By Joe Lemire
August 16, 2010

NEW YORK -- The website of Sterling Equities -- the firm run by Fred and Jeff Wilpon and Saul Katz, the principal owners of the New York Mets -- touts its company philosophy as a "family run business operated in a collegial manner, with professionalism and accountability."

In a week when Francisco Rodriguez, the team's star closer, was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend's father -- in the Mets' family lounge, no less, where it was witnessed by players' wives, girlfriends and children -- and the ownership handed out a meager two-game suspension and 18-word comment, there was a distinct lack of either professionalism or accountability.

Things are no better for the Mets on the field. After losing their weekend series to the Phillies, they've fallen 10 games behind the Braves in the National League East and eight games behind the Giants and Phillies for the wild card. Until Thursday and Friday, they hadn't won back-to-back games in seven weeks and they've averaged an MLB-worst 2.8 runs per game since the All-Star break. With bad contracts extending until next year and beyond, there doesn't seem to be much opportunity for a quick turnaround, either.

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Said one Mets employee, "The reputation of this franchise has diminished into laughability."

Part of the reason is that the Wilpons don't seem to be following the mission set forth in their other, lesser-known company. Among the corporate values listed on the website for Sterling Equities are "candor and honesty" and "customer focus," but the Mets' ownership has instead provided silence and neglect.

If a business were to suffer bad press or some other crisis of confidence, the CEO or chief operating officer would hold a meeting or get on a conference call to reassure investors. Well, that's what CEO Fred Wilpon and COO Jeff Wilpon need to do: Reassure fans and ticket-holders.

And they've each passed on opportunities to do so. On Friday an assistant who answered the phone in Jeff Wilpon's office said he was "out of town." Later in the day a spokesman returned the call from a reporter on Wilpon's behalf said that the COO had "politely declined" to comment.

On Sunday Fred Wilpon walked by the Mets clubhouse and, asked by reporters if he had a comment on the team's state of affairs, he replied, "Nope, I have to go to the University of Michigan" -- a reference to an event for incoming UM students being held at the ballpark.

New York has been a sinking franchise since its elimination in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series, marked by historic collapses in 2007 and '08 and underperforming seasons in 2009 and '10. At the time of the incident late Wednesday night, the Mets were in fourth place in the NL East and over the weekend would be welcoming their top rival, the Phillies. It seemed like a good time for leadership.

Instead, the following happened: In manager Jerry Manuel's pregame press conference at 11 a.m. in advance of Thursday's 12:10 p.m. game with the Rockies, he was asked if he would have any hesitation using Rodriguez, should he be available that day. Manuel's answer? "None."

Even though K-Rod had spent the night in the ballpark's holding pen and at that time was appearing in court, Manuel was implicitly saying that the alleged offense wasn't so severe that he should miss playing time. Even if Rodriguez had been able to arrive at Citi Field in time for the ninth inning, he would have been pitching for teammates who were undoubtedly a bit leery of welcoming him back before he had even apologized.

It wasn't until an hour later, in the top of the first inning of that afternoon's game, that ownership's statement was released, placing K-Rod on the restricted list for two days and offering the Wilpon family's only insight on the situation, a terse single sentence attributed to Jeff which read: "Ownership and the organization are very disappointed in Francisco's inappropriate behavior and we take this matter very seriously."

When asked about the apparent miscommunication between Manuel and the front office, general manager Omar Minaya admitted that he had not spoken to Manuel because he had been at the league's ownership meetings in Minnesota. He did, however, offer an unassailable bit of logic.

"You said Jerry said he would have no hesitation if he was going to pitch him if he was available, but he wasn't going to be available," Minaya said Friday.

Right. But the point is that, an hour before first pitch, his manager didn't know that his closer wasn't available, and given the circumstances, it should have been pretty clear to Manuel that he shouldn't pitch K-Rod.

This wasn't the first time Manuel and Minaya haven't been on the same page. In June, as the pace of center fielder Carlos Beltran's rehab from offseason knee surgery picked up, Manuel repeatedly made comments about an accelerated return for Beltran, only for management to quickly do damage control and say he wasn't ready yet. On Sunday Beltran said he didn't speak to Manuel during his rehab -- only Minaya, with whom he said he spoke about once per week. But the messages apparently weren't passed from front office to manager.

