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The Mets' Matt Harvey problem is a Mets problem

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Why do the Mets constantly carp and grump about their most exciting pitching prospect in a generation? Because it's what they do.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There is no good kind of sports team owner, really. Some are demonstrably better than others, but when the most desirable options are Distant Globetrotting Billionaire With Open Checkbook and Stubborn Octogenarian Pillar Of The Community, Possibly Wearing A Hat, Also With Open Checkbook, we are not dealing in ideal outcomes. There is, at least, more diversity among the owner population than in years past. Not in terms of race or ethnicity, naturally -- remember the nature of this particular country club, remember the members -- but relative to the fact that, a generation ago, most sports teams were owned by some meatfaced version of Jerry Reinsdorf.

Today, though, to survey owners suites is to taste the rainbow of circa-now plutocracy. We see the dry-drunk scions of old dynasties and grandiose telecom dudes and taut-faced petro-types, various open-collared local swells that use the Internet poorly and the odd bronzed objectivist from the world of tech. It's a wonderful time to be alive and betting some small part of our emotional well-being on the franchises these people own, at least insofar as there is a diverse array of extremely rich men eager to mess with our moods through the teams we care about.

But some things have not changed. There are no owners in professional sports quite like the Wilpons, which is why there is no team quite like the New York Mets.

This sounds more complimentary than it is. What it means, mostly, is that the Mets are owned by a special type of New York rich person -- one as self-sentimentalizing and thin-skinned as the Knicks mock-turtlenecked despot James Dolan, but different -- that does not otherwise exist in sufficient number elsewhere.The Mets and the sour Mets-y vibe surrounding them are proof of how well this works.

They are a franchise from another era, in many ways. The diversified and professionalized ownership caste has mostly shuffled out the old, idiosyncratic incompetents of yore -- bigoted cheapskates like Marge Schott and Tom Yawkey died, and the less-interested third-generation team inheritors cashed out while the cashing out was good -- and given way to a certain blanket, blanking corporate parity. This is pretty much a good thing. There are a few teams that overtly reflect their owners' personalities and various venalities or strong points, but give or take a Jeffrey Loria, most baseball teams work more or less the same way, and function on the same continuum of competence.

What makes the Mets unique is also what has made them lousy for nearly a decade: they are an extension and reflection of their owners, both in terms of the team's money problems logically flowing from those of the Wilpons' and in the way that the promising, intermittently joyous team that's developing in Queens is doing so amid an ambient vibe of blustering, blowhardy pissiness. Of course the baseball is more fun than the non-baseball -- that is always true. But what's not fun about the Mets comes so clearly from the issues -- the personality, self-created and self-denied money problems and general towering competence issues -- of the owners.

Still, these Mets were good enough and lucky enough to develop Matt Harvey. Matt Harvey, who has the swagger, statistics and skills of a great star in the making, and whose performance in 2013 was the most electric by a Mets pitcher in many years. Matt Harvey who is presently on his way back from Tommy John surgery. Matt Harvey, who for no reason and with perfect Wilponian rhyme has been cast as something of a villain by the team more or less since the moment he became great.


All of the above is the property of Fred Wilpon, who managed to become a great successes in New York real estate without ever becoming anything bigger or better than the sort of creaky, self-mythologizing narcissist that reflexively tells and re-tells stories about how, decades ago, he was in the Penn Relays or was complimented by Duke Snider or whatever. Fred, for instance, would love to tell you about how he played on the same high school sports teams as Sandy Koufax. If you are standing near him, he is already doing it.

The diners of Manhattan and Brooklyn are lousy and loud with these honking aged children, but only one of them owns the Mets. And Fred Wilpon owns the Mets exactly as incompetently as one of these men would. He has said that he views the team as a "family heirloom" and intends to leave it to his son Jeff, who is already a prodigious figure in the world of Nasty Anonymous Quotes About Ex-Players and who will likely run the team exactly as the son of such a man would.

