Commentary

Jeff Wilpon can't hide any longer

If his father has lost the Mets clubhouse, it's time for the younger Wilpon to step up

Updated: May 28, 2011, 11:05 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- David Wright stood at his locker wearing an orange muscle shirt that carried the message, "Wreak Havoc," which only sounded like Fred Wilpon's marching orders for the week.

The injured Wright spoke before a large circle of reporters for 15 minutes and 32 seconds Friday night, addressing Wilpon's declaration that the New York Mets' third baseman isn't something the New York Mets' third baseman ever claimed to be: a superstar.

Wright never once addressed his boss as Fred, or Mr. Wilpon, despite the fact the player and owner had long shared a warm and fuzzy relationship, one built around Wright's willingness to forever serve as Wilpon's smiling face during the Mets' endless run of DEFCON 1 crises.

[+] EnlargeJeff Wilpon
John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireJeff Wilpon (left) has long been in the shadows behind his father, Fred (right).

Even when informed halfway through the interview that he'd yet to refer to his employer by name (instead it was "he" and "him" and "somebody" and "the ownership group" and "the organization"), Wright would not temper his passive-aggressive assault.

He was asked the question, "Do you have a problem with Fred?"

"Do I have a problem?" Wright answered. "No, I do not have a problem."

Wright appeared more likely to play a $200 million game of poker with David Einhorn, minority owner-to-be, than to acknowledge that the Mets' majority owner was actually given a name at birth. It reminded of the time a war-weary President Johnson conceded, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

Fred Wilpon has lost David Wright, which means he's lost the Mets, which means it's time for Wilpon's son Jeff to supplant his father and prove once and for all that he isn't some cowardly, second-guessing lion who does all of his roaring behind the walls of his comfy, cushy suite.

In 2007, after George Steinbrenner sparked one last firestorm by stating he would likely fire Joe Torre if the New York Yankees lost the Division Series to the Cleveland Indians, his son, Hank, punctuated the loss to Cleveland by addressing reporters outside the Regency while his father was whisked away in a car, never to be seen again.

Yes, Hank turned out to be a cheap rip-off of his old man, and something of a baseball buffoon, before flipping the ball to brother Hal and retreating into a less public and prominent role. But at least Hank had the nerve to put himself out front and attempt to replace the most famous owner in the history of American sports. At least Hank and Hal had the good sense to know that the Yankees needed a transfer of intra-family power.

Fred Wilpon isn't in a state of physical decline like Boss Steinbrenner was in 2007, but his damaging comments about Wright, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and his entire team in The New Yorker should represent his proverbial final straw the way the Boss' comments on Torre unwittingly served as his own farewell address.

Bud Selig doesn't want to knock his friend Fred out of the box in Frank McCourt style, even if it's the right thing to do. So between now and judgment day in the Bernie Madoff lawsuit, a day that could leave both Wilpons holding pink slips, Jeff should emerge from the back-room shadows and replace his father as the authoritative voice of the team.

Of course, Jeff Wilpon is widely perceived to be part of the problem, not the solution, in an organization that leads the league in communication breakdowns and 24/7 chaos. Maybe perception is reality in this case, and maybe it isn't. There's only one way to find out, and Friday night it sure sounded like David Wright was holding open the door for Jeff to walk through.

Wright couldn't bring himself to utter Fred's name, but without prompting had no problem throwing a bouquet of roses at Fred's son. Upon learning of The New Yorker piece, Wright said, "The first phone call I got that morning … was from Jeff, and it was very thoughtful for him to kind of reach out to me that early and to make it known that he was very apologetic for everything that I was going to have to go through after that."

In other words, Jeff was saying he was sorry for Fred, who never bothered to express his contrition to Wright in a man-to-man call. The owner left a voicemail, and the third baseman responded with a voicemail of his own. "A short message he left and a short message that I left," Wright said of their only exchange before adding that he'd erased Fred's message from his cell.

When the Mets were done kicking away another game to the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday night, Fred Wilpon declined an interview request as he staggered out of Citi Field with wife Judy by his side. Fred wore the body language of a beaten man, and uttered a barely audible response to a reporter's question. He showed a lot more vigor in the pages of The New Yorker.

"It's one quote; it's an opinion," Wright said of Wilpon's superstar line. "I'm not losing any sleep over it."

Jeff Wilpon also declined an interview request, preferring again to operate behind the curtain. His role in management, according to one official who worked for him, "is to act as president and CEO of second-guessing."

Like the time in the fall of 2004, when Jeff distanced himself from the Scott Kazmir-Victor Zambrano deal, telling a few reporters in a quiet corner of a conference room, "I was the lone dissenting vote on wanting to do this trade when Jim [Duquette] brought it to me."

Whatever. As much as the Mets need Sandy Alderson and his think tankers to make the personnel decisions, they also need a new leader at the very top, at least until Einhorn shoehorns the Wilpons out of power, with or without Irving Picard's help.

This is Jeff's chance, his time to show he can hit a triple even though he was born on third base. Just like Hank and Hal benched their father, Jeff has to convince his old man to call it a day and assume an emeritus role.

Fred Wilpon has lost all credibility as an owner. The most damning piece of evidence presented itself at the locker of the Mets' third baseman, where the face of a broken franchise refused to even speak his name.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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