In peacetime, the MLB Commissioner’s job is hard to see. There is of course the chance that the work is heavy and harrowing, endless stressful executive demands and the sort of hardcore deal-making that would buckle the spines of lesser humans. But there is also the chance that it’s just a series of sprawling steakhouse lunches with various owner types, lunches as far as the eye can see with men in blazers and pale blue dress shirts who are convinced that they should have even more money than they already do, and who hector the commissioner for not making it happen more quickly. Neither sounds pleasant.
The commissioner becomes more visible, and his job duties more legible, during times of crisis. That has generally meant labor crises like the strikes and lockouts of the 1980s and ‘90s, at which the commissioner’s job comes into focus as chopping away at whatever the owners tell him to chop away at. Bud Selig was both the Brewers’ owner and MLB’s acting commissioner in 1994—he assumed the title after Fay Vincent resigned in 1992, and only made his role official in 1998—when the last big league games were lost to a strike. The great achievement of Selig’s tenure, at least as the story is generally told, was that the league never again faced the serious threat of a work stoppage under his stewardship. The system that sustained that peace was obviously imperfect and multiply unfair even then, and seems now to be in some earlyish stage of collapse. But when the league’s next collective-bargaining agreement is hashed out in 2021, it will be Selig’s successor, Rob Manfred, who will have to deal with the various crises that Selig’s vaunted peace created.
That work will certainly be the hardest thing he will have to do as commissioner, and not just because it’s the only part of Manfred’s job—give or take his strange dedication to carping constantly about how crappy and boring baseball and its players are—that anyone will be able to see. In contrast, removing the Wilpon family as the owners of the New York Mets would be a relative snap.
This is something that commissioners can do, but not something they do often. In 2011, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt filed for bankruptcy protection and renegotiated the team’s TV contract on the fly so that he could use $173.5 million of the television advance to fund a breathtakingly lurid divorce from his wife Jamie, who was also the team’s CEO. During the course of those proceedings, it became public that the McCourts had borrowed many, many millions of dollars against the team to fund a truly nauseating lifestyle that included keeping a hairdresser on a $10,000 monthly retainer. “The Dodgers are in bankruptcy because Mr. McCourt has taken almost $190 million out of the club,” MLB lawyers wrote in a bankruptcy court filing. They also accused him, accurately, of “spinning off key assets of the Dodgers (eg, the Dodger Stadium parking lots) to separate entities in an attempt to evade oversight and regulation.” In April of 2011, Selig put the team’s finances under the control of a trustee; in November of that year, he succeeded in forcing the team’s sale to the Guggenheim Baseball Management group. When the league needed someone to speak to Bloomberg reporters in defense of Selig’s decision to remove McCourt under the league’s debt-limit rules, it sent Manfred, who was then Selig’s deputy.
McCourt came out of the whole affair just fine, naturally—as part of the terms of the sale, he has a luxury box of his own at Dodgers Stadium for as long as Guggenheim owns the team. In 2012, after the sale was finalized, Mike Ozanian of Forbes called him “the most financially successful owner of a team in Major League Baseball history”; there’s a 2017 video of Ozanian and McCourt talking vaguely about why Selig pushed McCourt out—still a mystery, McCourt says—and more specifically about how McCourt “snatched victory from the jaws of defeat” by selling the team he fleeced for a record $2.3 billion.
McCourt was sui generis in both his shame-averse oiliness and deep personal weirdness, and the hustle he ran on the Dodgers was audacious; McCourt’s lawyer claimed he put “not a penny” of his own money into the purchase of the team. But while the McCourts were grifting on a level we may never see again from a sports owner, they did set a bar of sorts all the same—you can only be so embarrassing for so long in a way that impacts the broader health of the league so much before the commissioner finally steps in and takes the keys. This brings us back to the Wilpons.
