Monday, June 22, 2009
'Regular genius' to be next union chief
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
Michael Weiner, the man in line to succeed Donald Fehr as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, has a fondness for Bruce Springsteen. He's an avid reader, a devoted family man and a former Little League coach. And, like Ted Williams and Bobby Knight, he doesn't have much use for neckties.
If it were possible to go through life in jeans, flannel shirts and Chuck Taylor sneakers, Weiner wouldn't have much reason to complain.
Will his new, heightened profile as head of the most powerful union in sports change his demeanor or his wardrobe? People who've seen him in action as general counsel for the union aren't anticipating a switch to wingtip shoes anytime soon.
Michael Weiner is the new face of the players association.
"Maybe we'll give him a makeover and put him on the cover of GQ," player agent Barry Axelrod said. "But I don't think that's necessarily his nature."
For those interested in some personal background, Weiner was born Dec. 21, 1961, in Paterson, N.J. He received his bachelor's degree in political economy from Williams College in 1983, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986.
Weiner went to work for the players' association in 1988 and has gradually assumed a higher profile within the union. He has been a pivotal figure in recent collective bargaining negotiations and the union's point man on everything from player grievances to salary arbitration preparation.
More important than his biographical sketch, Weiner has gained credibility across the board -- with players, agents, baseball executives and people in the commissioner's office -- for his evenhandedness and lack of ego.
Players think highly of Weiner because he has their best interests at heart and doesn't talk down to them. Agents appreciate him because he values their opinions, and the people at MLB respect him because he doesn't need to see his name in the paper or engage in saber rattling for the fun of it.
And lest we forget, just about everyone who has come across Weiner will tell you he's one of the smartest people he or she has ever met.
Barry Meister, a longtime player agent, said Weiner is known for his skilled rebuttal arguments in salary arbitration hearings and his ability to scope out flaws in the opposition's case. Yet it's always about the facts, or historical precedent, and never about personalities or lording his intellect.
"Michael is a genius," Meister said, "but he's a regular genius."
One of Weiner's greatest gifts is his ability to dissect complicated issues and get to the heart of the matter. Veteran major leaguer Craig Counsell learned that in October 2006 during negotiations toward the new labor agreement. Counsell, Mark Loretta and Tony Clark sat in on the final round of bargaining and got a firsthand glimpse of Weiner in action.
"I was awed by how smart he is," Counsell said. "I know that might sound strange. But there were a lot of intelligent people at that table, and Michael had this knack for making an argument while juggling all these other arguments and keeping them in the back of his mind. It was incredible to watch.
"More important than his intelligence, he has a great rapport with players. They kind of 'get' him. When you talk about things like revenue sharing and luxury taxes and debt service, that's pretty complicated stuff. But Michael has a way of making the complex understandable."
In the estimation of many observers, the lack of contentiousness in baseball's recent labor talks is a tribute to the professional relationship forged by Weiner and Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's chief labor lawyer. Both men are aware of the historical baggage that's ever-present in their jobs, yet sufficiently pragmatic to get past it.
The consensus is that Weiner will continue to find a way to reach out and find common ground with the commissioner's office on issues ranging from the game's economics to drug testing to the World Baseball Classic. Weiner and Manfred have spent years cultivating a more constructive, respectful tone, and that's likely to remain the case moving forward.
During a conference call Monday, Weiner was properly deferential to the men who came before him in the players' association.
"It's a very humbling experience to even be considered for this position," he said. "Earlier [Monday], I sat here in our conference room at the office at a table with Marvin Miller and Don Fehr. That's about as humbling an experience, for a labor official in this country, to even be considered in the same conversation with those two individuals."
All that's required now is the approval of the union's executive board, and no one expects that to be an issue.
"Michael is the right man for the job," Axelrod said. "I see him a little like Theo Epstein [in Boston]. He came in as a young guy, and they said, 'We'll give him a chance and see what he can do.' And he just kept proving himself, over and over and over again."
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.