Weiner likely to take over players' association

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

NEW YORK -- The man poised to become the first new leader of baseball's powerful union in more than a quarter-century is a ballplayer's lawyer.

Michael Weiner speaks plainly, wears jeans and sneakers to work -- and after more than 20 years with the Major League Baseball Players Association, knows his stuff.

"Michael has the ability to break things down to the players," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "He speaks English. He doesn't speak lawyer talk."

Weiner is likely to succeed Donald Fehr as executive director of the players' association on Wednesday during the organization's annual board meeting. He will be just the fourth head of the union since 1966.

And while Fehr has a similar sartorial sense, the two men have far different styles otherwise.

Weiner talks in far shorter and simpler sentences and represents a generational shift from his 61-year-old predecessor, who went to work for union head Marvin Miller in 1977 and took over as head six years later after Ken Moffett's brief tenure.

Weiner, who turns 48 on Dec. 21, has been a baseball union lawyer for nearly his entire professional life. After graduation from Williams College and Harvard Law School, Weiner clerked for a federal judge and got hired by Fehr in 1988 as a staff lawyer.

While the union was under constant attack during the first half of Fehr's reign -- there was a two-day strike in 1985, a 32-day lockout in 1990 and a 71/2-month strike in 1994-95 that wiped out the World Series -- Weiner faces different challenges as head of a membership with an average salary of just under $3 million.

Drug testing -- and now congressional scrutiny -- are a fact of life in the major leagues. Management is likely to want to tinker with complex economic issues such as revenue sharing and the luxury tax, and teams already have said they want to widen the amateur draft to cover international players and institute a slotting system that would eliminate individual negotiations for draft picks.

For Weiner, the 1994 to 95 strike and the negotiations that finally led to an agreement in March 1997 were the seminal event in baseball's labor-management relations.

The sides had fought nearly constantly during two contentious decades that saw players gain free agency and salary arbitration, then win three grievance decisions that owners conspired against free agents.

"I think that helped some people on the owners side to finally accept that the union was a fixture and the union was an entity they were going to have to deal with," he said during a mid-November interview at the union's office overlooking Rockefeller Center. "There was never a chance for anything to settle in until we got through collusion, and really until then we got through the bargaining in '94 and '95."

Fehr was a product of those battles, and distrust of management and commissioner Bud Selig became part of his nature. For many fans, Fehr's image was that of a snarling lawyer at the podium during work stoppages.

Weiner is an unknown, spending his career in the background behind Fehr and his No. 2, Gene Orza. He has a more laid-back style -- he even teaches Hebrew school on Sundays to fourth and fifth graders.

"I learned from my dad that you could get your point across and you could stand very firm for what you believe without raising your voice. That was furthered by the experience I saw when I worked for the judge," he said. "I expect that will continue to be my approach."

Yet, he figures to be somewhat like Fehr, too.

"Don and I have somewhat different personalities, but the fundamentals of what it means to do this job I've learned from Don," Weiner said. "How to keep the players together, negotiations, principles of negotiation, all of that I've learned from Don."

Already he is speaking out against comments from unidentified management officials who have predicted a down free-agent market this offseason. Weiner says what he objected to were comments about the likely salaries of specific free agents.

What else is on his agenda?

For one thing, players are unhappy with the increased number of off days during the postseason. "That's not the way the game of baseball is played," Weiner said, and while there's no consensus yet, the union could proposed one startling playoff shift.

"There have been some players who expressed concern about the three out-of-five division series and whether or not having played a 162-game season it's fair for them to have everybody get thrown into that kind of a series," Weiner said.

He became one of the union's two primary negotiators along with Steve Fehr -- the union head's brother -- in talks that led to the last two collective bargaining agreements, in 2002 and 2006. He developed a good relationship with management's primary negotiators.

"I think that Michael is a really zealous advocate for the interests of the players. At the same time, he has a very practical realization or a practical understanding of the need to make agreements so that both the players and the owners can be successful," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations. "Any good relationship is founded on respect, and I do have a ton of respect for him, I really do. Candidly, I like Mike personally. He's a very engaging individual. So I think the combination of the fact that I have a lot of respect for him and I like him personally gives you a nice bedrock to work from."

Still, being the head of the union will put different pressures on Weiner as he prepares for the next round of bargaining, which will take place ahead of the current agreement's expiration in

December 2011.

"The executive director is a key figure in maintaining the integrity of the MLBPA," first baseman Tony Clark said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "He is inevitably responsible for EVERYTHING."

Fehr says there is only so much preparation for the top spot.

"You can know an awful lot about the job, what has to be done, the role of the union, but until you become executive director, with the ultimate responsibility insofar as can be held by staff, it's very difficult to understand what the job is," he said. "That has to be learned after you get there."

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