Wishing Doubleday was still the Mets owner

NJ.com’s Matthew Artus wrote an article about the history of Mets general managers since Frank Cashen came aboard. He closed his piece hoping that owner Fred Wilpon would have similar luck as with Cashen when hiring the team’s next GM.

Upon reading it, my first reaction was – I wish it was Nelson Doubleday who was making the choice.

It is often said that dying young can be a good career move. While Doubleday did not die, his reputation has certainly improved among Mets fans since he sold his shares in the club to Wilpon. Why is it that Doubleday has more credibility among the team’s fan base than the guy who actually cared enough to stick around? Is it merely a case of absence making the heart grow fonder or is there actual evidence for preferring Doubleday?

Let’s start by reviewing the history of the Doubleday-Wilpon Mets.

According to Andrew Rice of the New York Observer, when the Mets went up for sale in 1980, Wilpon was interested in buying the club but did not have the necessary cash. He approached John Pickett, who then was the owner of the New York Islanders, about combining on a bid. Pickett was not interested, but he did point Wilpon towards Doubleday, and Wilpon ended up with a 5% stake in the club when Doubleday purchased it from the Payson family for a then record $21.1 million.

So, the partnership between the two men was closer to that of a shotgun wedding rather than two old chums or two people who had a history of doing business together. It was an odd pairing, with Doubleday being “old money” and Wilpon being “nouveau riche.” The son of an undertaker, Wilpon was a self-made man who made his fortune in real estate while Doubleday inherited his money.

At first, the two co-existed without either much love or rancor. Since Doubleday owned the vast majority of the club, it was easy to see who had the power. Furthermore, Doubleday was the classic hands-off owner, one who let his new general manager run the club. This arrangement led to the mid-80s juggernaut and it was hard to imagine things being much better for Mets fans.

But in 1986, the year when the Mets reached the World Series for the first time in 13 years, things took a drastic turn for the worse. Doubleday decided to sell his publishing company, which owned the Mets, to a German firm but he was going to retain ownership of the team. However, allegedly unbeknownst to Doubleday, Wilpon had a right of first refusal on any sale, and he wanted to buy the Mets.

The two men agreed to become equal partners in a settlement deal, with each side contributing $81 million to buy the club back from Bertlesmann AG. Doubleday was not happy with how he went from having controlling interest to being an equal partner with Wilpon.

Things got even worse during the early 90s, when Doubleday supported Fay Vincent and Wilpon was aligned with Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf in the plot to oust the MLB Commissioner.

Health problems pushed Doubleday to the side, allowing Wilpon to take an even more visible role with the club. The two partners investigated selling 80 percent of the club to Cablevision, but Wilpon eventually backed out of the deal as he wanted to turn the club over to his son, Jeff. Ultimately, Doubleday sold his shares to Wilpon, but not before a big argument between the two men over the selling price.

MLB was brought in to help establish a proper valuation for the club. Given Wilpon’s relationship with now Commissioner Selig, it was not a big surprise that the MLB appraisal was less than what Doubleday thought was fair. In court documents, Doubleday’s lawyer said:

“In short, MLB – in a desperate attempt to reverse decades of losses to MLB’s Players Association – determined to manufacture phantom operating losses and depress franchise values.”

This caused major shockwaves at the time, as the owners and players were preparing for a new CBA.

The lawsuit continued:

“MLB – in cahoots with Wilpon – had no intention of honoring its promises to Doubleday. Quite to the contrary, MLB orchestrated a sham process that not only mistreated Doubleday and betrayed his trust, it actively favored Wilpon and engineered a result that served MLB’s other – and conflicting – interests.”

Commissioner Selig responded by threatening Doubleday with a $1 million fine for discussing financial issues publicly. Eventually, Doubleday relented to the sale price as set by the MLB-appointed arbitrator but got a greater percentage of the money up front and also negotiated to receive $40 million if the Mets built a new stadium.

MLB released a statement regarding the sale and included a quote from Doubleday in the release. However, a report by T.J. Quinn of the New York Daily News said that the quote “was not written by Doubleday or his associates, according to sources.” The alleged Doubleday remark was:

“I deeply regret and apologize for the conclusions many drew from the papers that were filed last week by my lawyers. I did not in any way mean to impugn the integrity of the commissioner . . . or anyone from his office. Nor did I intend the counterclaim to get in the way of the ongoing collective-bargaining process. If it did, I apologize to the commissioner and to (players union chief) Don Fehr if it in any way had a negative effect on bargaining. I appreciate the assistance of Commissioner Selig in getting the deal finally done.”

*****

So, we have Nelson Doubleday, a person born on third base and who was famous for wearing pink sweaters tied around his neck. He was a businessman first and a baseball fan a distant second. And we have Fred Wilpon, a self-made man and one who was a high school teammate of Sandy Koufax. Why do fans prefer Doubleday?

Doubleday hired Frank Cashen and by extension Davey Johnson. Wilpon, in his first act without Doubleday around, hired Art Howe, who he claimed “lit up the room.”

Doubleday got out of the way after hiring Cashen and let him do his job. Wilpon instituted a collegial managerial style with no evident chain of command and put his son in a position of power.

Doubleday was willing to spend money when he thought it was in the best interests of the club and is allegedly the one who pushed for the Mike Piazza trade. Wilpon was the one who allegedly pushed for character guys and was the one blamed for sending outspoken players like Kevin Mitchell and Lenny Dykstra out of town.

Wilpon is the one who is aligned with Bud Selig, whose main goal is to make tons of money for owners. Doubleday backed Fay Vincent, who most remember fondly (rightly or wrongly) as the last “true” commissioner of baseball, the one who acted in “the best interests of the game.”

Wilpon is the one who got a stadium built that was more interested in honoring the Brooklyn Dodgers rather than the New York Mets. Doubleday wanted to save taxpayer money by renovating Shea Stadium instead of building a new park.

Doubleday was around for the 1986 and 2000 World Series runs. He sold his shares in 2002. Wilpon was the one who oversaw the collapses in 2007 and 2008 and the general ugliness of 2009 and 2010.

So, perhaps it is anecdotally but there does seem to be a reason for Mets fans to reminisce about when Doubleday ran the club. And it will probably remain that way until the Mets win a World Series under total Wilpon control. The best thing Fred and Jeff Wilpon can do is to take a page out of Doubleday’s book (pi) and hire the best man for the job and let him do his business without interference.

Just because you let more experienced baseball people do their job does not mean you cannot remain in the limelight. Doubleday was both a visible and quotable presence while he let Cashen do the heavy lifting.

If only the father-son Wilpon combo could do the same thing.

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