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PAYS THE PRICE
Tom Verducci
May 30, 2011
Love for baseball and loyalty to his friends are two of the defining traits of the game's longest-standing owner. But his long, unquestioning relationship with Bernard Madoff could cost the Mets patriarch his fortune, his reputation—and the team he cherishes
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May 30, 2011

Pays The Price

Love for baseball and loyalty to his friends are two of the defining traits of the game's longest-standing owner. But his long, unquestioning relationship with Bernard Madoff could cost the Mets patriarch his fortune, his reputation—and the team he cherishes

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The danger of losing the Mets weighs heavily. Says Phillips, "I know how important the team is to the Wilpon family. I suspect they will do everything they can to keep the team. I hope for them they can."

"I cannot imagine [the Wilpons] without the club," says one former Mets executive. "It's like their identity. You'd go to dinner around town, and it wasn't 'Fred Wilpon, real estate developer.' It was 'Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets.'"

The list of partners of Sterling Equities, which owns the Mets and has purchased or developed more than 32 million square feet of commercial and retail space and 57,800 residential units, has a decided familial feel for a company of its size. Seven of the 10 partners are named Wilpon or Katz, with the other three having served for decades. Relationships are very important to Wilpon, who has been married for 52 years and who has had the same best friend for 60 years. He prides himself on never having had trouble with the unions at his buildings. He ordered all customer service employees at Citi Field to wear name tags in large letters, in part so that he can call them by name when he offers a hello or a thank you. He has kept a close friendship with baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who has offered Wilpon the financial and moral support he has withheld from another owner in distress, Frank McCourt of the Dodgers. (Selig would not compare the two cases, though a high-ranking MLB official said Selig sees a "huge difference" between the two because Wilpon came to MLB to find an equity partner to address a debt problem while McCourt addressed his debt with more debt.)

"Fred is sincere and loves the sport in a big way," Selig says. "Some of the best times we have are when [White Sox owner] Jerry Reinsdorf, Fred Wilpon and I play baseball trivia from the '40s and '50s. They're good, but I usually win. I do know him well, and he's very loyal. He's very sincere and doesn't like controversy."

"Fred has these sort of connections where he's all in on those relationships," says Phillips, whom Wilpon fired as G.M. in 2003. "Those are the kind of relationships Ponzi schemes prey upon: blind loyalty. Because of his loyalties, he probably kept me around longer, hoping things would turn around, than others would have. People he likes, he likes, and he is not easily changed."

Bernie Madoff was a longtime friend of Fred Wilpon, which means he earned Fred Wilpon's loyalty to a fault. In a jailhouse interview with The New York Times in February, Madoff exonerated Wilpon, saying he knew nothing about the fraud. "It's been proven he's a man who can't be trusted, but he told the truth there," Wilpon says.

Picard filed his clawback lawsuit against the Sterling partners on Dec. 7, 2010. (It was unsealed two months later.) Four days after the filings, and on the second anniversary of Madoff's arrest, Mark Madoff sent an e-mail from his SoHo loft to his wife, Stephanie, who was on vacation with their four-year-old daughter at Disney World. Mark told her in the message that he loved her and that someone should check on their two-year-old son, who was with Mark. Stephanie sent her stepfather to the apartment. Mark Madoff was found dead in the living room of his apartment, hanging from a black dog leash in the living room. His toddler son was sleeping nearby.

It was the schoolboy friendship of Mark and Jeff that brought Bernie and Fred together in the first place. In the VIP lounge at Citi Field, Wilpon considered that beginning, and the loss of Mark, in near darkness; he did not know how to turn on the overhead lights of the large, windowless room. The only light came from the subdued glow of three bashful table lamps. He had lost $550 million to a friend, he is fighting for his family's name and his baseball team, and is being sued for a billion dollars, but Wilpon broke down emotionally just once in the room: when he was asked how difficult it was to hear the news about Mark's suicide.

"Oh, my God," he said in a whisper. "I loved that kid... ."

Wilpon sat on the edge of a light-brown leather couch, illuminated only by a gentle swath of golden light. He rolled his head back and looked toward the ceiling. Tears welled in his eyes. He tried to speak, but something far short of an audible word came out. Then he bowed his head and wept in silence for 40 seconds.

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