There have been many opportunities for the league to act where the Wilpons are concerned, but first Selig and then Manfred have repeatedly refused to do so. They didn’t act when the Wilpons leveraged the team to Jupiter to cover the debts they ran up after being hornswoggled by Bernie Madoff; the Wilpons were in violation of the same debt-limit rules as McCourt when the league forced him out in Los Angeles and are still servicing the debt they ran up borrowing against the team and its cable channel, SNY. The league also didn’t act when the front office was characterized as a hotbed of profoundly rank sexual discrimination driven by Jeff Wilpon, owner Fred’s son and the team’s chief operating officer.
In many ways and for many reasons and for many years, the people that own the Mets obviously can’t be trusted to run a Major League Baseball team—not just trusted by the legions of defiant masochists who have stuck by the team but, more saliently, by the other image-conscious rich guys that own teams, and who know that the health of the league depends in no small part on the National League franchise in the nation’s largest media market not being run like a skunk-infested Quiznos franchise. It’s tempting to chalk that inaction up to the unfailing class solidarity that prevails among rich turds, even though the Mets owners don’t seem very good at being rich. There’s a great deal that’s unknown about the team’s finances, but none of that really has any bearing on the question of whether Manfred should consider taking some action. What we can see is argument enough.
After starting the season on a wild and obviously unsustainable hot streak, and just two years after making it to the World Series, the Mets have once again settled in as one of the worst teams in baseball. As usual with the Wilpon Mets, the collapse has taken on a shape that looks outwardly like bad luck—freak injuries to pitchers, nagging injuries that hitters can’t seem to get over—but is better understood as the direct result of stupendously bad and shortsighted management and the logical outgrowth of a perverse and backwards culture.
It’s tough to blame the dopey Wilpons and the childish institutional culture they’ve created for co-ace Noah Syndergaard coming down with hand, foot, and mouth disease—a viral disorder that rarely impacts adults—after visiting a youth baseball camp, for example. But that culture is a big part of the reason why Syndergaard was not just in the locker room but on the pitching mound while dealing with the unpleasant symptoms of a highly contagious disease. It’s not entirely the Wilpons’ fault that the team got what was universally considered to be a poor return in trade for closer Jeurys Familia, but it is unquestionably the Wilpons’ fault that the team currently does not have a general manager—the job is, bizarrely, being split between three interim co-GMs—or that no one was immediately made available to explain either the trade or why the Mets insisted that the Oakland Athletics pick up Familia’s full salary. It’s not the Wilpons’ fault that Yoenis Cespedes has a chronic condition in his heels, but they are the ones that signed him to a backloaded deal and then pressured him to play through that injury, which created a series of second-order injuries that have effectively wiped out his value over the last two years. In recent days, Cespedes and the Mets have received as many as four opinions on his calcifying heels, a sufficient number of which were apparently in agreement that the team announced on Wednesday that Cespedes will belatedly undergo surgery that will keep him out of action for eight to ten months. Everything in this paragraph happened in the last week.
Again, the Mets have been at least a little bit this way—self-defeating, slow-moving, aggrieved and backwards and mis- and micromanaged into entropy by the salty deal-brained mediocrities in charge—more or less since the Wilpons assumed full ownership of the team in 2001. But the cascade of disgrace over the last week has been both so dramatic and so dramatically mishandled on the team’s part that the McCourt Standard—an ownership group that is sufficiently embarrassing and sufficiently over its head as to have an actively negative impact on the broader state of play in the league—is now not just in sight but tentatively in play.
The team is losing, but that’s nothing new and not a crime. It’s more important that the Wilpons gnarled suite of favorite malpractices have created a team that is an active health risk to its players, blows the league’s broader competitive curve with unjustifiable front office moves, fails at the basic functions of communicating with the broader public, and declines to commit to doing anything to improve conditions. The team has insurance on Cespedes’s contract, which has $58.5 million remaining on it over the next two years, but acting co-GM John Ricco couldn’t or wouldn’t say whether the team would reinvest that money on the team. It’s a bit the Mets have also done with David Wright, who will likely never play again due to spinal stenosis and whose contract is insured such that the team recoups 75 percent of its value. “Jeff Wilpon said in January that he considers Wright’s entire contract part of the payroll,” MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo tweeted, “and so the team does not reinvest money saved via insurance into baseball operations.” No one really knows where it’s going instead.
