MEET THE MUTES

By Murray Chass

May 25, 2011

Mute Man has found his long-lost tongue, and it has flooded periodicals at your local newsstand, if newsstands still exist.

The words and wisdom of the Mets’ owner Fred Wilpon fill this week’s editions of The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated, as if the editors of those magazines woke up one day recently and exclaimed, “We have to have an in-depth piece on the owner of the Mets because he is the face of the fallout from Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme.”Fred Wilpon2 225

And of course the magazines, one your basic sports publication, the other an intellectually oriented periodical, scheduled their pieces for the same week. You can never say enough for coincidence.

The truth is Wilpon, who has been basically mute for years, certainly since the Madoff mess erupted, decided – or was persuaded – to do the interviews as part of a public relation campaign.

He and his advisors – handlers? – figured he wasn’t winning the Madoff game he was reluctantly playing with Irving Picard so he would use the p.r. approach. He would try to deflect attention from the claims involved in the $1 billion lawsuit filed against him by Picard, the trustee for Madoff’s victims.

“There was a feeling in the organization that Fred was being treated unfairly,” a club executive said. “People who know him said the Fred who was being portrayed wasn’t the Fred they know. People inside the organization and outside wanted to get his story out. It wasn’t getting out there.”

Initial coverage of the Wilpon-Madoff matter was lopsided, the executive said. That appearance was the result of coverage in two of New York’s newspapers, the Times and the Daily News.

“The Times feels it’s their story,” the executive said. “The coverage was crazy in the beginning.”

The coverage prompted a query from a reader of this Web site.

“What’s up with the radically different coverage of Wilpon-Madoff by the Times & News?” Henry asked in an e-mail last Sunday. “Pro Wilpon, News, pro trustee Times. Consistently so.”

Early in the coverage of the story the Times had a couple of articles that made Wilpon and the Mets look bad. The articles quoted lawyers involved in the case, and that was curious because the trustee’s lawsuit was filed under seal, at the request of the Mets.

When a lawsuit is under seal, anyone involved in the case is not legally permitted to talk about it. Why the lawyers who talked to the Times were able to get away with it is unclear. But that development didn’t escape the Mets’ notice.

Feeling they were getting the short end of the stick, the Mets unleashed their lawyers, who chose the Daily News to talk to. The articles that resulted favored the Mets and put their side of the story on display for the public to digest.

Two other factors, one for each side, had an impact on the coverage.

Just before the story heated up, the Times changed sports editors. Had Tom Jolly remained in that position, the Times’ coverage would have been a wisp of what it became under the direction of Joe Sexton, an aggressive editor, who had been the paper’s fast-rising metropolitan editor and someday may be a candidate for the No. 1 position of executive editor.

To bolster the department’s weak coverage of sports news, Sexton brought with him a good newsside reporter, Serge Kovaleski, and assigned him to the Mets-Madoff story.

There was yet another element to consider. Sexton was the Mets’ beat writer for the Times in the early 1990s, and his type of coverage angered the Mets generally and particularly the manager Jeff Torborg. Sexton wrote articles critical of Torborg, a decent and friendly manager but never gave Torborg a chance to offer his version of events that Sexton singled out for criticism.

The Mets would not be off base for questioning some of the stories the Times has run on the differences between Wilpon and Picard.

The Daily News, on the other hand, has aligned itself with the Mets to a great extent, people in the news media business have suggested, because of the supposedly close relationship between Jeff Wilpon, Fred’s son and the Mets’ chief operating officer, and the Daily News’ sports columnist, Mike Lupica, who is influential in the paper’s coverage.

But when Fred Wilpon and his advisors embarked on their public relations campaign, their targets were not the New York newspapers. They were too local. If Wilpon was to resuscitate and save his reputation, something bigger, more influential and national was needed. That’s how Wilpon came to do interviews with The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated.

Fred Wilpon SI StoryThe resulting articles contained details about Wilpon’s disputed investments with Madoff, but they went beyond Madoff and Picard and tried to portray Wilpon’s human side.

The New Yorker article quotes Wilpon as speaking critically of three of his players, Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran. It was most uncharacteristic of Wilpon, who never cared for the way George Steinbrenner used to criticize his players publicly. But Wilpon included himself, too.

Speaking of the Mets’ decision to sign Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million contract following his superb performance in the 2004 post-season, Wilpon, referring to himself, said, “We had some schmuck in New York who paid him based on that one series. He’s 65 to 70% of what he was.”

Wilpon went further to show his human side, if you consider using locker room language human.

Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker reporter, wrote of being in the Mets clubhouse with Wilpon before a game at Citi Field. Speaking to pitching coach Dan Warthen about a pitcher who took forever to pitch, Wilpon said, “Tell him to throw” the blanking ball.

Wilpon would never say such a thing in public but presumably figured it would sound good to the reporter, who would certainly use it in his article.

I have a better story to attest to Wilpon’s humaneness, one that speaks better of Wilpon than a profane comment to a coach.

A few years ago I became aware of an infant who had cancer. She was the daughter of a former co-worker of one of my children. The parents desperately wanted her to be seen at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, a New York hospital noted for its cancer treatment, but had been unsuccessful in getting an appointment.

I knew that Wilpon was connected to the hospital, and I called him. The child was seen the next day. Sadly she died some months or a year later, but Wilpon had given her a chance.

After I read the two magazine profiles of Wilpon and thought maybe he had emerged from his cocoon of muteness, I called Jay Horwitz, the Mets’ spokesman.

“He’s not going to talk,” Horwitz said. “He hasn’t made himself available for comments.”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.