What Was Fred Wilpon’s Endgame?
You may have been wondering why it’s taken me so long to respond to the quotes by Fred Wilpon in the recent New Yorker and SI articles. There were a few reasons.
First and foremost, when the New Yorker article came out I was still in Italy, with limited internet access and, frankly, too busy enjoying the food, wine, landscape, and people in that country to tear myself away. Hmm … enjoy fresh pasta, Tuscan bistecca, and cellar-aged Chianti on a terrace overlooking sun-drenched hillside vineyards, or race around looking for a wi-fi hotspot to read about Fred Wilpon’s public self-destruction? Pass the olive oil, please?
Secondly, by the time I returned to the USA and read both the New Yorker story and the dozens of reactions to it, it was quickly becoming old news. And, I was jet-lagged. Beating a dead horse while feeling groggy and exhausted is rather futile and not conducive to quality writing.
But now, taking a fresh look at both articles, there’s one thing that puzzles me: what was Fred Wilpon’s endgame?
Meaning, what exactly was Fred Wilpon attempting to accomplish through these two stories? It’s crystal-clear that the two articles — published almost simultaneously — were the result of an orchestrated publicity project. Feature stories in The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated don’t “just happen” — especially not when the main subject is a multimillionaire owner of a New York-based Major League sports franchise that is already in the public spotlight, and is in dire need of a cash infusion. Part of the reason for pitching these stories to The New Yorker and SI had to be to create positive spin; to portray Fred Wilpon as an honorable individual who made a few regretful mistakes in trusting some people a bit too much.
And the SI story reads exactly that way — to the point where the most cynical might wonder if Tom Verducci was asked (or paid) to make Fred Wilpon appear as an innocent victim of the Madoff Ponzi scheme — a gullible dreamer and ignorant investor who honestly believed that the 12-14% annual returns achieved by Madoff’s money machine was completely realistic and on the up-and-up, even when everyone else was losing their shirts due to the downturn of the economy.
If that was the goal — to look innocent and ignorant — then the SI article succeeded. Stepping back, though, it’s hard to believe that a man who could build a billion-dollar real estate business — which requires at least some knowledge of interest rates and how leveraging money works — could also be so naive about other financial investments. Further, it’s difficult to understand how someone who admits
“I don’t know s— from shinola. I never bought a stock in my life. That’s not what we’re good at.”
yet found it completely OK to encourage (recruit?) no less than 483 other people to invest in Madoff’s fund. Advising someone to put their money into a hedge fund is not like recommending a restaurant — there are major risks and implications that are more serious than an upset stomach. If you measure yourself as having limited knowledge of the stock market, then how is it responsible or honorable of you to convince almost 500 people to invest their money in anything, or with anyone? It’s one thing to say, “oh you need a money guy? talk to mine” and quite another to recruit hundreds of people to an investment fund.
But I digress … where was I? Oh yeah, the goal of these articles. The SI one was pretty easy, and successful. But what the heck was Fred trying to gain by those quotes in The New Yorker? By now you must have heard about them or read them yourself. We’ll review them again anyway, for context.
On David Wright:
“A really good kid. A very good player. Not a superstar.”
On Carlos Beltran:
“He’s sixty-five to seventy per cent of what he was.”
On Jose Reyes:
“He thinks he’s going to get Carl Crawford money. He’s had everything wrong with him. He won’t get it.”
On the Mets in general:
“… a sh*tty team … Lousy …”
What exactly was Fred Wilpon trying to accomplish with all this trash talking? Was he trying to fire up his team, by channeling his inner George Steinbrenner? Was he attempting to cozy up to a portion of the fan base, who feel the same way and might suddenly love Fred because he “speaks the truth”? If so, it’s too bad that the words were negated the minute Fred called the players to apologize. If he meant what he said, he should have stood behind the quotes, rather than cower and distance himself from them. Yet, he didn’t say he was misquoted, which makes it all the stranger. Imagine if your boss mentioned in your annual review that you were, say, ineffective at task management — and then called you the next day to apologize? Kind of weak and cowardly, no?
Additionally, if you’re going to apologize, do it from the same pulpit that you criticized — go to a tabloid journalist and apologize via a back page story, so that the same millions of people who read the disparaging words can read the apology as well. Again, taking a real-life example: imagine your boss tearing you a new one at a meeting in front of the entire company — then pulling you aside afterward, away from everyone else, and apologizing. Kind of empty and ineffectual, no?
So I’m really not sure what was the endgame with the New Yorker piece. One person I spoke to suggested the possibility that Fred could have been speaking under the influence of one too many martinis — and perhaps was too embarrassed to say so. I’m not sure that it matters; even though alcohol can sometimes cause people to say regrettable things, they’re usually still saying what they truly feel. They may not want to say it, but the “truth serum” pushes it out.
The long-term ramifications of the New Yorker story are yet unknown. The players have responded properly, saying all the right things. But behind the scenes, they can’t be happy. Further, I’m curious to know what opposing players think of the situation — and whether they’d be inclined to play for an owner who publicly flogged three of his most valuable ballplayers. The team is struggling to stay out of first place, they’re bleeding money, and the owner hates on his players — not an ideal recipe for attracting free agents. Not to mention that Reyes and Beltran will be free agents shortly — and Wilpon’s words won’t do anything to help the negotiation process if either considers re-signing.
Over the short-term, I wonder if the negative reaction to the New Yorker piece accelerated the announcement of David Einhorn’s acceptance as a minority owner? Conspiracy theory you say — PR damage control I say. The best way to make people forget about big bad news is to deliver big good news.
I think a thousand-plus words is enough from me. What about you? What are your thoughts on what might have been the motivation behind Fred Wilpon’s quotes? Post in the comments.