By: Joe Rini
The fans were desperate for new ownership to take over a moribund franchise and new ownership came to the rescue.
The new owners were Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday.
I admit it, besides being a life-long Mets fan, I’m also a sentimental and nostalgic guy; I left a job I hated 23 years ago and still have the going away cards from those co-workers who I genuinely liked. Like many, with the burnt smell of disappointment still smoldering amidst the embers of another lost Mets season, I’m looking forward to the Steve Cohen era Mets. But I’m also remembering the promise of the Fred Wilpon Mets in 1980.
I can still picture riding on the bus with my friend Tom after seeing the movie “The Jerk” starring Steve Martin (yes, that was the intellectual fare we liked in high school) and reading about the new owners of the Mets in the afternoon New York Post and feeling optimistic about the team’s future. The team had been bad for years as the heirs of the late Joan Payson allowed M.Donald Grant to drive Tom Seaver out of town. Wilpon and Doubleday were a breath of fresh air.
I remember just being impressed by literally the new coat of paint on Shea Stadium and the new plastic seats (you could just imagine how impressed I was by the Diamond Vision scoreboard and its replays a couple years later). The 1980 team fought its way back to .500 in August before a late season fade but the season also featured the debuts of Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks and the drafting of Darryl Strawberry.
We know the rest of the story. The team improved and they won the World Series in 1986. Unfortunately, we also know the rest of the story where the Mets haven’t won another World Series since then. The team struggled for a decade, rebounded in time to win the pennant in 2000, and the Wilpon family bought out Doubleday and became sole owners. Yet, with only three postseason appearances since 2000, their moments of success can sometimes seem like brief interruptions to two decades of disappointment.
Covering the team since 2012, I’ve had occasion to see Fred Wilpon up close before games. Like a friendly uncle, he greets and chats with fans and team employees, not just the players and coaches. I even remember him good-naturedly grabbing reporter Ken Rosenthal from behind during batting practice. I’ve had the good fortune to chat with him a few times. I remember walking under stands, enthused after my first on-field interview with a Mets player (Scott Hairston) in May 2012 and crossing paths with Fred and his wife; Fred walked with a cane at the time and told me about his hip surgery. Seeing him for the first time, I was in awe. Another time seeing him sign autographs with his left hand, I joked with him if he’d be available to get a lefty out in the late innings that night.
Despite the “Freddy Coupon” label, I’m sure he was serious about winning. Seeing him on the field before a game talking with Collins or Callaway, Sandy or Brodie, or any of the players, the team wasn’t an afterthought to him. But perhaps the way pitchers eventually lose a foot off their fastballs or a batter can no longer get around on the high heat, maybe Fred Wilpon lost a step as an owner in 40 years and it’s time for a change. I’m looking forward to what the Steve Cohen Mets can do but I’m also saying, thanks Fred, I’ll remember the good times with those going away cards I saved.