Defiant Wilpon says he’ll be vindicated

You want to believe him. But you don’t know what to believe.

Mets owner Fred Wilpon said Thursday that he will be “vindicated” in the $1 billion lawsuit alleging that he and team CEO Saul Katz ignored warnings that Bernard Madoff was a fraud.

Wilpon said the Mets will have the “necessary resources” to compete now and in the future. That the effort to sell a non-controlling, 20 to 25 percent of the club is attracting “top-notch” people with sincere interest. That selling the entire franchise is “not on the table,” not even under consideration.

This is how a man is supposed to act when he believes in his innocence. Wilpon isn’t backing down from Irving Picard, the trustee who is suing the Mets’ owners on behalf of the Madoff victims. No, Wilpon is contesting every allegation, defending his honor, fighting like hell.

Alas, full vindication for Wilpon is unlikely, both as a Madoff investor and as Mets’ owner. The most logical outcome of the suit is not a verdict, but a settlement. On the baseball side, Wilpon’s new general manager, Sandy Alderson, has a history of success. But by the time the Mets revive — if they revive — they might be under new ownership.

Wilpon made a defiant, passionate stand Thursday, one day after his son Jeff, the team’s chief operating officer, initiated ownership’s PR offensive. Many beaten-down Mets fans, however, are tantalized by the idea of Donald Trump buying the club and giving the franchise a more boisterous, robust identity, a touch of Steinbrenner.

That’s not going to happen, at least not anytime soon. And no matter what you think of Fred Wilpon as a businessman or owner, the last thing he resembles, at least on the surface, is a villain.

It’s difficult finding anyone in baseball – players, agents, executives, owners – who will say a bad word about Wilpon. On a sunny Thursday morning, it was easy to understand why. Wilpon, wearing sunglasses and a blue, button-down shirt, addressed the media while sitting on a table that the Mets set up smack in the middle of a practice field at their spring-training complex. A battery of cameras and reporters surrounded him, yet he looked entirely at ease.

Wilpon, 74, addressed the Madoff issue immediately, opening his remarks by saying, “We did not know one iota, one thing, about Madoff’s fraud. We didn’t do anything wrong.” Three sentences later, he announced, “We will be vindicated,” for the first — but not last — time during his 20-minute news conference.

He spoke clearly and forcefully, addressing the Mets’ beat writers by their first names, yet chiding the group at large for questioning his integrity and reaching premature conclusions. The reporters, in turn, acted quite respectfully toward Wilpon, even while peppering him with tough, direct questions.

The whole thing was refreshingly civil, particularly given the reputation of the rough-and-tumble New York media. Wilpon is a gentleman, a giving member of the community, and even now, as he concedes being “duped” by his old friend Madoff, a highly respected businessman.

Many Mets fans, though, are in no mood for sympathy, particularly when Wilpon might not merit it, if Picard’s lawsuit is to be believed.

Both Fred and Jeff Wilpon lost credibility by dismissing for nearly two years the impact of the Madoff scandal on their operation. Yes, the Mets carry a top-five payroll, one that actually is nothing to be proud of, given the team’s poor decision-making under former GM Omar Minaya. But let’s see what happens next offseason, when the Mets will shed about $50 million in payroll.

The litmus test will not be shortstop Jose Reyes, a potential free agent who might not be worth the risk of a long-term contract. No, the litmus test will be how aggressively the Mets replace the players they lose. If they are inactive, they cannot blame a bloated payroll again.

Alderson already has spoken of regaining flexibility, which often is code for “lowering payroll.” Wilpon, while declining to divulge specifics, gives the impression that, more than anyone, he wants the team fixed.

“This business has to be straightened out, no question about it,” Wilpon said. “Every other business I like. This business I love. I love the New York Mets. I’ve been around here for almost 32 years. This is part of my DNA.”

If he goes down, then, he will go down swinging.

Wilpon could take the opposite approach, declining comment on all things Madoff, allowing the process to play out. Perhaps he is too angry to stay silent. Perhaps he wants to appeal to his jittery fan base. Perhaps both.

When one reporter implied that a settlement with Picard would offer less-than-total vindication, Wilpon shot back, “You’re going to see vindication when our answers come back. Six weeks from now, when we answer that complaint, you’re going to see vindication right there.”

When another reporter asked why Wilpon was willing, on the first day of spring training, to even discuss the Madoff affair, Wilpon responded incredulously, “Have you read the papers in the last two weeks? I want to put an end to it. That’s why I brought it up. I’m not hiding from anything. We provided 700,000 pieces of paper — 700,000 pieces of paper — to the trustee. We’re not hiding anything. We’ve got nothing to hide.”

You want to believe him. You just don’t know what to believe.