Commentary

Wilpons worst? Not by a long slap shot

We present 10 worst owners in N.Y. sports; Mets boss is better than two Isles chiefs

Updated: February 5, 2011, 9:51 AM ET
By Shaun Powell | ESPNNewYork.com

For the last time, the Mets will not see entirely new ownership, and you say Fred Wilpon's refusal to sell out completely is bad news for impatient Mets fans? No, say Knicks fans. Believe us, it could be worse.

Basically, be careful what you ask for, because New York has had its share of bosses with billion-dollar portfolios and 10-cent ideas. Who's to say the Mets would be better off without the Wilpons, who are seeking a minority partner? Well, OK, many are saying that. But there'd be no guarantee the Mets would fall into more capable hands, and besides the Wilpons aren't even the worst owners New York has known in the past 50 years. Close, but not quite the ultimate object of scorn.

While we wait until the Mets find someone willing to pay upward of $200 million to watch Wilpon remain in operating control, here's our list of odorous owners:

10. James Dolan (Rangers). Nobody has spent more and reaped less than the Rangers, who became the business model for Dolan. His father was a cable TV titan and respected businessman, but Son of Charles is more like dandruff off the old block.

Is it possible to miss the playoffs for seven years in the NHL? The Rangers did it (1998-2004) with the ease of an empty-net goal. Millions wasted on fading stars and too much allegiance to Glen Sather cost Dolan all the civic goodwill that swelled after the 1994 Cup. Dolan does spend whatever it takes, a Steinbrenner-esque stance that deserves applause, and yet when his name is mentioned in New York there's often a one-word response. And I can't use it here.

9. Secaucus Seven. For 20 years, the New Jersey Nets were owned by seven guys who had the team train in a dusty gym used by truckers. On any given afternoon, Joe Six Wheeler would lace up his Pro Keds three lockers down from Benoit Benjamin. It was the most vivid indignity suffered by a franchise that got swallowed up in the swamps and became an NBA punchline. The Secaucus Seven once lost Larry Brown to Kansas and for nearly a decade hitched their wagon to Willis Reed. They also empowered Derrick Coleman by giving him the NBA's richest contract. So when the Seven finally washed their hands of the franchise, there was only one reaction heard from the 322 die-hard fans: "'Bout whoop-de-damn time."

8. The Feuding Maras. It's hard to imagine now, seeing how they are among the smoothest operations in New York. But the state of the Giants was once similar to that iconic picture of Y.A. Title on his knees, blood trickling down his cheek and defeat written all over his face. The relationship between Wellington Mara and Tim Mara was that gory through much of the 1960s, all of the '70s and a good portion of the '80s, and it was a drag on one of the NFL's historic teams. Tim inherited his half of the team from his father Jack, Wellington's brother, who died in 1965. Gradually, a glacier formed between uncle and nephew, who clashed philosophically and spoke as often as Tom Coughlin and Tiki Barber.

The Giants missed the playoffs for 17 years (1964-80), or roughly the time elapsed between Dave Brown touchdown passes, and tested the patience of their amazingly dedicated fan base. While Fran Tarkenton ran for his life, the Giants didn't have one until Pete Rozelle intervened and insisted the Maras hire George Young to run the team. Once Tim sold his share in 1991, Wellington, who quite possibly did more for the league's health than the Giants', operated more comfortably, and it showed.

7. Leon Hess. A distinguished gentleman who launched an oil empire during the Great Depression saw his business smarts dry up when he purchased the Jets outright in 1977. Hess loved the Jets dearly but he ran them aimlessly, mainly by hiring the wrong people and letting them overstay their welcomes. Rich Kotite? Really? Hess operated the organization with his heart instead of his head, which always leads to disaster in sports, where impulsive decisions and thinking like a fan makes for lean years.

The Jets -- who still haven't been to the Super Bowl since Jan. 12, 1969 -- reached the conference championship only twice on Hess' Rolex. During the Hess era, the infamous "Same Old Jets" jeer was born. His annual Thanksgiving speeches at practice were usually good for a lump in the throat, which is also where the Jets grabbed themselves in far too many big moments.

[+] EnlargeJohn Spano
John Giamundo/Getty ImagesIt looked good when John Spano agreed to buy the Islanders in 1996. Things quickly unraveled after the sale closed in '97.

6. George Steinbrenner, mid-'80s through mid-'90s. Steinbrenner, at his worst, was very bad indeed. Temper tantrums, managerial changes and deadly baseball decisions were the norm during this dark period when nothing was right in the Bronx except Donnie Baseball. Of course, the turning point was the Howie Spira scandal and Steinbrenner's suspension.

