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With Wilpons Set to Cede Control, the Mets End an Era of What-Ifs

About six months after leading a pointed public battle against the Mets’ owners over their entanglement with the Bernard L. Madoff Ponzi scheme, the lawyer David Sheehan came face to face with one of them, Fred Wilpon, at Carnegie Hall.

The two had been at odds in a heated litigation, with Sheehan accusing Wilpon and his brother-in-law, Saul Katz, of either knowing about Madoff’s fraud or neglecting to understand it when they should have. Wilpon and Katz vigorously denied the charges, eventually settling in 2012 to pay roughly $61 million, while never admitting culpability.

But when Sheehan noticed Wilpon waving at him at the New York Pops concert, the two shook hands and chatted amicably. Later, the Sheehans purchased tickets for a box at Carnegie Hall, and who should share the box with them? Wilpon and his wife, Judy.

Astonishingly, the foursome got along famously, began meeting for preconcert dinners and spending time at the Wilpons’ estate in Long Island. Today, Sheehan considers Wilpon a friend, but says they have never discussed the case.

“It just shows how incredibly gracious he is,” Sheehan said in a telephone interview last week. “That was a really contentious litigation, but it had a delightful outcome.”

Perhaps decades of withering criticism from fans and news media members over how he ran the Mets — some of it fair, some not — had inured Wilpon to public attacks. But no booing could have been worse than that bruising litigation and the staggering financial losses suffered in the Madoff scandal, which almost cost Wilpon and Katz ownership of their beloved team.

People close to Wilpon say that within days of the revelation of the scheme and the millions of dollars he and the Mets lost, he vowed to do whatever was necessary to salvage his control of the team. He promised, too, that the episode would never destroy his family or become a personal obsession of regret, as his relationship with Sheehan suggests.

While they retained control, Wilpon and Katz were eventually forced to sell nearly half the team in small parcels to a crew of separate minority owners. One of them was Steven A. Cohen, the billionaire who recently agreed to buy a majority share of the club for an estimated $2.42 billion.

Provided that sale is approved by the other owners, the Mets on Sunday played what will probably be their last game of the Wilpon-Katz dynasty — and perhaps fittingly, it ended short of the playoffs, for the fourth consecutive year.

But if the Madoff scandal had never happened, the entire Wilpon-Katz era would probably have a different feel to it, and perhaps not be ending so soon.

“I believe things would have been different,” said Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball at the time and a friend of Wilpon’s. “But you know, in many ways you also have to be lucky in life, and that was some pretty bad luck.”

ImageFrom left, Saul Katz, Fred Wilpon and Jeff Wilpon at a playoff game at Citi Field in 2015. 
Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

There is a portentous photograph of Fred and Judy Wilpon at a Mets gala event around 1961, before the team had even played a game, and Judy was pregnant with Jeff. That family would go on to shape the fortunes of the club for decades.

Fred Wilpon, 83, first acquired a 5 percent share of the Mets in 1980, and six years later bought half the club from Nelson Doubleday. In the 34 seasons since then, the Mets, playing in the nation’s biggest market, reached the postseason only six times and never won another World Series.

In 2002, Wilpon, his son Jeff and Katz bought Doubleday’s remaining shares (in another contentious proceeding), and governed the team as a ruling triad. Fred Wilpon was the tone setter, Katz was the financial expert and Jeff Wilpon, the bulldog administrator, became a lightning rod for frustrated fans who accused him of meddling too often in baseball affairs.

But it was Fred Wilpon, a pitcher in his youth, who was the driving force behind the family’s ownership of the Mets. The team was his vision and maybe even his destiny: Judy, his wife, was one of the Mets’ first employees, working as an executive assistant when the club was being formed.

Across their tenure, there were some exalted moments, like when they reached the World Series in 2000 and 2015, and some comical and puzzling missteps, the worst of which was the Madoff debacle.

Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times

The Mets could be exciting in the Wilpon years — even uplifting, like when they welcomed professional sports back to New York in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, in a game that announced to the world that the city would recover.

