woman named Holly Lindvall, the Mets' executive director of human resources, and reported all of Wilpon's remarks. Lindvall's response, according to the suit: "She instead urged Castergine to quit."

When she didn't, Wilpon offered Castergine a severance package of five weeks' salary, provided she didn't pursue legal claims, including harassment and discrimination, against the team. She instead sued, and baseball now is in a position of action.

An immediate investigation is warranted, and considering the Mets' inner circle of executives is small, it should not take long. Baseball can vet Castergine's claims in short order, and if even one of them is true, do what is necessary.

The impact could be massive. Mets fans for years have bemoaned the Wilpon ownership, knowing Fred planned on handing the franchise to Jeff. If MLB makes it clear, as it should, that it will not stand for misogyny of any sorts in its ranks, and Jeff Wilpon is shown to have engaged in systemic abuse, his ouster could alter his father's plans.

The Mets long ago deserved better owners, and now is Selig's chance to remedy his own errors or Manfred's to remedy his predecessor's. And, more than that, it's baseball's chance to take a stand. Sports needs people with the courage to say it is not OK for anyone in a position of power, be it physical or political, to use it in the mistreatment of women. Sports is at its finest when it's inclusive, when the Leigh Castergines of the world can go to work without fear their bosses will discriminate against them for the sin of being a woman.

The opportunity exists. The time is right. The priority is evident. MLB should be a safe place for women, and that starts with an immediate investigation to see if Jeff Wilpon is as bad a person as he is an executive.

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