Fred wears a tie; Nelson ties a jaunty sweater around his neck. Fred grew up in Bensonhurst; Nelson is from Oyster Bay. Fred’s father was an undertaker; Nelson’s father willed him a publishing fortune.
And on Oct. 24, as Mets pitcher Rick Reed opened Shea Stadium’s first World Series game since 1986, Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday sat on opposite sides of the infield, each presiding from his own plexiglassed owner’s box.
About the only thing the Mets co-owners share these days, it seems, is their barely concealed distaste for one another. Since they became equal partners in 1986-in a hostile takeover of sorts by Mr. Wilpon-the two men have been engaged in an on-again, off-again struggle for power over the team, dividing the front office into warring camps and fighting proxy battles over hirings, firings and trades.
The stakes in their feud are high, and go beyond the impending free agency of several stars. After the Subway Series looms the question of where the Mets will play their future seasons: in the concrete horseshoe of Shea, or in a $500 million reincarnation of Ebbets Field, to be built adjacent to the current stadium.
Mr. Doubleday, 66, has been mostly out of the picture since the mid-1990’s, as Mr. Wilpon, 63, built a pennant-contender. He returned to Shea in mid-summer, saying that he had been gravely ill but after a liver transplant had experienced a “100-percent recovery.” Then, in an interview with the Associated Press in late September, Mr. Doubleday tossed a bomb. “I don’t see a great deal of taxpayer money to build the New York Mets a new stadium,” he said, suggesting that for “one-tenth of the money or one-hundredth of the money,” Shea Stadium could simply be renovated. “I kind of like this place,” he said of a ballpark that has few other admirers.
His comments were read by many as a direct rebuke of Mr. Wilpon, a real estate developer who has been engaged in painstaking negotiations with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over public financing for the new stadium. “Nelson Doubleday made those statements much to the surprise of the city and Wilpon,” said one person who spoke to the Mets front office immediately afterwards. Mr. Wilpon’s terse reply to the AP story was: “If that’s what he said, that’s what he said.”
Whether by accident or design, the immediate effect of Mr. Doubleday’s comments was to jump-start the Mets’ negotiations with the city. Mr. Wilpon and his son Jeff were seen leaving meetings in City Hall. Mr. Giuliani announced that the city would pay for a third of the stadium, while the state would pick up another third.
By the time the Mets beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, Mr. Wilpon was giddy enough to say a stadium deal could be announced during the World Series. He quickly backed off that prediction, but Mr. Giuliani says he hopes to resume negotiations with the team soon.
Now, amid the flashbulbs and Subway Series hoopla, the September flare-up between Messrs. Doubleday and Wilpon is mostly forgotten. When the Mets won the pennant, it was Mr. Doubleday, wearing thick glasses and his trademark sweater around his neck, who accepted the trophy. Mr. Wilpon bounded onto the television screen a few moments later, his blue Oxford shirt soaked with champagne. The two men did not exchange words.
Mr. Wilpon’s allies maintained that the stadium controversy was just a misunderstanding. Mr. Doubleday, they say, simply did not know the status of Mr. Wilpon’s negotiations. That may be true, but Mr. Doubleday apparently hasn’t changed his mind. “I’m not particularly interested in seeing a whole lot of taxpayer money going into a New York Mets fancy-dancy stadium,” Mr. Doubleday told The Observer while watching batting practice before Game 3 on Oct. 24. “We could [renovate Shea Stadium] over three years, section by section. This is a pretty nice place to play ball.”
Mr. Wilpon, through Jeff Wilpon, declined comment on the stadium talks.
Numerous individuals contacted for this story maintained that Mr. Doubleday’s reluctance to endorse Mr. Wilpon’s stadium plan had to be understood against the history of antagonism between the two men. None of the individuals would speak for attribution.
When asked whether the two men disagreed on matters other than the stadium, one source chuckled:
“Yeah, every day.”
“It’s not a close personal relationship,” said another person who knows both men well, “but that’s been true for years and years. They’ve always been able to work together. In most things related to baseball, Doubleday has deferred to Wilpon over the years.” The same would hold true for the stadium, he predicted.
