Patient and humble, Weiner was a different kind of labor leader
The year was 2011 and Weiner, the MLB Players Association executive director, was explaining in a speech at the annual Sports Lawyers Association convention why baseball was the only one of the four major team sports that did not have a labor battle on the horizon.
Weiner died on Nov. 21 at the age of 51 of brain cancer. He has been lauded in the industry and in the media for his leadership of the MLBPA and his stellar personality.
|Michael Weiner, who died Nov. 21, gave players the credit for the MLBPA’s strength, but observers praised him for his leadership and the recent labor peace in baseball.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, he worked at the MLBPA for 26 years, first as a staff counsel and later as general counsel, before being named as executive director in 2009.
Like former MLBPA Executive Director Don Fehr and former MLBPA Chief Operating Officer Gene Orza, Weiner was a razor-sharp attorney, but when it came to dealing with other people, he had a softer side.
“He suffers fools much more gladly than I do,” Orza said of Weiner in an interview with SportsBusiness Journal in July.
Some have credited Weiner’s ability to get along with people as a reason baseball has been able to maintain labor peace for 19 years.
But back in 2011, Weiner himself said he was asked all the time why baseball did not have the labor problems the other sports were experiencing. “Does it have something to do with personalities?” Weiner said. “Does it have something to do with lines of communication? Negotiating style? My answer is, ‘I don’t think it does.’”
“It’s not about intelligence or creativity,” Weiner said. “It’s about power.”
In 2011 and 2012, owners locked out players in the NFL, NBA and NHL. The owners sought, and received, concessions from the players associations.
But the baseball club owners did not seek similar rollbacks. The reason, Weiner said, was, “They don’t think they can get there without a fight that would so damage the industry and so damage the game, that it is not worth it.”
The MLBPA has long been seen as the strongest union in sports, but Weiner said, on that day and until he died, that its strength didn’t come from him, or his predecessor Fehr or MLBPA founder Marvin Miller.
The union is strong, Weiner said, because the players are involved, educated and committed to sticking together.
“Today’s players understand that the obligation that they have is not just to the union members right now, just to the guys in their clubhouse or the clubhouses around the two leagues,” Weiner said. “The players understand they have an obligation to the guys who will come after them.”
Weiner is the second sports union leader to die young of cancer in the last five years.
Gene Upshaw died on Aug. 20, 2008, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 63 after leading the NFLPA for 25 years. Upshaw’s death came as a shock to the industry, and friends say even he didn’t know he had a terminal illness until he went to the hospital four days before his death.
Weiner’s illness was no secret. After the MLBPA announced in August 2012 that he was being treated for an inoperable brain tumor, Weiner spoke about it and wrote about it publicly.
He wrote in Sports Illustrated that he was dealing with his illness by, among other things, keeping a sense of humor, living his life and helping others, even when he was hurting.
In July, he appeared at the MLB All-Star Game in a wheelchair, his right side paralyzed, and took questions on MLB’s Biogenesis investigation. “Any questions about anything other than Biogenesis or brain cancer?” he deadpanned at the end of the press conference.
I have known Weiner for at least a dozen years. More than a decade ago, when he was a staff lawyer at MLBPA, I asked him how old he was because I wanted to nominate him for SportsBusiness Journal’s Forty Under 40 award. He thanked me, but said he had just turned 40. (Weiner would have been 52 on Dec. 21.)
Weiner always returned my phone calls or emails, even if to say he couldn’t comment on the story I was writing. He was incredibly generous with his time and patiently answered my not always brilliant questions about labor law and the baseball free agent market, among other things.
He continued to respond to my emails even after he was paralyzed on the right side this summer and into the early fall. He couldn’t use his right hand, and the responses were short notes. The last time I spoke to Weiner on the phone was over the summer. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him. Weiner said, “I want you to help other people.”