|Hot Rod Kanehl
||09-19-2004 11:33 AM
JEFF WILPON: AMAZIN'S DON'T HAVE SON POISONING
From Today's NY Post - Little Jeffy Defends Himself and Sets Forth His "Vision"
I Am not an idiot, I am not abrasive, I am not running the day-to-day workings of the baseball operations, I "feel the pain" of Mets fans because I am passionate about winning and - most important - I am not going anywhere.
Jeff Wilpon, in his most wide-ranging interview since taking over as the Mets' chief operating officer in August 2002, disputed his widely perceived impression as a hot-tempered, know-it-all meddler, and responded to mounting criticism of his and his family's leadership of the team by telling The Post, "We realize this is a public trust and we realize the public is upset. I want them happy."
But do the Wilpons - Jeff, his father and Met chairman Fred Wilpon and his uncle and team president Saul Katz - have the acumen to make them happy? The family took full control of the organization more than two years ago, ending a bitter co-ownership with Nelson Doubleday. The Wilpons insisted installing the single-family father/uncle/son structure they use in their lucrative real estate company would streamline decision-making, bringing harmony and success.
However, two full seasons under the Wilpons have produced woeful results that have left the media critical, fans disenchanted and the direction of the organization under attack within the industry. Matching his higher organizational profile, Jeff Wilpon has endured more ferocious barbs lately coinciding with the decision to fire Art Howe.
During an interview that lasted more than an hour, Jeff defiantly insisted, "We have not done a good enough job of turning things around quickly. But this structure is a good one. It works in our other companies ... They [fans and media] have to understand we don't want to lose. It is not in Fred's blood to lose. It is not in Saul's blood to lose. And it is not in my blood to lose. We don't lose at the other things we do and we don't plan on losing here."
Except when asked when Met fans could expect a winner, Jeff said, "I think in the next three years things will be turned around." That sounds like rebuilding from an organization that seven weeks ago traded a group of its best prospects, notably Scott Kazmir. Jeff insisted the pitchers obtained, Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano, will be part of the transformation back to the family goal of "sustained contending."
Interestingly, Jeff Wilpon shoveled blame on decisions made prior to his top-level elevation to explain a chunk of the ongoing problems. He did not indict Doubleday and former GM Steve Phillips directly, but alluded to agreements inherited for players such as Mike Piazza, Mo Vaughn and Al Leiter by saying, "We were saddled with some big contracts. Let them run out and then judge us. Give us a five-year period to prove what we can do, and you can say we are two years into those five years now."
But Fred Wilpon was involved in all the previous decisions, and the Wilpons alone chose to give another fading veteran, Tom Glavine, a four-year, $38.5 million deal. This kind of contradiction is central to the picture that emerged from the conversation with Jeff Wilpon. His family simply views how it runs the business differently than outside observers, including former Met employees. It is like a funhouse mirror in which the Wilpons see something beautiful and the outside world sees the grotesque. Jeff described the current state of the club as "some bumps in the road, and we are on track." Outside the organization the Mets are viewed as having a chain of command where the lines of authority are blurred, which creates problems form the top down.
Met fans can only hope the Wilpons really have a winning vision and discipline to follow it because Jeff said he anticipates the family guiding the Mets for decades, saying "What I have told the baseball and business departments is that in 10 years I want other teams and other people to say 'I wish we could do it like the Mets.' "
Here is Jeff Wilpon's view of how he and the Mets "do it" compared to the consensus opinion of onlookers:
Jeff Wilpon did not dispute he is in charge of the day-to-day running of just about every facet of the organization from clean bathrooms to player procurement. What he challenged is that in the baseball department he rules, and titular GM Jim Duquette is essentially his assistant. Jeff asked Duquette to sit in for the first half of what was supposed to be a one-on-one interview, and together they painted a picture of the Wilpons as budget setters and question askers about potential signings and trades, but of Duquette as the guiding force.