Thus, the Steinbrenner era, never boring, was actually a trilogy: the Catfish Hunter/Reggie Jackson/Billy Martin stretch when championships were won and a proud franchise was reborn; the Dave Winfield-fueled crash and thud; and the Derek Jeter/Joe Torre/Mo Rivera Yankees revival when Steinbrenner suddenly seemed smart again. Only the Boss could find his way onto a best and worst owners list.

5. Fred Wilpon. The Mets reached the 2000 World Series under Wilpon, helped largely by Mike Piazza ... who came to the Mets only after co-owner Nelson Doubleday nearly twisted Wilpon's arm off. Two years later, Doubleday sold his share to Wilpon and the Mets have largely been a comical soap opera since, swooning in September despite buckling from one of baseball's largest payrolls. Jim Duquette, Omar Minaya, Art Howe (here, have an extra year on that contract, Art) and Willie Randolph were Wilpon hires who flamed out.

Wilpon faded from the front line and handed more responsibility to his son, Jeff. Yet the best the Mets could do was come one strike away from reaching the World Series, shocked by a Cardinals team comprised of Albert Pujols and a dozen American Legion players. Wilpon has always meant well: He puts the Mets first, built a new ballpark and is sensitive to the fans. But why do they wish he went out with Shea Stadium?

4. Charles Wang. He was a good sports Samaritan in 2000, when he rescued the Islanders from the financial brink. But who will rescue the Islanders from Wang? Even he'd love to dump this tomato on someone else. He and his former partner, Sanjay Kumar (later convicted of fraud), famously remarked how they would beef up their puck acumen by reading "Hockey For Dummies." Apparently, someone borrowed Wang's copy and never returned it. His signature moves have been real beauties: making Alexei Yashin the game's highest-paid player; hiring and firing Neil Smith in 40 days and replacing him with the team's backup goaltender; and giving gimpy goaltender Rick DiPietro a contract (15 years) stretching from Manhasset to Montauk.

Although the Islanders still play inside an old shed, we hope Wang isn't still trying to push his Lighthouse Arena project through the Nassau County red tape. He's better off buying a real lighthouse to navigate the Islanders to Brooklyn and new ownership.

3. CBS. The Tiffany Network was America's entertainment choice in the '60s because of Walter Cronkite, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason but treated the Yankees like a lump of coal. The network's baseball "star" was an old Mickey Mantle, still swinging for the fences but mostly whiffing. The network actually was before its time in trying to successfully merge sports with television; decades later, YES prints money. But back then, CBS backed Ed Sullivan better than Ralph Houk. A proud franchise was tarnished and attendance dropped almost as fast as Mantle's midsection. The Yankees reached the World Series 29 times before CBS, and not once in 10 years under Tiffany rule.

Not surprisingly, the network even botched the sale to Steinbrenner. CBS paid $13 million for the team and sold for $10 million. And right now, the Yankees, the most valuable sports franchise in America, might be worth more than CBS.

2. James Dolan (Knicks). Patrick Ewing's empty guarantees, Stephon Marbury's incoherent ramblings and Eddy Curry's belt size have nothing on Dolan's ownership of the Knicks. An entire decade was wiped out by his poor hirings and faulty strategy of trying to patch together a Pinto rather than rebuild it. Dolan latched himself to Isiah Thomas, whom nobody else would touch. Dolan stuck by Thomas during a sexual harassment case (giving him a contract extension) and remains blinded by Thomas' flashbulb smile. Whether because of arrogance (likely) or lack of basketball smarts (also likely), Dolan seems to delight in doing the opposite of what makes sense. The money he blew on a team that hasn't won a playoff game in 10 years could've saved Lehman Brothers.

1. John Spano. A guy whose fortune amounted to loose sofa change actually owned the Islanders for three months in 1997. Spano passed himself off as someone with deep pockets, and nobody checked to see if there were any holes. Imagine being taken for a ride by a fraud. Unfortunately, the Wilpons, who are trying to navigate the Bernie Madoff mess, can relate.

Shaun Powell is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

Shaun Powell

ESPNNewYork.com
Shaun Powell is a former sports general columnist and NBA beat columnist for Newsday. He will contribute to ESPNNewYork.com with commentary related to NY area sports.

EDITORS' PICKS

  • You're No Jeter!
    If A-Rod wants the superstar treatment Jeter received, he can fuhgettaboutit!
  • Jets In Turmoil
    Geno Smith & Co. called a players-only meeting following Sunday's loss.
  • Bums Or Bombers?
    Here's your chance to play GM. Decide which Yankees stay and which should go.
  • Clean Up The Mets
    Here's your chance to decide which Mets should stay and which should go.
  • 'Unfinished Business'
    Carmelo Anthony revealed his motivation for returning to MSG in the offseason.

ALSO SEE