As head of baseball players' union, Michael Weiner seen as departure from Don Fehr

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; D03

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.

Fleischer called his counterpart Fehr at the MLBPA, and after a minimal interview process, Weiner was hired, the 11th employee at what was then an 11-person operation. It was a rapid learning process -- within a year bargaining had begun on a new agreement, and within two years, the owners had locked out the players during spring training of 1990.

"It was obvious from the beginning he was a special young talent," Orza said. "He had a great work ethic. He's a first-rate mind. But more than that, he combined brilliance as a lawyer with excellence as a human being."

Friendly opponent

A Springsteen concert at Giants Stadium. A warm evening last fall. Before the show, Weiner was on one side of the stadium, tailgating with family and friends. At the other side of the stadium, Rob Manfred -- as MLB's executive vice president for labor relations, Weiner's chief negotiating opponent -- was doing the same.

Phone calls were exchanged, and there was some talk of merging the two parties, but ultimately the deal fell through -- the complex logistics of packed parking lots, multiple vehicles and coolers of beer being too great to overcome.

But the fact that Weiner and Manfred, who enjoy a professional relationship they describe as "strong" and "healthy," were even thinking about partying together is a stunning notion for a sport used to seeing its labor and management negotiators at each other's throats.

"I like Mike. He's a good guy. We have mutual interests. Our kids are of a similar age. We both went to Harvard Law," Manfred said. "Professionally, we have worked hard [to ensure that] even when we disagree on the substance of an issue, we try to do it in a way that has been respectful of the other person."

What does that relationship ultimately mean for baseball's current -- but always tenuous -- labor peace? Hard to say, but Weiner knows what it doesn't mean.

"It doesn't get you a deal," he said, "if a deal isn't there to be had. . . . [But] if we end up with a difficult negotiation [in 2011]. I imagine it will be because the fundamentals of the parties' economic positions are just not aligned. It won't be because we're saying, 'Well, those sons of bitches are at it again.' "

Though overshadowed for years by Fehr's intellectual bravado, Weiner was always considered the ultimate resource on the ins and outs of baseball's collective bargaining agreement, serving as the union's lead negotiator on both the 2002 and 2006 CBAs.

No less an authority than Miller himself said that Weiner "may know more about the operations of the players' association than anyone who has ever been executive director."

A new era begins

A simple, three-paragraph press release issued jointly by the league and the union in mid-January -- announcing an agreement between MLB, the union and the Florida Marlins regarding the Marlins' spending of revenue-sharing funds -- sent a palpable buzz through the industry.

Among the conclusions most frequently drawn was that the agreement represented a clear victory for Weiner and the union, forcing the Marlins to put a higher percentage of their revenue-sharing proceeds back into their payroll (as seemingly confirmed two days later, when the team announced a new four-year contract for ace Josh Johnson).

Weiner would not discuss the specifics of the agreement, nor answer to all the implications that have been drawn across the industry.

The agreement, he said, was "a result I'm pleased with, or else we wouldn't have made the deal. But I think it was also a result the Marlins and the commissioner's office were at least satisfied with, if not pleased with."

Manfred and Selig both declined to comment on the agreement.

In theory, the historical trajectory of the union should be a continuum, with no delineation between the eras of individual leaders; the core principles and goals, after all, remain the same. But in reality, those eras are clearly defined: the Marvin Miller era was one of turmoil and upheaval, as the players slowly and painfully gained some control over their economic situation.

The Don Fehr era will always be remembered for both the players' hard-fought gains -- with the average salary rising from just under $300,000 to just under $3 million -- and the stain of the steroid controversy, for which Fehr's zealous protection of the players' privacy is often viewed as a primary cause.

Weiner, though, disputes the latter characterization, pointing out the owners made only a feeble pitch for drug testing during the 1994-96 negotiations, after which the sides did not bargain again until 2002 -- during which time steroids, as it is now known, took hold in the game.

"Looking back," he said, "if there had been a round of bargaining in the late '90s that wasn't about the owners trying -- from our perspective -- to fundamentally take back all the gains that the union had achieved for the players in the 20 years prior . . . it might have been a different result."

Weiner's legacy, one would hope, will be of a union leader who extended and maintained baseball's longest stretch of labor peace -- though he, more than anyone else, understands that in itself is not his goal.

"My job is to represent the players to the best of my abilities," he said. "It's not necessarily to have labor peace."

But Orza, for one, believes Weiner will ultimately succeed in putting his stamp on this era.

"Many observers will always look to Marvin and Don -- because we tend to regard our generals highest during times of war. But Michael is at minimum their equal."

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