As head of baseball players' union, Michael Weiner seen as departure from Don Fehr
Sunday, February 21, 2010
The second-most powerful person in baseball wears faded jeans, flannel shirts and Chuck Taylors to work. He is an unabashed Bruce Springsteen fan and sports hair that appears to have been combed last during the "Born In the U.S.A." era. He lives on a farm in western New Jersey and commutes 50 minutes each way to Manhattan, which is actually a welcome, twice-daily respite, since at either end of his commute he is tasked with containing the chaos of three teenage daughters and 1,200 major league baseball players, respectively.
The second-most powerful person in baseball is disarmingly gracious and down-to-earth, so much so that the first-most powerful person in baseball, who by definition should distrust if not outright dislike him, can't think of a bad thing to say about him.
"Even though we obviously come from different points of view, I have a lot of respect for Michael as a person," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I like him."
In fact, Michael Weiner, who became the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in December, is so nice and so well-liked -- and is seen as such a departure, in terms of personality, from his predecessor, Don Fehr -- that it sometimes becomes necessary at times for Weiner and his associates to minimize his niceness.
"Anyone familiar with collective bargaining knows the road to rapprochement is not personalities," said longtime union lieutenant Gene Orza, who had a hand in hiring Weiner in 1988. The fate of baseball's current labor peace, he said, "will come down to the issues, not the personalities."
Still, while the union's two historical titans -- Marvin Miller (the MLBPA's head from 1966 to 1982) and Fehr (1985-2009) -- each presided over tumultuous eras marked by multiple work stoppages, Weiner, 48, is widely seen as the perfect union boss for these relatively peaceful times, with baseball on an unprecedented run of nearly 15 years without a work stoppage and the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire at the end of 2011.
"I like Don, so I don't want anything I say to be seen as critical of Don, but I thought [the selection of Weiner] was a really good move for the union," Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "Not only will he be a strong leader for his constituents, but he has the respect of those across the table. . . . He's seen as reasonable, as someone you can work with."
Raised on negotiation
Weiner's views on unions and labor relations were forged largely from watching his late father, Isaac, a general contractor and owner of a construction company, deal with union laborers and bosses, subcontractors and developers in Paterson, N.J., the blue-collar melting pot of a town where the Weiners lived.
"As you can imagine, particularly in New Jersey," Weiner said of his father's duties, "it was a little rough-and-tumble." An occasional confrontation was inevitable, he said, but he watched closely as his father settled disputes through persuasion and negotiation -- and by "understanding there are times when, in the interests of the long-term relationship, you don't need to exert the maximum leverage you have every time."
After graduating from Williams College in 1983 and Harvard Law in 1986, Weiner served a two-year clerkship for Judge H. Lee Sarokin at the U.S. District Court in Newark, during which time Sarokin presided over the landmark Cipollone v. Liggett Group cigarette-liability case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sarokin, now retired and living outside San Diego, recalled Weiner as a "lovely person" and an obsessive sports fan who always talked about baseball during the staff's daily lunches.
It was Sarokin who, in 1988, made the fateful call that landed Weiner his job with the baseball union, touting Weiner's virtues to Larry Fleischer, Sarokin's best friend from law school and at the time the general counsel at the NBA Players Association.