The most damaging portion of the Wilpons' malpractice -- more damaging to their team's fortunes, and to the sustaining hope among fans that things might somehow someday be different -- is harder to understand. That is how the Wilpons must have it, as it all involves a series of secret and semi-secret loans, deferred payments, willfully opaque bookkeeping, and the other methods that the Wilpons have deployed to conceal just how fucked their team's finances truly are, both because of their disastrous financial dealings with Bernie Madoff, and the flubby ongoing shell game that has been their aftermath.

Fred Wilpon, fittingly looking more like a manager than an owner. (Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports)

But, during the season, when the team they made is on the field, the most irritating and constant element of The Wilpon Problem is stylistic and tonal. The team's failings largely reflect those of the owners, but the noise the team makes is the real problem. The financial ineptitude that created the circumstances that led to this team are all bad and unhelpful, but the Mets are a baseball team, and one that is not always excruciating to watch; they are in the process of becoming something, which is a positive step after a long period of just being the Mets.

This should be the fun part, if only because we are watching baseball games instead of guessing -- along with GM Sandy Alderson -- at the team's available operating budget or attempting to parse the incessant deferrals of various nine-figure loans. And yet this doesn't quite work, either, because of the way that creeping Wilponism haunts the club.

It would naturally seem strange to observers unused to the thin air and heavy gravity of Planet Wilpon that the team would go so egregiously and strangely out of its way to alienate Harvey

So we get the owner -- the guy who "knows baseball," Sandy Koufax's old teammate -- bringing his imagined expertise to bear through constant micromanaging, for instance, or indulging his every executive caprice and airing his sports radio-grade irks about his players. Witness, for instance, Fred Wilpon's instantly infamous on-the-record scouting reports of his own players from this 2011 New Yorker profile, or the anonymous trashing of former players, or the incessant low-level undermining and second-guessing of goings-on in the present that crop up with regularity in the Wilpon-friendly New York Daily News.

It would naturally seem strange to observers unused to the thin air and heavy gravity of Planet Wilpon that the team would go so egregiously and strangely out of its way to alienate Harvey, who was most recently criticized by team officials and manager Terry Collins for expressing the apparently scandalous sentiment that he'd like to return to the mound this season.

Mike Lupica, one of the elder-grumps of the New York sports media, amplified and clarified the Wilpon line on Harvey in the Daily News, sternly instructing the "spoiled child" that "he really does need to get it through his head that his job, even rehabbing from surgery, is baseball pitcher, and not celebrity." Again, this was in response to Harvey noting that his rehab is going well and saying that he hoped to pitch in the bigs in 2014, not news that he was "still deciding which Jenner to date" or releasing a dubstep album under the name Alistair Megapenus.

While this is objectively a very strange way for a team to treat its best and most popular young player, it has been the Mets' approach with Harvey at every turn. It's not that all this is any less strange to those of us who make our summer homes on Planet Wilpon, but it is so deeply, wearyingly familiar. And it's familiar not just because this type of weird reflexive scolding has followed Harvey through his rise to stardom, but because it is something like the Wilpon way. This cartoonish meta-leadership is the only thing the Wilpons do reliably. They say "no" and "stop" and "don't" because they can, and to remind themselves and everyone else who gets to say no and stop and don't.

It's a dumb and high-handed way to deal with Matt Harvey -- it's a dumb and high-handed way to deal with anyone -- but the willful hypocrisy and silly-salty umbrage of it is, in a backhanded way, clarifying. The Wilpon Way is to demand accountability from others, but not from themselves; it is to demand steely discipline from everyone in their employ, while demonstrating none.

It's a bummer, of course, and not just where it relates to Matt Harvey. The self-satirizing elements of it -- these petty and childish men decrying a lack of maturity in others, these mediocre men demanding what they cannot earn and can't afford -- are maybe too successful as satire to be especially funny. There is no need for the Wilpons to keep reminding everyone who is in charge in Queens, although that will not stop them from doing it. It's impossible to forget, and difficult to ignore. That's the problem.