But in the 19 seasons since the group bought out Doubleday, the Mets made the postseason just three times, and fans grew weary of its reign. Whether it was because they could not, or would not, spend more money on top players, many fans vilified the owners, particularly the Wilpon duo, for the team’s failures.

“Look, I understand that when teams don’t win as much as the fans would want there’s always anger directed toward the owner,” Selig said. “But no one can doubt how deeply Fred cared about the Mets and wanted them to win.”

One thing they did win was a huge asset appreciation. The team was valued at $391 million when Wilpon and Katz took over in 2002, and they presided over a sixfold increase in 18 years, thanks in part to the addition of a picturesque ballpark that opened in 2009, a regional sports network (SNY) and the general increase of sports team values over time.

Steve Phillips was the general manager of the Mets in 2002, when the Wilpons and Katz gained full control of the club. He had been a member of the front office for several years before that, during the occasionally quarrelsome Wilpon-Doubleday partnership.

Doubleday, who was of wealthy patrician stock, saw the team as a hobby. Wilpon, a self-made millionaire from modest means in Jewish Brooklyn, saw the team both as the passionate expression for his love of baseball and as a business. Doubleday was cast as the avuncular, free-spending fop, while Wilpon was portrayed as a cheap taskmaster who refused to spend big on players.

Credit…Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

“It wasn’t a fair portrayal at all,” said Phillips, who served as general manager from 1998 until 2003.

A couple of weeks before Phillips was fired, as fan and media pressure mounted for Wilpon to make a change, he entered the owner’s box at Shea Stadium during a game and told Wilpon he would understand if he were cut loose. Wilpon thanked Phillips for the gesture, and said he would wait to see what happened. Soon after, Phillips was gone.

“He was demanding to work for, and there were times it could be unpleasant watching a game with him because he would get so emotional about every pitch,” Phillips said. “But it was because he cared so much. I don’t think people get how much he wanted to win.”

Credit…Chester Higgins Jr/The New York Times

Many felt Fred Wilpon placed too much faith in his son. To his critics, Jeff Wilpon was abrasive and entitled. But he was also largely responsible for overseeing the classic design and construction of the new stadium, and for the development of the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league team, with its own little stadium in Coney Island.

Some felt that little stadium too strongly reflected Fred Wilpon’s love of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax more than it did the history of the Mets. But the old Dodgers were a genuine passion for Fred Wilpon, and in many ways the Mets grew out of that seed — and were often influenced by it.

In 1996, Wilpon, with the approval of Doubleday, promoted a manager named Bobby Valentine, a brash, energetic baseball intellect with deep ties to the Dodgers. Valentine was a former Dodgers player, and his father-in-law, Ralph Branca, pitched for the team when it was in Brooklyn.

“Fred’s main focus was always to protect the brand of the New York Mets,” Valentine said. “When he first hired me, he asked me to work 12 months a year because he wanted everyone to be as committed as he was. And he told me he wanted more back pages than the Yankees. I signed up for both.”

On the field, though, the dedication never yielded consistent results. In 2006, the Mets appeared to be headed in the right direction after falling a few outs short of the World Series. But a year later, the team suffered a colossal late-season collapse in the standings, and one year after that, a far more debilitating financial collapse.

Credit…John Raoux/Associated Press

“The Madoff episode was a real tragedy for Fred, both financially and personally,” said Fay Vincent, the M.L.B. commissioner from 1989 to 1992. “It took a toll. But owning that team was still the joy of a lifetime for Fred.”

Through it all, he found ways to remain positive, often a privilege of the wealthy. In the spring of 2011, as the drama of the Mets’ financial and legal duress unfolded, tensions were high in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where the Mets hold spring training.

One day, in the parking lot, Fred Wilpon bumped into a reporter who had written several articles on the matter. In a civil and respectful tone, Wilpon expressed his objections to some of the coverage, which he felt was overly aggressive.

Eventually, Wilpon held up his hands and demonstrated a similar grace that he would show months later to a dogged lawyer at Carnegie Hall.

“Oh, well,” Wilpon shrugged. “At least everyone is healthy.”

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