"Bernie Madoff," Wilpon says, "was a star. I knew who he was, no question."
"You know," Madoff said to Wilpon, "I'd like to diversify. Maybe you'd like to invest with me, my investment fund, and I'd like to invest in some of the things you do."
"Yes, Bernie," Wilpon said. "Let's consider that."
Through his ownership of the Mets, Wilpon was becoming a star in his own right, which is exactly why he had entered the high-profile world of major league baseball in the first place. Wilpon had been a standout pitcher on the Brooklyn sandlots and at Lafayette High—even better than a teammate who generally played first base, Sandy Koufax, the future Hall of Famer whom Wilpon has long considered his best friend and second brother.
Baseball, the Dodgers and Ebbets Field were touchstones of Wilpon's early life. He remembers sitting on his father's lap as a youngster at Ebbets, making the price of one ticket accommodate two. (When Wilpon built Citi Field, he personally designed the rotunda behind home plate to evoke the Dodgers' old home and to honor Jackie Robinson. His inspiration for the soaring archways, he says, were "memories of holding my father's hand walking into Ebbets Field.") In a 1953 visit to the park Wilpon, accompanied by his buddy Koufax, met his hero, Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges, the ex-Marine renowned for his huge hands. Wilpon asked Koufax to match his hand against Hodges's, and was floored when he saw that Koufax's fingers were "one full digit longer" than those of the major leaguer.
Wilpon graduated from the University of Michigan in 1958—his cellphone springs to life with the school's fight song—and by 1972 established Sterling Equities with Katz, the son of a carpenter who had married Wilpon's sister, Iris. They dealt mostly in smaller commercial buildings and residential real estate, with great success. But Wilpon craved the cachet of the Manhattan office building market. "We really were not able at that time to get into the so-called club of New York real estate," Wilpon says.
That "club" was old-money, generational money. Wilpon needed an entrée into that world. In 1979 he brought Jeff, then a high school catcher, to Shea Stadium to work out for Mets coach Joe Pignatano, a fellow Brooklynite. There, he heard the Mets were being put up for sale. "A lightbulb went off," Wilpon says. "My idea was partly because of my passion, partly for business reasons and a lot for what it could do for us in terms of giving us an identity that we didn't have. They always call me the dreamer. I'm not the guy in the company that does the accounting. I'm sort of the dreamer."
Wilpon and Katz acquired the Mets with a $21.1 million bid in 1980: They put up $650,000 each, with publishing giant Doubleday & Co. financing the rest and Wilpon assuming the title of president and chief executive officer. The gambit worked. The status of owning the Mets was very good for Wilpon's real estate business. The Brooklyn kid joined the club. "It opened up enormous avenues of opportunity for us," he says. "Ask any of my partners, and they will tell you they didn't dream how much that would be. We eventually got the ability to develop some office buildings. It allowed me to dream more."
Wilpon became enough of a player to be welcomed in Madoff's league. In the mid-'80s, Madoff invested money in Sterling Equities—always in the name of his wife, Ruth. And in October 1985, Wilpon, Katz and Michael Katz, Saul's brother, opened their first BLMIS accounts.
In November 1986, just after the Mets won their first World Series in 17 seasons, Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday purchased the Mets from the Doubleday company for $80.8 million. One month later seven more Sterling partners and family members opened BLMIS accounts. Year after year, more accounts opened in the name of Sterling partners and their relations—wives, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren—and more money flowed in. Over the years Sterling partners opened 483 accounts, including those of friends, all of them marked by Madoff with a three-digit number preceded by the special designation KW—for Katz/Wilpon.