The Fan Who Transformed the Union
November 25, 2013 by Jeff Kallman • Print Story •
The Baseball Writers Association of America held a meeting during the All-Star Game break in New York. Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Michael Weiner, who enjoyed a solid relationship with the group, was an obvious target for questions. Weiner couldn't resist opening by asking, "Any questions not related to Biogenesis or brain cancer?"
The man who took the Players' Association reins from Donald Fehr in 2009, but died last Thursday of the disease that numbered his days by way of an inoperable tumor disclosed in 2012, watched All-Star batting practice in Citi Field from his wheelchair. By then Weiner was unable to walk or use his right side. He could and did, however, continue demonstrating that the cancer attacked his brain, not his mind or his spirit.
"I don't know if I look at things differently," said Weiner at that BBWAA gathering, his last known public appearance. "Maybe they just became more important to me and more conscious to me going forward. As corny as this sounds, I get up in the morning and I feel I'm going to live each day as it comes. I don't take any day for granted. I don't take the next morning for granted. What I look for each day is beauty, meaning and joy, and if I can find beauty, meaning and joy, that's a good day."
Maybe it was that kind of thinking that also allowed Weiner — a Yankee fan since his childhood in New Jersey — to shepherd the players' union forward from discomfiting eras of confrontation, against a management behaving as though seeking wars before resolutions, to an era in which the two sides generally have more common than uncommon ground.
Weiner personified reason (the word's been beaten to death in all the obituaries) while being a man of general cheer who refused to let any adversary grind him. Yet he wasn't self-possessed by any definition. "It was almost ridiculous," former major league general manager Jim Duquette told the New York Times. "You'd be negotiating contracts with agents, or just talking shop, and you'd always hear it: 'The most reasonable guy in the union, the guy with the best rationale, is Michael Weiner.' Then they'd go on to explain how he thought about something, and you'd think, 'Wow — this guy really gets it.'"
Players who felt intimidated by Fehr and his consigliere Gene Orza once upon a time felt anything but with Weiner even then, when he was the union's assistant general counsel. To them, he projected a casual appearance and demeanor while making any player from the lowest scrub to the top team star feel important. But he also had his ways of convincing players the time was overdue for facing and solving problems not tied to conventional labor/management issues.
Fehr and his predecessor Marvin Miller opposed drug testing with the best of intentions and the worst of approaches. Weiner codified what a slowly swelling volume of players understood: the issue of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances was bigger than all of them, and the time to fight them back was no longer the future.
A week plus after that All-Star Game rendezvous with the writers, Ryan Braun was bagged for the rest of the season as the first Biogenesis domino. He'd been foolish enough to refuse answering questions from baseball government earlier in the month. Weiner led the legal team persuading then-arbitrator Shyam Das to overturn Braun's first 50-game suspension in 2012, based on improper sample handling. But he had no intention of letting Braun make a fool of him twice.
He made it plain that the Players Association would not put up a fight on behalf of players suspended with "overwhelming evidence" that they indulged in actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. When such players as Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer and Dodgers outfielder Skip Schumaker came out in favor of such measures as contract voiding for those caught indulging, Weiner did nothing to quash such thinking or speaking.
That kind of thing would have been unheard of under Fehr and even Miller. "Weiner correctly recognized," wrote FOX Sports's Ken Rosenthal, whose personal relationship with Weiner was a warm one, "that on the subject of PEDs, the conflict was not between players and owners, but players and players — those who cheated, and those who did not." And he communicated it with the same kind of reasonableness by which he communicated just about anything else involving the players' union.
Two decades before he became the union's executive director, Weiner helped determine how to distribute a $280 million collusion settlement from the owners. He helped secure the deal that settled the 1994-95 players' strike; he pitched in on two of the three labor deals securing baseball peace since 1997. The third (in 2011) he commanded as union chief: he helped get such major changes as signing bonus restraints for amateur players and swelling the number of free agents who can change clubs without compensatory draft picks.
He also helped get testing for human growth hormone — which isn't a steroid but is legal only with a proper medical prescription into that agreement.
"It took a while for the owners to appreciate," he once said, "that the union is not only here to stay but that the union and its members can contribute positively to a discussion about the game — about its economics, about the nature of the competition, about how it's marketed in every way."
That discussion will continue with former all-star Tony Clark succeeding Weiner, as had been agreed by the union when Weiner's illness took the point of no return. Once a respected first baseman whose work ethic was nonpareil, Clark is both the first former player and the first non-attorney to run the union even as an interim. But his thoughts about Weiner may indicate what kind of players' association leader he'll be while he handles the job.
"Where we are," he said last winter, "is a testament to Marvin, Don and Michael, and really what Michael has done the last three years, [is] transforming how we functioned for the 20, 25 years with Don and how we needed to change and adapt going forward."
Perhaps Rob Neyer speaks for many: "There's no telling what the next 10 years might have looked like. Perhaps the owners will become intransigent at some point, and if Weiner were still around, he would have become as publicly combative as Fehr and Miller before him. But I prefer to believe that Weiner's fundamentally good nature would have helped carry baseball through another 10 or 15 or 20 years of labor peace. And that he would have joined so many of my baseball heroes in Cooperstown. Because he really did seem to love both the people in the game and the game itself."
There was a key. Maybe the key. Like a commissioner before him who died prematurely, A. Bartlett Giamatti, Weiner genuinely loved the game and the game, whatever issues might disrupt for the time being, loved him back.
Weiner didn't have a Pete Rose scandal to dog him. But just as Giamatti's handling of the Rose matter showed baseball government in good hands, Weiner's handling of the Braun and Rodriguez cases showed baseball labor was in good hands. Just as Giamatti seemed to believe (in George Vecsey's phrasing) that the common good wasn't the same thing as just making money for the owners, Weiner seemed to believe the common good wasn't the same thing as just making money for the players.
You didn't always know what Fehr really thought about baseball, but you never doubted with Weiner. You could see him visiting spring training camps each year, not just to poke around his clients' thinking, but to watch them rounding into a season's shape. You could think of him suffering with Cub, Astro, or Royals fans; cheering at last with Pirate fans; sympathizing with Giants fans as struggling Tim Lincecum whipped a no-hitter; or, better yet, knowing his lifelong heart of hearts, dying to bust out of his wheelchair and scream with the masses as The Mariano became the All-Star Game's ceremonial and baseball story alike.
Maybe it took a genuine fan to shepherd the players' association's transformation from confrontation to consensus and pro-activity. Somehow, you knew that, so long as Weiner sat in the union's top seat, the most grievous issue wouldn't be grievous for very long, and that going to war rather than building a peace would be a fool's errand.