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New Yorker Joins Mets' Madoff Fray via Extensive Fred Wilpon Interview

In this week's issue of the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin provides an extensive look at the pro-Wilpon side to the ongoing Madoff mess by offering extensive comments from Fred Wilpon, Saul Katz, the Wilpons' lawyers, and, of course, Bernie Madoff among others. Toobin's story offers an intimate summary to what brought the Wilpons to the present, precarious state engulfing the owners of your New York Mets.

By the very nature of civil proceedings, you will find no smoking guns in Toobin's article to exonerate or doom the present ownership. It reiterates some points we already knew, clarifies a few issues, and creates controversies that will give the likes of Mike Francesa some material to propagate the anti-Wilpon faith.

Toobin opens his article by providing the Wilpons' back story -- Fred's humble Brooklyn beginnings, how he wound up in real estate (the short version: religious discrimination), how he convinced Sandy Koufax to pick up a baseball, how he came to own the Mets... You've heard a lot of this before. There's a lot more detail to it and paints a full picture of how Fred Wilpon made the Wilpons a Mets household name, but you can probably ballpark the details if you've even casually maintained an interest in the Wilpons.

Besides the Wilpon bio, a few notable themes jumped out from Toobin's article:

  • Fred Wilpon's involvement with Bernie Madoff came about because an adolescent Jeff Wilpon wanted to borrow the boat of Bernie's son Mark. The relationship begins as two dads becoming casually acquainted because their sons were good friends and grows into a casual friendship. Toobin does a nice job recounting what rich friends like Bernie Madoff and Fred Wilpon do when they hang out and frames it to clear up any misconceptions about the duo being busom buddies.
  • The Wilpons know real estate, but don't quite understand the world of finance. This is the crux of the "dupe" argument - The Wilpons didn't know about Madoff's ponzi scheme because they were, at best, average minds in the financial market. Wilpon received a referral for Madoff by an old friend and later had that referral reaffirmed by economist Peter Stamos -- who was brought in by the Wilpons in 2002 to diversify their portfolio in case Madoff ever left the business. (You'll recall that Stamos's alleged warnings about Madoff are a major part of Picard's case.) Toobin also speculates on one of the major holes in the case against the Wilpons by asking:

    Most important, if Wilpon and his partners had so many reasons to suspect that Madoff was a fraud, why did they leave so much money under his supervision? Their huge commitment of money to Madoff's care seems to suggest that they thought Madoff was legitimate, not that he was running a Ponzi scheme. "I don't think Fred knew Bernie was about to go out of business," a person close to Picard said. "Bernie was paying as he did in the past. There was no way to know that there was a run on the bank."

  • Fred Wilpon's inner circle refer to themselves as "the old farts' club." The club prides itself on laying claim to their blue collar, outer-borough roots rather than their successful careers. That sometimes includes a "Back in My Day" race to the bottom regarding each member's background:

    During one recent lunch together, the old farts had a contest of sorts to determine who grew up in the most modest of circumstances. They had all shared a bedroom with siblings, but Wilpon was deemed the winner, because he was the only one who had to share with his sister.

  • Fred Wilpon claimed responsibility for the botched Citi Field opening by saying:

    "All the Dodger stuff--that was an error of judgment on my part."

  • You will be beaten over the head this week by Fred Wilpon's out-of-context appraisals of his present players at an April game that induced our own Eric Simon to ponder if the team had hit rock bottom yet. So let's get to the quotables that will turn a pro-Wilpon story into the latest Mets' PR disaster. After describing Jose Reyes as a "racehorse," Wilpon assesses Reyes's purported desire to receive a contract similar to the seven-year, $142 million given to Boston's Carl Crawford by saying:

    "He's had everything wrong with him. He won't get it."

  • On David Wright:

    "A very good kid. A very good player. Not a superstar."

  • On Carlos Beltran:

    "We had some schmuck (referring to himself) who paid him based on that one series (the 2004 postseason)... He's sixty-five to seventy percent of what he was."

  • And the award for money quote that has nothing to do with Madoff but will nonetheless haunt Mets fans indefinitely goes to Fred Wilpon's analysis of Ike Davis:

    "Good hitter," Wilpon said. "Shitty team -- good hitter."

Before you go calling WFAN to vent about how out of touch the Wilpons are with reality, please give Toobin's article a read. It paints a fair picture of an honest man trying to do right in his business endeavors and in the Mets' endeavors but lands himself in trouble due to misguided loyalties. Unfortunately, it also captures what feels like a terminal case of foot-in-mouth disease plaguing a Mets ownership that was oh-so-close to not antagonizing its fan base for a change.

Whether you agree with that perspective is one thing, but hearing it from the primary source should at least provide better insight than the rampant speculation that pervades a story that will cloud Metsopotamia for quite a while to come. In context or not, these words are Fred Wilpon's own. Please recall that they were uttered in the context of the Wilpons' survival -- a case that Toobin describes succinctly by saying: salvage his reputation and his fortune, Wilpon must prove that he was a dupe rather than a crook.

Try to remember that distinction as you become tempted to label the Wilpons as idiots for letting this happen.