The Wilpon Era is ungraciously coming to an end. Family patriarch Fred created the Mets debt. But it was son Jeff who ruined the team.
The Wilpon Era is drawing to an inauspicious close as final bids for the sale of the New York Mets are due for receipt no later than next Monday.
Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, longtime friends, and business partners are not selling the Mets because they want to – they’re selling because they must.
For decades, the wrath of Mets fans and much of the New York media could not move them to sell.
It’s only when the banks stepped in that the Wilpon Era met head-on with accumulating debt and fiscal mismanagement (a polite term) that moved Saul Katz (especially) to cry uncle, forcing the sale of the team.
The kicker came in the form of a $250 million loan that was due on July 1 and payable to the Wilpon Era’s favorite enabler, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
With no money in the till and following a $50 million loss in revenue over the 2019 season, the Mets line of credit tumbled to zero, in effect, forcing the Fred Wilpon to reluctantly join his partner and putting the team up for sale.
The Wilpon Era: Setting The Table For Disaster
No economic assessment of the Wilpon Era is complete, however, without mentioning a crucial mistake in judgment by the two principal partners – Bernie Madoff.
Wilpon and his brother in law, Saul Katz, had over 500 accounts with Madoff, according to one analysis.
They were sued for $1 billion by the trustee for the victims who claimed they knew, or should have known, that Madoff’s returns were fraudulent.
As the Madoff scandal unfolded, and the broader Wilpon family empire was forced to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement by the trustee unwinding the fraud, the Wilpons struggled to maintain control of the Mets.
The family resorted to taking out at least $65 million in loans just to meet payroll and other obligations, including $25 million from their fellow owners in Major League Baseball.
After years of costly litigation, the Wilpons agreed to pay $61 million to the trustee. (Source: New York Times, December 2019)
The Wilpon Era: Sins Of The Son Are Greater Than His Father
While fiscal irresponsibility, greed, and stupidity all belong to the family elders as a signature description of the Wilpon Era, the real culprit on the side of running the team belongs to Jeff Wilpon, the Golden Boy graduate of Brown University.
In 2002, the Wilpon family, after graduating steps to wrest control of the Mets from the Doubleday family, achieved majority owner status.
Almost immediately, Jeff Wilpon, who had no previous interest in sports, much less baseball, was granted sole power as the head of the Mets baseball operations.
With Fred Wilpon, 83, and his siblings aging, their children were increasingly wary of having Jeff Wilpon, their aggressive, short-tempered relative, in charge of the family’s most valuable heirloom. (New York Times)
As the man with the power, Jeff Wilpon dove headlong into making baseball-related decisions because he could, regardless of the contrary advice coming from the Mets “baseball people”.
One example occurred in 2003 when Jeff Wilpon developed a liking for Kazuo Matsui, who was then playing in his native country of Japan.
Jeff Wilpon got his way, and Matsui appeared in 239 games over three years, batting a pedestrian .256 with seven home runs and 75 RBI, before moving on to finish out his career in Houston and Colorado.
In effect, Jeff Wilpon became the Mets stereotypical micro-manager. He insisted on knowing each transaction made by his General Manager, Jim Duquette. He reportedly reserved the right to assign injured players to minor league teams of his choice for rehab stints.
Eventually, Duquette had seen enough to resign in 2004.
The Wilpons: No Direction Home
The Wilpon Era never had a definitive direction home. A “Mets” culture was never defined as players of varying talent sifted through the organization (David Wright being an exception), staying too long, or leaving too soon.
The distinction between ownership and key personnel in the front office was never spelled out, creating the evolution of dysfunction that still reigns today.
The example of a fine-tuned organization rested only one bridge away. Still, resistance, possibly in the form of jealousy, prevented the Mets from adopting the Hal Steinbrenner/Brian Cashman formula to construct a perennial winning team in Queens.
There are few if any, bright spots in the Wilpon Era. World Series appearances in 2000 and 2015 dot the headlines.
And the value of the team jumped from $485 million in 2002, when the Wilpons formally took control, to where it stands today at $2.4 billion.
But overall, the Wilpon Era can only be marked by diminishing returns on the baseball field.
And that, my friends, is the sole mark that serves to judge any owner of a major league franchise.