Fred Wilpon, left, and Jeff Wilpon

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Keidel: Some Owners Are Characters, Others Are Caricatures

Jason Keidel
August 22, 2018 - 11:02 am
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Most sports fans follow the final product, on the grass, ice, or court. But we don't get too caught up in the soporific nuance of management. Who's the team doctor for the Nets? Who runs the PR Department for the Jets? Who's the equipment manager of the Mets?

Owners we know. The billionaire boss of the team, the guy who signs the checks. Some are characters, or, in New York, some are caricatures. They can also be the sons of owners, spawned by industry titans who bequeathed the club in his will.

James Dolan inherited the Knicks. Woody Johnson was born with the bank to buy the Jets. And, someday, Jeff Wilpon, son of Fred, will likely own the Mets.

Does it matter? Do the fortunes of the Mets, Jets, and Knicks (and Rangers, for hockey fans) ride on the rich shoulders of these men? Is it a coincidence that their teams generally fail?

Or does it make you appreciate George Steinbrenner a little more now that there's a wide bottleneck of years since his death? At first The Boss - a sobriquet he relished for as long as he owned the Yankees - was a wannabe five-star general who issued missives and handed out a wild-west brand of corporate justice.  His Yanks won in the '70s with a character and temperament that reflected his style - moody and ornery and massive.

Then the Boss took on a different public hue, a sheen of sympathy and nostalgia. He flashed more emotion, even crying during a televised interview while fans chanted his name. Then the Yanks won again in the '90s, led by the Boss's counterintuitive hiring of "Clueless" Joe Torre. We all thought Torre would double as a lap dog for the Boss. We soon saw otherwise.

For all is flaws and failures, Steinbrenner stuck to one script - a lust for winning. Almost every Mets fan who abhors the Yankees has privately thought or said they'd like to have Steinbrenner own their club.

The proof is in the hardware. Since George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973, they have more world championships (7) than the Giants, Knicks, Mets, Nets, Jets, and Rangers combined (6). (Unless you'd care to consider the Nets' ABA titles as equivalent to NBA titles, which most fans don't.) King George lorded over the pinstripes with the passion and production that floated from the building in the six years before he assumed the throne.

If this reads like a Steinbrenner eulogy, it's not. His son, Hal, the more public owner of the team than his brother, inherited much of the same hunger for victory. Though he's a self-styled "numbers geek" intent on keeping the club's payroll under the GDP of most nations, he maintained his dad's flair for spending. While Brian Cashman deftly fertilized the farm system with Grade A prospects, a Steinbrenner still had the financial onions to absorb Giancarlo Stanton's monstrous contract.

Dolan, like King George, is also known for being irascible, with a troubling trigger-finger for firing head coaches. But unlike the Yankees, the Knicks have been a cellar-scratching disaster, 45 years removed since their last NBA championship. Dolan's father, Charles, a business genius who founded Cablevision and HBO, bought Madison Square Garden and the teams that inhabit it (Knicks, Rangers), then handed the remote to Jim, who may see a little more success with the Rangers, but still hasn't won a Stanley Cup since he became team czar. Why can't Dolan hire a coach and keep him? Why did he dismantle a resurgent Knicks club just to bag Carmelo Anthony, who never proved he was a wining NBA player? Why trade NBA lifer and fine GM Donnie Walsh for Phil Jackson, who had never run a team from the executive suite, never put his back into scouting players, and clearly came here just for the bulging payroll check?

Woody Johnson, the shampoo tycoon who inherited Johnson & Johnson coin, has not done much to make the Jets an NFL powerhouse. Though not quite the eyesore the Knicks have been over the last 20 years, Gang Green seems forever the unwanted younger brother of Big Blue - owned by the widely respected Mara family - with the Giants almost always more prepared and productive. While the Jets haven't sniffed a Super Bowl since 1969, the Giants have won two Super Bowls in the last 11 years, both at the expense of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Does the Steinbrenner DNA fit baseball in some nuanced way? Or do they just care about the standings way more than the Wilpons? The Mets did reach the World Series in 2000 and 2016, but neither season was the flashpoint of a dynasty or even a serious run of winning seasons. They hired Omar Minaya, who has a jeweler's eye for young baseball talent (like Jacob deGrom). Yet Minaya was fired. Maybe MLB forced Sandy Alderson upon the Mets, but Sandy was a well-regarded baseball man. Still, he never was able to find enough bats or bullpen help to keep the Mets on the best parts of the sports page. Now he has been felled by cancer, replaced by an awkward triumvirate of men who claim the GM job.

The Steinbrenner family will always own the bold ink. It helps that they own the Yankees and the attendant mystique. But even in the 1980s, when the Boss hired 11 managers in 10 years - and the Mets were clearly better and more successful - they never lost their grip on the city's soul. As a native New Yorker, it's been my experience that oddballs and goofballs have a short shelf life. No matter how eccentric you are, your moment of fame is fleeting without results to support it. Love or loathe the Yankees, you know they are in the business of winning, at any and all cost.

If you listen to WFAN with any frequency (an awful pun) you'll hear Mets fans question Jeff and Fred Wilpon's motives. Why did the Yanks land Giancarlo Stanton? Why won't the Mets court Manny Machado?

Why does Dolan fire people arbitrarily and with chilling apathy? How can he call the beloved Charles Oakley an alcoholic when Dolan himself has taken a turn in rehab? How has he turned the main nerve of basketball into a hardwood mausoleum.

Why can't the Jets draft a dominant quarterback? Why does Woody Johnson seem more interested in politics than the pigskin? He became an ambassador to Ireland or some such - a curious side hustle for a billionaire owner of an NFL club. 

Like James Dolan, Woody Johnson, and Jeff Wilpon, we inherit our favorite sports teams from our parents. Our dad (or mom) took us to see their favorite team, schooled us in its history, and urged us, as parents do, to follow said team with equal, frothing devotion. How does a kid say no to mom or dad? 

Unlike the aforementioned billionaires, we have no control over how or how often they win. Just the luck of the draw, or not. Perhaps the worst luck of all is that you, the fan, often care more about winning than the guy who bought your favorite team.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel​