Thursday, July 9, 2009
Weiner 'uniquely qualified' to lead union
By Jayson Stark
The New Guy at baseball's Players Association hasn't moved into his new office yet. In fact, Michael Weiner hasn't even been officially approved by his own players yet.
But when that happens -- and it sure seems like a "when," not an "if" -- the good news for this man is: He, along with all of us, is guaranteed 2½ more seasons of labor peace.
Baseball is only halfway through the five-year labor deal that kicked in after the 2006 season. So those rumblings off in the distance -- salary caps, PEDs, draft overhauls, collusion safeguards, etc. -- are literally years away.
But they're coming. So with Don Fehr moving on as leader of this union and Weiner moving in, the popular notion is that we're heading toward a kinder, gentler era of player-management labor relations in a sport not exactly known for that.
"Michael is not a person looking for confrontation," said longtime agent Tom Reich. "But as I've observed him over these last 20 years, I've found him to be a guy who will take the 'right' position consistently, not just in terms of the needs of his constituency but also with an overall awareness of what's best for the industry.
"There has been tremendous progress over the last decade, in terms of the union and the commissioner's office working together. And those needs, because of the times we live in, are greater now than ever.
The kinds of problems that exist right now are going to require the best that everyone has to offer. And Michael will be a credit to that type of effort."
Even the lead negotiator on the other side of the table, MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred, praised Weiner, saying: "Mike is a tremendously capable and committed advocate for player interests. He is smart and tough, but fair. He has been instrumental in finding creative ways to accommodate our different interests."
And because Manfred and other officials in the commissioner's office have had so many dealings with Weiner in recent years, Fehr himself predicts a "pretty seamless transition."
"The people on the other side know him well, have known him for a long time, know he's very smart and very thorough, and know he'll be very professional to deal with," Fehr said. "But they also know he understands the interests of the players, and he'll do his damndest to make sure those interests are served."
For all the talk of Weiner's easygoing nature and feel for problem-solving, though, no one should forget that he has worked for and with this union since 1988. So one management source says he expects "absolutely no change in philosophy."
"Michael Weiner was schooled at the knee of Don Fehr," that source said. "He may have a different style than Don, and he's smart as hell. But he's still a true believer" in the causes championed by Fehr and Marvin Miller before him.
So if the other side wants to provoke a fight in the next round of labor talks, Weiner's friends say he won't be afraid to throw a few haymakers.
"I hope there's not an effort to test him from that perspective," Fehr said. "But if there is, people should remember he's passed every test he's been confronted with, with flying colors."
The next labor talks are still far enough off that opinions vary widely on just how heated those negotiations will be. An official of one club predicted, nonchalantly: "I don't see this as a very contentious negotiation." But one agent wasn't so sure.
"I sense trouble on the horizon," he said. "I think part of the reason Don decided to ride off into the sunset was to give Michael time to build the right strategy, make the right plan and get the players on board."
So what are the big issues Weiner may face, and how is he likely to deal with them? Let's take a look:
|Michael Weiner has worked for the players' union since 1988.|
Salary cap, anyone?
The "C" word has become a hotter topic of behind-the-scenes conversation lately than it's been at any point since the 1994 strike talks blew up.
It's all the Yankees' fault, of course. (Isn't it always?) When they dropped a gazillion dollars on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett last winter, the cap talk erupted. And even the commissioner, Bud Selig, hasn't done anything to quash it.
There is also a theory that labor-relations history tells us that any time there is a change in leadership of a union as powerful as baseball's Players Association, management will test that leadership in its next round of negotiations. So what better test of Weiner than to start talking salary cap?
But even one management person we surveyed conceded that salary-cap talk "won't go anywhere." For one thing, there is no reason -- none, nada, zip -- to think Weiner would have any more interest in this concept than Fehr or Miller ever did. But it probably wouldn't even take a giant show of strength by the union's new honcho to torpedo this idea.
Heck, no. The owners would probably torpedo it themselves if this talk ever got serious. Remember, teams like the Marlins and Padres might have to triple their payrolls to even get close to cap range. And that ain't happening.
The lap of luxury
So let's just assume there won't be a salary cap -- not in the next agreement, and probably not in any of our lifetimes. That means adjustments to the current luxury-tax system will be the hot topic in the 2011 labor deal.
And that brings us back to the Yankees.
By the end of the current agreement, the tax threshold will be a staggering $178 million. So what that gives us is a system essentially designed to have an impact on just one team -- the Yankees.
Still, the Yankees keep blowing past that threshold. So the big change in the next agreement is likely to be an attempt to raise the tax rate on multiple offenders. That rate is now capped at 50 percent. It could be heading for 60 percent or possibly beyond.
Weiner and the union aren't likely to fight that change. But there is a tweak to the system they might like to see. Read on.
