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Two months after starting Sterling Stamos, Wilpon bought out Doubleday's half of the Mets for $131 million, making him the sole owner. The relationship between Wilpon and Doubleday, who lived three miles apart, had grown so toxic that they rarely spoke—except when Doubleday wanted to complain about Jeff Wilpon, who had risen to the title of Mets COO. Says Fred, "There's no question there were not good vibes between us. Today I see Nelson, and it's not a problem. I don't have animosity toward him today. He hated Jeff. He didn't like Saul. He didn't like anybody in my family. He liked Judy. Everybody likes Judy."
That summer, as the deal moved toward completion, Wilpon reached out to four or five "extremely close friends" to offer them a piece of the team. Whatever they invested, Wilpon told them, he would double or triple, making sure the Sterling partners were the senior officers. Among those in his inner circle given a chance to buy into the Mets were investment banking magnate Herbert Allen, former New York Giants owner Bob Tisch and investment wizard Bernie Madoff. All turned down the offer for various reasons.
"Bernie didn't want to be in the public eye," Wilpon says, "which I can now understand more."
Fred Wilpon woke up $550 million poorer on the morning of Dec. 12, 2008. It was the first day of his new life—this messy life after Madoff. He knew just where he should begin. He had to talk to his father.
Nat Wilpon was 14 years old when he started working for Sherman Funeral Home on Coney Island Avenue in Bensonhurst. He was never employed anywhere else, working his way up to manager. The Wilpons lived in a brick four-family building on 62nd Street and 23rd Avenue, where the neighbors served as trusted extensions of family. On stifling summer evenings, Nat would say to Fred, "Let's go get some air," and they would drive 10 minutes to Coney Island to catch a salt-seasoned breeze coming off the Atlantic and talk about Gil, Jackie and the Dodgers. Now, with the heat of the Madoff scandal upon him, Fred needed some air. And he needed to talk to his father.
It didn't matter that Nat Wilpon had been dead for 43 years.
In the breast pocket of his suit jacket Wilpon carries his wallet, where he keeps a black shiva ribbon. He has carried it ever since his father's funeral. When he got dressed that morning, Wilpon reached for his wallet and pulled out the ribbon. "And I said, 'I'm going to have this conversation with my dad,' " Wilpon says. "I understand that I can't, but in my mind I can.
"And what he said was, 'Don't get angry. Be very disappointed in Bernie. Hurt? You can feel that personally. But don't get angry. Because if you get angry, you will eat up your own insides.'
"And he was right. So I am disappointed, chagrined, but I'm not angry. If I saw Bernie, would I want to kick him or punch him? No, no. I've heard some people say, 'That son of a bitch, I'd like to kill him.' That's not how I feel. I've tried to temper that because I've got to be focused on getting where we need to and putting this behind us."
When he was old enough to get a driver's license, Fred went to work at Sherman Funeral Home. He drove a funeral car, a long, black Cadillac limousine. The teenaged Wilpon would point the Cadillac down Coney Island Avenue with grieving family members of the deceased in the back. The kid kept quiet, but he listened and observed. At the end of the day he would scribble notes into a notebook. This went on for the eight years Wilpon drove the funeral car.