A man ages to 74 years, the first 72 of them with as much grace and dignity as can be expected in a place – New York City – where brass knuckles are dispensed at birth.
He'd always seemed worthwhile, a savvy businessman who paid his debts and didn't screw over anyone so bad that it made the papers. And if you followed him around for a few days, you'd probably find he was sympathetic to lost puppies, threw batting practice to his kids and, occasionally, true to his salt-of-the-earth reputation, sewed his own clothes.
He grew up in Brooklyn and bought a local professional ballclub, this man who as a schoolboy pushed none other than Sandy Koufax to first base. By that association alone, he was thought of as baseball royalty. Of course, this team he purchased was the New York Mets and not the Yankees, which brought its own problems, but he did right by the fans and spent on his roster and built a new ballpark and tried to make sense of the proposition that some teams are forever winners and other teams look like his.
That didn't stop him.
When his baseball people asked for players, he delivered. When they asked for, say, Oliver Perez(notes), he said sure. When they absolutely needed Luis Castillo(notes), he went along. When the payroll swelled and Jason Bay(notes) would put them over the top, he asked where he should sign.
He never stopped falling for the same sales pitch, but, more important, he never stopped trying. There was something Brooklyn in that, something tough and relentless and, well, a little sad.
Then the man – 72 years in, remember – experienced some misfortune. Turned out one of the reasons he was such a fine businessman is that he had a friend, see, who could turn around a dollar like no one else. This friend was a little too good at it, as the feds discovered, and now he's doing time in a place where the currency isn't Fred Wilpon's cash, but Big Bubba's Lucky Strikes.
Now, at 74, Wilpon, lifelong good citizen, financial giant, owner of the Mets, is in danger. Maybe he was in on Bernie Madoff's despicable scheme, maybe he was conveniently unaware, or maybe he simply was hanging out with the wrong crowd, the worst kind of luck.
However it went down, he's into the cleanup for hundreds of millions of dollars. He's hoping to sell off parts of the Mets to help square his debt with Madoff's victims. His reputation has taken a beating, along with his checkbook.
If you're a Wilpon, a Mets fan or Bud Selig, Wilpon's fall leans toward tragic. This was a man who by appearances had lived clean enough, whose motivations were pure enough, and whose intentions were honest enough.
And certainly a man who'd derived an appreciation for the struggle. He'd played by the rules, or so he's said. He'd presumably come to understand that sometimes bad stuff finds a guy, from the blind side, and that – no matter how sturdy your character – you can be knocked from your feet.
So it was that Wilpon found himself watching a ballgame with a reporter from the New Yorker one day, and forgot that life isn't full of game-winning hits and healthy knees and satisfied potential. Sometimes, bad stuff finds players, too.
At 74, he told the truth, which is a fine quality. As Wilpon pointed out somewhere between his burger and hot dog, Jose Reyes(notes) is not worth $142 million, David Wright(notes) is "a really good kid" and also "not a superstar," and Carlos Beltran(notes) is "65 to 70 percent of what he was."
As an acquaintance immediately remarked to me, "Is this really a good time for Fred Wilpon to be talking about 'what one once was'?"
By the time Irving Picard is done with him, Wilpon would be thrilled to be 65 percent of what he once was. But, I'm pretty sure he wasn't complimenting Beltran on the same achievement.
So, Reyes has played 215 of a possible 370 games the past three seasons, Wright might well be just short of superstar status (though he is a five-time All-Star and the face of the Mets), and Beltran hasn't played more than half a season since 2008.
Wilpon concluded: "Sh---- team."
Plenty of honesty there. Want more? Wilpon's team. His management. His money. His responsibility.
He's the owner, for now. He gets to say what he wants. He should know his general manager probably would like to trade some of those players he's running down, however. He should know that the few Mets fans who didn't understand this team was "lousy," another of Wilpon's descriptions, do now.
And he should know that Reyes and Beltran didn't want to have their athletic primes wrecked by injury, and that Wright wishes he will rise to the level of superstar, probably more than Wilpon does.
But, you know, sometimes bad stuff happens to guys. Sometimes it's not enough to work hard and live right and sew your own clothes.
Hell, it could happen to anybody.
That's when the grace and dignity come in.
- Fred Wilpon