Walking the floor
Bud Selig loves to tell us how well the system is working. And he's right. Nearly $400 million in revenue-sharing bucks will change hands this year. The Rays were in the World Series last year. The Yankees haven't won it all in eight years. And 21 teams were within 5½ games of a postseason spot on July 1.
So what's the biggest flaw in this system, in the eyes of some people on the players' side? It isn't the Yankees' spending. It's the eight to 10 teams that take the $100 million-plus they get from revenue sharing, the central fund, TV-radio, MLB.com and sponsorships -- and stuff a large chunk of that cash in their mattresses.
But addressing that issue could get tricky. Selig has always denied there's a single mattress-stuffer in the big leagues. So that stance would have to soften.
And the union has always been philosophically opposed to a minimum payroll. Why? Because it felt it made for inconsistent economic principles to say a payroll floor was cool but a cap was totally uncool.
So is there a way around that stance? One idea we've heard kicked around is to apply the luxury-tax concept in reverse: Teams could spend below some sort of minimum threshold -- say, $65 million -- if they're rebuilding. But if they did that for more than just one isolated year, that would also trigger a tax.
No one is sure if that idea would fly with either side. But it's a concept that needs to be kicked around -- because it's just as big a flaw in this system as the Yankees' ability to outspend the rest of the planet.
Mike is a tremendously capable and committed advocate for player interests. He is smart and tough, but fair. He has been instrumental in finding creative ways to accommodate our different interests.
-- Rob Manfred, MLB executive VP
The drug store
Is there any doubt that the performance-enhancing drug agreement will be a big-time topic in the next round of labor talks?
There will be talk about HGH testing, if a more effective test appears near. And owners could push for stiffer suspensions for first-time violators -- possibly as much as a one-year ban. And it wouldn't shock us if the players agreed to something along those lines.
But in return, the players will no doubt want their own issues with the current system addressed -- particularly the institution of safeguards that would better address the concerns of players like J.C. Romero and Sergio Mitre, whose positive tests apparently were triggered by supplements they bought legally, down at the mall.
Feel a draft?
By the time these labor talks get cooking, Stephen Strasburg will have signed -- or not. Bryce Harper will have signed -- or not. And draft bonuses will have zoomed into a whole new lunar orbit -- or not.
But however it works out, baseball will have the context it needs to fix its gaze on repairing the most dysfunctional draft in professional sports.
That conversation could head in a million different directions -- from finally legalizing the trading of picks to a massive revamp that could reward teams at the bottom of the standings with extra picks, and even to another look at a worldwide draft.
But the big issue figures to be some sort of Stephen Strasburg Rule. It could come in the form of a draft-pick bonus cap. Or it could be an NBA-type slotting system. But somehow, these sides need to agree on a plan that would lend more stability -- and sanity -- to this draft.
More and more big league players seem to favor something like that. But the challenge Weiner would face is overcoming the union's long opposition to any sort of bonus cap, for the same reasons it has always opposed a salary cap.
Is it possible to have one without the other? It will take all the creativity Weiner has long been famous for to pull that off.
If there's one issue that threatens to detonate the cordial relationship between these two sides into smithereens, it's collusion.
Agents and union officials have never been sold on the rationale that the collapse of the past two free-agent markets was a function strictly of national economics. If the union eventually files another collusion suit, it could spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E on the labor front. And that's a fight Weiner has fought before, in his role as the union attorney in charge of enforcing the basic agreement.
But whether there's a battle over past collusion allegations or not, it's certainly possible that the union could press for some sort of change in the system that could provide safeguards against future collusion.
That could be as simple as just bringing in an outside agency to act as a free-market police force. But we'd bet on owners' denying there was any need to fix a system they don't think is broken. So if Weiner's union can make a dent anywhere on that front, it would be a major development.
|Outgoing union chief Don Fehr says Weiner has "passed every test he's been confronted with, with flying colors."|
Here's one final fascinating area to watch: Can this union find a way to drag MLB Advanced Media (i.e., MLB.com and its various tentacles) and the MLB Network into these talks?
MLB's position has always been that these are two "separate" companies, so they shouldn't be part of any labor negotiations. But as club profits from those "separate" companies mount, players will no doubt be wondering why they're not getting a piece of that action.
Can Weiner and the union find a way to argue that those outfits aren't as "separate" as they're made out to be? It would figure that they'd try, at the very least. So stay tuned.
Those are major issues for any new leader to chomp on. But what will the overall impact be of this change of leadership? Probably not as massive as you'd think.
"I don't think you'll see a dramatic change in philosophy," said Reich. "Michael, Don and [the union's general counsel] Gene [Orza] worked together for a long time. So I think you'll see a similar approach. But there are issues out there that are humongous. And fortunately for everyone, Michael is one of the brightest, most ethical, most committed guys that either side has ever seen.
I think he has qualities that make him uniquely qualified to deal with the problems of our age."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.