JEFF WILPON’S WILFULNESS HURTS METS, OTHERS

By Murray Chass

October 6, 2011

Talking to a baseball executive recently, I expressed the thought that David Samson, the president of the Florida Marlins, was probably the most disliked executive in baseball. I was thinking about Samson because I had just written about the Marlins’ questionable treatment of their rookie left fielder, Logan Morrison, in demoting him to the minors.Jeff Wilpon2 225

However, my executive friend disagreed. If not Samson, I asked, who? Jeff Wilpon, he said.

Wilpon is the New York Mets’ chief operating officer and son of Fred Wilpon, the team’s principal owner. Jeff Wilpon is the first of those descriptions because of the second. He did not studiously work his way up to his executive position, but he has earned his reputation of most disliked executive.

What has son of Fred done lately? He has deprived the economically struggling city of Newark, N.J., and the area’s baseball fans of a 2012 season of first-class AAA minor league baseball, refusing to waive the Mets’ right to block a team from playing in territory it shares with the Yankees.

Borrowing from my favorite author, Dr. Seuss, Wilpon is the Grinch who stole baseball from Newark.

We can’t blame Fred Wilpon for the decision because he told Jeff to handle it. Fred has enough tsuris (Yiddish for aggravation) of his own, fighting for his baseball life as the result of a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by the trustee for victims of Bernie Madoff’s gigantic Ponzi scheme.

The problem with a rich man letting his unsophisticated son handle simple matters is he is capable of simply messing it up. That’s what the younger Wilpon did in the Newark matter.

Wilpon declined to talk about the matter, saying he hadn’t said anything about it publicly and wasn’t going to start now.

The Yankees needed a place for their AAA Scranton team to play next season while its own park was undergoing a $40 million renovation. The Yankees looked around and decided Newark would be a good location.

The city has a ball park and a team that plays in it, but it is an independent minor league team and city officials were looking forward to having a top-class Yankees’ farm team, if only for a season.

“Given our city’s great history of minor league baseball, Newark would be the perfect venue for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate,” Mayor Cory Booker of Newark said in a statement in response to a request for a telephone interview. “We are hopeful that the Mets will reconsider their decision to veto this temporary move.”

The mayor unfortunately was not up to date with developments. The Yankees took the Mets’ veto seriously and worked out a solution. The Scranton-Wilkes Barre team announced last week that it would play its 72 home games at six different sites: Rochester (N.Y.) 37, Syracuse (N.Y.) 10, Lehigh Valley (Pa.) 8, Batavia (N.Y.) 7, Buffalo (N.Y.) 6, Pawtucket (R.I.) 4.

This is what Jeff Wilpon hath wrought. He could have said yes, and the Scranton players could have had a sane season, playing all of their games in one city and not needing to include a G.P.S. in their equipment bags with their gloves and bats.

In addition, unemployed workers could have had jobs for five months and others could have had jobs fixing and cleaning the city-owned ball park. Fans could have seen games at affordable prices unlike those that the Mets and the Yankees charge. Families could have actually attended games together.

Scranton YankeesNone of this, however, was Wilpon’s concern; no sense of compassion there. What Wilpon cared about, said an official familiar with his thinking, was the concern that by allowing the Yankees’ AAA team to play in Newark, he would allow the Yankees to develop young fans at the Mets’ expense.

I don’t have access to demographic studies of the residences of Mets and Yankees fans, but historically New Jersey residents are mostly Yankees fans and Long Island residents are predominantly Mets fans. How many future fans could the Mets possibly lose from a single minor league season in Newark?

But the Mets felt they would face an overload of Yankees influence in the area because the Yankees already had minor league teams in Trenton (N.J.) and Staten Island (N.Y.).

The Yankees were able to put a team on Staten Island as part of a territorial deal in which the Mets were able to put a team in Brooklyn.

Besides the Mets’ perceived problem with prospective future fans, they felt the Yankees came to them with their request too late for them to give it proper consideration.

But the Mets had enough time to come up with reasons not to waive their veto rights.

Internally, within the Mets’ organization, that is, Wilpon has veto rights by nature of his position. But according to executives of other teams, Wilpon exercises poor judgment and often makes life difficult for the team’s general managers.

Omar Minaya has declined to talk about his six-year tenure as the Mets’ general manager, but other executives have said they believed that Wilpon was calling many of the shots.

There was one time – in Minaya’s last winter in the job, I believe – when I thought he was acting strangely in his negotiations with agents for free agents. He was negotiating with them one at a time instead of running parallel negotiations.

I was critical of him for doing that, but I subsequently decided that he did it because Wilpon had not allowed him to negotiate for more than one free agent at a time.

Then there the time that Wilpon forced Minaya to apologize to a reporter, Adam Rubin of the New York Daily News, after Minaya publicly questioned Rubin’s ethics. Minaya, however, had been right in his position because Rubin had spoken with Wilpon about getting a job in baseball while he was covering the Mets.

Sandy Alderson, Minaya’s successor, is completing his first season in the job, and I have already heard that he is growing tired of Wilpon’s suffocating presence.

Sons of wealthy owners seldom make competent baseball executives. But their fathers are blind to their shortcomings. I would guess that no other owner would hire Jeff Wilpon as his chief operating officer, even if he had played baseball and knew the difference between home plate and the pitching rubber.

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