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Two Tales of A City, A Complex Story

It’s impossible to be a baseball fan and not be aware that two of MLB’s erstwhile “glamour franchises”, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets, are in financial and legal distress. The Mets’ story is more complex and more fraught with difficulties for the bystander to understand.

Just last week both The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated devoted substantial space to coverage of the predicament Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz find themselves in due to their longstanding friendship and financial involvement with convicted Ponzi scheme artist Bernard Madoff. Both articles are outstanding and shed light on the situation from two very different perspectives. I found them illuminating and provocative.

In The New Yorker Jeffrey Toobin presents the story in great detail. You may be familiar with Mr. Toobin; he is a frequent contributor to CNN, a noted legal scholar, and a respected analyst and commentator on politics, government, and the law. Mr. Toobin is a native New Yorker and a Mets fan. He makes no bones about it. How personally familiar he is with Fred Wilpon, the Mets owner, is not clear. It is likely the two men move in different orbits.

What comes across clearly is that Fred Wilpon in Mr. Toobin’s mind is a good man, an American success story, a city kid with an ethnic background who has made good in his life and is decent and caring about people, including his players. Now, it is true that Mr. Wilpon said some unfortunate things to Mr. Toobin in the article about Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carols Beltran and other prominent Mets, but clearly his disappointment with on-field results for the team has been colored by his personal extremity. As Mr. Toobin points out, Mr. Wilpon must now convince the judge that he is a dope, not a crook.

Mr. Wilpon and his partner and brother-in-law Saul Katz are being pursued by Irving H. Picard, the Special Master appointed to “claw-back” ill-gotten gains from the “winners” of Mr. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme; and the Wilpons/Katzes certainly were winners over the years. Mr. Picard has his sights set on getting over $1 billion from the Mets’ ownership, a situation that puts them in imminent danger of losing their club. They are already seeking minority ownership that likely will end up taking outright control before too long.

Unlike some of the other “winners” who have been able to write checks to make Mr. Picard go away (one for over $7 billion), Mr. Wilpon is not capable to doing that. Quite a bit of his net worth disappeared overnight when he lost $550 million upon the collapse of the Madoff empire. He has stretched his financial resources to the limit. He literally has no choice, at further expense, than to fight the charges against him. It will be courtroom proceedings of the highest drama.

Fred Wilpon comes across as a good man, a regular guy, his children like him, he was a star lefty pitcher in high school in Brooklyn, good enough to keep his teammate Sandy Koufax at first base; he was good enough to earn an athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan, where they kept him on scholarship even after injuries ended his pitching career. He found out the Mets were for sale when he took his son Jeff to work out for Mets’ coach and neighborhood friend Joe Pignatano. He has, until now, been in the right place at the right time. Next time we’ll cover the Sports Illustrated story, where many of the same details are presented in a different light and where the man Fred Wilpon takes on a very human, even tragic dimension.

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