But what else could Duquette say with his boss across a table? Executives who speak regularly to Duquette say the GM lacks autonomy, is worn down by the Wilpons' penchant for micromanaging via voluminous phone calls and meetings, and by Jeff's inability to recognize ownership has too much else on its plate to grasp all the pieces of data needed to make an informed decision.
Duquette said, "I feel bad about that perception. I don't think [Jeff] is an impediment. I think he's been extremely helpful." As an example, Duquette referenced Jeff being the galvanizing force in getting a deal done with Mike Cameron after he asked Jeff to get involved in negotiations.
Executives from other teams consider Duquette personable, and the frequency with which he does not return calls or that others return calls for him has led to the perception Jeff and Fred obstruct quick decision making by soliciting too many opinions. One NL executive called the Met "kitchen cabinet" destructive, and an AL executive said Duquette should not feel safe when Jeff Wilpon is going on scouting trips with adviser Al Goldis.
Duquette insisted it is his style to seek many opinions. Interestingly, he says he now keeps a detailed calls received/calls returned sheet that Jeff can review because the organization became aware of the industry perception. Duquette, in fact, said despite all the knocks on how the Mets operate, he feels from the midseason dismantling of last year's club when he took over, the organization has a high batting average on player procurement.
The deals for Benson/Zambrano will determine, to a large degree, the batting average, and outside executives said Duquette held out against those moves until he saw Jeff was leading a brigade of club officials who wanted them. Jeff said Duquette did all the groundwork and his major responsibility was having "buyer's remorse" near the end and convening a last conference call in which he "held everyone accountable" to give their final opinions on the deals. Jeff also said he goes on scouting trips to educate himself, not to foist his will on player personnel or to operate behind Duquette's back.
"I think my job at the end of the day is to question," Jeff said.
Former Met employees say Fred Wilpon is a yeller, but Jeff Wilpon actually could get physically imposing when he loses his temper. The result, these executives said, is a feeling that if you do not agree with the Wilpons, your job is in jeopardy and this breeds "yes" men. For example, one former executive says, ex-hitting coach Denny Walling did not agree that minor-league hitting coaches should also serve as the first-base coach and challenged Jeff's counter view at a large, preseason meeting, and "he was essentially fired that day."
Duquette and Jeff Wilpon say Walling was fired for job performance, nothing else, and Jeff says he pleads for honesty from his employees even if it contradicts his views. "No," Jeff said when asked if he had an anger-management issue.
The penny-pinch complaint is more against father than son. Jeff says the Mets will continue to have among the majors' highest payrolls, and that it will rise next year. He would not define the 2005 budget, though the belief is it will not exceed $90 million. Duquette said, "I do not believe we have to spend $120 million to sustain success." Jeff said, "Ownership is committed" to spend what is necessary, "which means we will meet with dollars the plan Jim puts forth."
But outside executives say the Mets too often just pretend like they want to spend more, like in the case of Vladimir Guerrero last year, and that the budget changes as the offseason goes along. An outside executive said if the Mets were really allocating the dollars for Guerrero, Duquette has indicated he wished they would have done that earlier and he would have signed Jose Guillen and Danys Baez rather than chase a pipedream.
What is not in dispute is the Wilpons have comfy relationships with certain veterans, Jeff golfs and dines with a few players and ownership seeks their insights. "Is it an opinion Jim and I will get? Yes," Jeff said. "How much of the equation is it in the final decision? Small ... I think they help with decisions, I don't think they influence them." Jeff said most teams have a free-flow with players, and he claimed it is not done to have players like him.
But an AL official said, "I don't care who says it is not happening [heavy influence by players]. It does. This family thing the Wilpons want does not work." A former Met official also said the Wilpons are hypersensitive to media criticism, and craft decisions to avoid the bashing. Jeff denied this, but there are no doubts the Mets seek counsel about important issues, even the hiring of managers, from media favorites.
This franchise is doomed to failure if the Wilpons can't understand the very fundamental business concept that just because a particular business model and structure is successful in a certain industry (i.e., real estate) it doesn't necessarily translate to success to another industry (i.e, Baseball). And who the hell is Saul Katz? I didn't know that there is an uncle involved in this fiasco too. What a mess.