“These aren’t two people that were business partners and had a long social relationship prior to their becoming the owners of the Mets,” said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a Chicago-based sports-facility consulting firm. “The two are very, very different. One is a hard-nosed long-term real estate developer. The other has done well with family business. It’s a very different approach.”
Wilpon’s Rise to Power
In fact, the relationship between the two has changed dramatically over the 20 years since the two men bought the team for a then-record $21.1 million, with Mr. Wilpon rising from a minority partner to equal partner and then to controlling partner. When the team went on the market in 1980, Mr. Wilpon was a successful real estate developer, but he hardly had the kind of wealth necessary to buy a team. He approached his friend John Pickett, then the owner of the New York Islanders, about mounting a bid. Mr. Pickett declined, but he did match him with another member of the Long Island aristocracy: Mr. Doubleday.
In the beginning, Doubleday Publishing owned 95 percent of the team. Mr. Doubleday gained a reputation as a hands-off owner who let general manager Frank Cashen make all the baseball decisions. The strategy paid off in 1986, when a Mets team filled with young players cultivated by Mr. Cashen won the World Series. But around the same time, Mr. Wilpon was outmaneuvering Mr. Doubleday, parlaying his 5 percent stake into half-ownership. At the time, Mr. Doubleday was selling the publishing company that owned the Mets to the German firm Bertelsmann A.G. But Mr. Wilpon had a right of first refusal in the event of any sale of the team, and his lawyers made it clear he was ready to exercise it. In a settlement, the two men agreed to become equal partners, paying Bertelsmann $81 million for the team. It has been said that Mr. Doubleday never forgave Mr. Wilpon.
Others said, however, that the true shift in the balance of power between the two did not come until 1993. It was the dark days of the overpaid, underachieving Mets, who had become a baseball laughingstock. In August 1993, Mr. Wilpon addressed the team for the first time ever. The message was, essentially, shape up or ship out.
Then, in the spring of 1994, a book about the ouster of baseball commissioner Fay Vincent by a group of owners led by Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf quoted Mr. Doubleday, a Vincent ally, telling league presidents Bobby Brown and Bill White: “It looks like the Jewboys finally got you.” A former employee told Newsday that Mr. Doubleday had said similar things in his presence, but only “when he was drinking.” Mr. Wilpon, who is Jewish, stood up for Mr. Doubleday, saying: “It’s not like Nelson to talk that way.”
After that, one person familiar with the team said, Mr. Doubleday disappeared from the scene and Mr. Wilpon took charge, with a more hands-on approach. He has installed loyal subordinates who have frequently come into conflict with executives loyal to Mr. Doubleday.
Last year, Mr. Doubleday was ready to sell 80 percent of the team to Cablevision for $400 million-a deal that could have shielded his children, who are uninvolved in the Mets’ affairs, from huge estate taxes. But Mr. Wilpon scuttled the deal, out of a concern that, as a minority partner once again, there would be no assurance that he would still run the team. Jeff Wilpon, who is closely involved with the day-to-day planning for the new stadium, is said to be eager to take over the team one day.
The stadium is Mr. Wilpon’s dream. Architecturally, it is an homage to the Ebbets Field of his youth, and Mr. Wilpon would like to leave the stadium to the city as his legacy.
“I think that Fred Wilpon, who I know fairly well, is a very astute and very knowledgeable businessman in the world of real estate, and I think he’s trying to transfer that into the world of sports,” said Robert Gutkowski, the former head of Madison Square Garden, now the chief executive of Magnum Sports and Entertainment.
The Subway Series may give him an opening. Yet Mr. Wilpon still has to win a few more victories: Mr. Giuliani is negotiating a harder financing bargain than the team-which envisions paying its share out of naming rights and other one-time windfalls-would like. And the Mets will probably have to wait for George Steinbrenner, who has been jealously watching the progress of their negotiations, to decide where he wants to locate the Yankees.
But Mr. Wilpon’s hardest pitch may be the one he makes to his partner.