For now the Mets seem content in letting Minaya be management's sole voice of the team. Generally gregarious and accessible, Minaya has certain job skills, but roster construction is not one of them. The Mets have holes to fill -- second base, catcher, a starter and another power bat, to name a few -- but will have nearly $120 million wrapped up in just nine players next season, making it difficult to add too much.

Attendance this season is down about 5,000 per game and as a result so are revenues, all of which suggests that this season's $130 million payroll may be have to be trimmed before next season.

A good place for the Mets to start would be to jettison the deadweight that is second baseman Luis Castillo and pitcher Oliver Perez and their cumbersome contracts. Castillo is in the third year of a four-year, $25-million contract, has made only six starts in August and is batting just .240 with only seven steals. Perez, the club's fourth-highest paid player in average annual value, has pitched just 14 times this season, including only seven starts and none since May 14. At $12 million per year, that's approximately $631,579 per time he takes the mound. He has an ERA of 6.70 and has yet to complete any outing this season without walking a batter, not even in his two relief appearances that lasted only one-third of an inning.

That wasted money doesn't even include the $2 million given to infielder Alex Cora, who was recently cut, and the $1.25 million to injured pitcher Kelvim Escboar, who won't pitch in the majors this season.

The Mets also gave $66 million to Jason Bay, which not only ignored their needs for a catcher and an additional starting pitcher but hasn't worked anyway, as Bay has hit just six home runs and hasn't played since July 25 because of a concussion.

That was the Mets only significant roster move after a 70-92 season in 2009 that Jeff Wilpon deemed "totally unacceptable." Yet with this season in danger of sprialing similarly out of control, neither Wilpon has been heard from much. Jeff's absence is especially conspicuous given that his one bold act of leadership from earlier in the season worked. In mid-May, Wilpon flew to Atlanta to join the team after it had gone from last place to first and back to last in a remarkably swift 23 days.

"I came to talk baseball with them and hear what they want to do and how they want to get this moving in the right direction," he said at the time.

Following that visit, the Mets won 20 of their next 27 to get within a half-game of first place. Those were, however, his last public comments not delivered by a spokesman, despite his father's referral of the media to his son.

While making a public appearance on Aug. 5 in East Hartford to announce that SNY -- the Mets' cable channel -- would become the official broadcast partner of UConn football and men's basketball, Fred Wilpon declined to say much about the Mets.

On whether Minaya would return to the franchise next season, Wilpon replied, "Is the sun going to come up?" Otherwise, about all he said was that his son was doing an "excellent" job and that reporters should go talk to him or Minaya.

"I have a feeling that Jeff talks and he's more talking about the Mets and the important thing is really Omar," Fred Wilpon said. "Omar is the person who represents the Mets from a baseball point of view."

When a reporter called Jeff Wilpon that day for a reaction, a team spokesman said he had "nothing to add." Fitting.

The Wilpons have also been a diminished presence around the team -- which is probably a good thing, given that no employee wants the boss constantly looking over his shoulder -- and the players have noticed.

"In the past [Mets players] would make comments that the front office would be in here a lot," starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey said. "This is my first organization so I didn't know the difference. I think it's a lot better now than in years past because they're not in here as much. We still see them a lot, but it's not everyday."

Baseball is an inherently public business, dependent on the fans and media for support and attention, yet the Wilpons are rarely in the public eye. Considering the charge Jeff Wilpon appeared to give the club earlier this season with his public appearance in Atlanta, one would have thought he'd try a similar approach.

Instead, the rest of the organization is left to fend for itself in these dire times. Before Sunday's game, Manuel conceded urgency for the Mets' season, labeling the series finale as "such a big game for us" before a seven-game road trip against NL Central bottom-feeders Houston and Pittsburgh. "Now is the time," he said. "Now is the time to make that run."

The Mets lost Sunday night and barring a miraculous finish that vaults them into the playoffs, this offseason will be the time -- the time to make some changes.

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