At the very least, this bad last week has broken the usual discursive loop surrounding the team. The team is lousy, and in similar enough ways that game stories from 2012 are just a few savvy ctrl-Fs from being contemporary, but there are ways to cover a bad team. A team that is failing at basic things in the way that the Mets currently are is something more than that.
National baseball writers have been critical of the Wilpons for years—you can read Emma Span from 2014, or Jeff Passan from Monday. In the first sentence of his story on the Familia deal, ESPN’s Keith Law wrote “it’s time for MLB to step in and force the Wilpons to sell the team.” It’s different for the local press, though. Because the Wilpons are so petty and so rabbit-eared, a reporter who criticizes their malpractice by name really and truly is taking the risk of losing access. This is how you wind up with a column like this one by Joel Sherman of the New York Post, which accurately and tartly criticizes the team’s dysfunctional culture, inability to make either quick or effective decisions, take responsibility for those decisions, and otherwise do basic baseball team things—but which does so without actually naming the people in charge.
The Athletic’s Tim Britton and Marc Carig have both been notably and strongly critical of the Wilpons, by name, in recent stories—the first sentence of Carig’s latest column on the team is “It’s the Wilpons, stupid”—although given how unlikely it is that the Wilpons would be willing to spring for the subscription fee, they probably haven’t seen any of that. Here’s Carig:
There will always be new managers, coaches, players and executives to blame, new medical trainers and doctors to deride for every instance of rickets, dropsy or whatever ailment of the hand, foot and mouth that may plague a member of the Mets. There will be calls for change, and the same cycle of clown shoes and seltzer water to the face will begin anew until the Wilpons, and only the Wilpons, look themselves in the mirror and acknowledge what everyone else can see.
Their management style—if you can call it that — hasn’t worked. The time has come to try something different. Change must begin with the Wilpons.
This has always been true, but because the Wilpons cannot and will not change, nothing else has changed, either. The team’s results have fluctuated according to chance—round ball, round bat, and all that—but never really that much and never really for any other reason. The Mets fuck up in the same ways every year not just because the people in charge can’t learn from their past failures but because they do not and cannot understand those failures as theirs.
This is the one true strength that the Wilpons have—they can always find a way to make whatever is wrong the fault of someone else, even as they dictate day-to-day decisions down to the smallest detail. It’s the players who don’t play through pain or who bravely but stupidly play hurt, it’s the training staff that doesn’t know how to diagnose an injury, it’s the untrustworthy young players or the overpaid old ones, it’s the managers and general managers and interim co–general managers who keep getting it wrong. The Wilpons deal out one shitty hand after another and fume that no one knows how to play it correctly. There is, at this point, no real reason to believe that either Wilpon—grimacing old-school Fred or analytics-curious executive brain genius Jeff, both of whom reportedly sign off on every decision the team makes—has it in them to change. Absent pressure from the commissioner’s office, they won’t. Even if the Wilpons had enough money to run the team as they should, it seems clear that it wouldn’t matter.
It’s tough to be optimistic given how the office has enabled the Wilpons in the past, but at some point the job of the commissioner has to enfold the responsibility to clean up a mess like the Mets. Even this year’s floundering roster could, with the unfettered application of basic baseball intelligence and some amount of money, be made competitive in fairly short order. But the broader organization is a wreck, and one that reflects not just ownership’s shortcomings but that ownership’s dedication to crafting a culture and business model around those very shortcomings.
Again, it’s been like this. But after the team’s recent skein of humiliations and as management proclaims its unwillingness to change a single thing, it is hard not to wonder whether things are perhaps finally edging towards being too much like this to be allowed to continue. There is no clear standard for what it would take for the commissioner to get involved, and that was also true when the league intervened with McCourt. That particular threshold is one of the mysterious responsibilities of a job that’s defined by them. Maybe it is as simple as this: what is the likelihood that this ownership group can make things better, and what would be the cost if they were allowed to continue to go on making things worse?