Michael Weiner: The good fight
A triumph of spirit in the face of inoperable brain cancer for the MLBPA leader
NEW YORK -- Michael Weiner was sitting in the AT&T Park stands for Game 1 of the World Series, marveling over Pablo Sandoval's three-homer performance with 42,854 other fans on a mild October night in San Francisco, when he gained a new appreciation for the demands of celebrity. Fox broadcaster Joe Buck held up a "Stand Up 2 Cancer" sign in his honor on national TV, and within moments, Weiner's phone began vibrating and well-wishers were making pilgrimages to his seat.
As executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Weiner earns his pay with dogged preparation and work that is done largely behind the scenes. Patience is his byword in collective bargaining, when every clause or parenthetical phrase takes on a life of its own. All grievances are created equal, and he feels an obligation to treat the last man on a roster with the same respect as Miguel Cabrera, Buster Posey or Mike Trout.
Aspiring rock stars need not apply. So it's a bit unsettling for Weiner, a Harvard-educated lawyer, to be the center of attention. All it took was a malignant glioma, roughly three centimeters in size.
The events on Weiner's winter calendar reflect the sudden shift his life has taken. In early December, "Team Mike" will run in his honor in the Voices Against Brain Cancer race in Central Park. And in January, Weiner will receive the Arthur Richman "You Gotta Have Heart" Award at the New York Baseball Writers Association of America dinner. He will sit at the dais and share the distinction with former Mets general manager Jim Duquette and his 10-year-old daughter, Lindsey, who made news last summer when Jim donated a kidney to save Lindsey's life.
A clothes rack in Weiner's office on East 49th Street is testament to his altered stature and the admiration he elicits in baseball circles. In August, Jeff Francoeur and Jeremy Guthrie of the Kansas City Royals thought it might be a nice gesture for the entire team to sign a jersey and send it to the Players Association in support of Weiner. Before long, uniform tops from all the teams began to arrive, and the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs sent along autographed bats as well. It was reminiscent of the scene from "Rudy" when Notre Dame football players march into coach Dan Devine's office and drop their game jerseys on his desk, one by one, in support of the never-say-die practice squadder.
Over the past three years, Weiner had settled comfortably into his dream job, carrying on the legacy of Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr in a baseball labor version of the Ted Williams-Carl Yastrzemski-Jim Rice succession plan in left field at Fenway Park. An inoperable brain tumor woke him from that reverie at age 50.
Although the odds are not in Weiner's favor, his doctors can cite examples of others with his condition who are still fighting the good fight 10 years out. Weiner enters the most daunting phase of his life with an enormous burden, yet is bolstered by the love of his family and friends. The support he has received is humbling in a way that can bring a lump to a man's throat and leave him weak in the knees.
"I know this is a serious condition, and I'm not minimizing that," Weiner says. "But I'm not afraid of what's happening. I'm going to do what I have to do, but I come at it without fear.
"I understand that I could have some new symptom every morning when I wake up that could be a game changer. Or I could not feel well on Wednesday even though I felt well on Tuesday. I don't take any day for granted. Maybe this is a lot to ask, but here's what I look for every day: I look for meaning, I look for joy and I look for beauty, and I welcome any interaction with people that helps to support that. As trite and corny as it sounds, I've got to grab what I can each day."
The average fan sees the name only in passing, perhaps when Weiner is issuing a statement about Ryan Braun's drug-testing case or sitting at a table to announce a new labor agreement. But Weiner's influence on the game is undeniable. As MLB approaches two decades of labor peace, Weiner and Rob Manfred, management's chief baseball lawyer, are generally credited with helping to move the game into a new, harmonious, financially lucrative era. As the players' leading advocate, Weiner is an authority on everything from drug testing to scheduling to player safety, from umpire relations to revenue sharing to the logistics of the World Baseball Classic.
"We battle over a lot of issues," says commissioner Bud Selig. "I'm sure Michael would be first to tell you that. But I've always liked him personally. He's reasonable. He's rational. He's very determined, but he's also very fair. And I don't know how else to put this, but he's a decent, wonderful human being. That comes through all the time."
Weiner's ascent to prominence in the game comes as no surprise to the people who have known him since his boyhood in New Jersey. Consider Diane Margolin, who attended Lenox Elementary School in Pompton Lakes with him more than 40 years ago. She vividly remembers the second grade teacher pulling both of them out of class and transferring them to a special academic enrichment program.
"I quickly learned that Michael was smarter than me, which ticked me off," Margolin says in hindsight.
That feeling eventually passed. Michael Weiner and Diane Margolin were married in 1986.
At Williams College and Harvard Law School, Weiner developed a reputation for distilling complex problems into plain English, and fellow students regularly formed a line outside his door the night before exams. He served as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Lee Sarokin, who sang his praises to then-NBA union chief Larry Fleisher, who recommended him to Fehr. Weiner landed a job with the baseball union in 1988, and spent the next two decades taking on an increasingly broader role under Fehr and his chief lieutenant, Gene Orza.
Weiner has a personal style all his own. He enjoys his Yiddish references, and sprinkles his conversations with the stray "mishpocha" (family) or "kinehora" (knock on wood). He is an ardent music fan who attends the New Orleans Jazz Festival each year and worships at the altar of Bruce Springsteen. Journalists who write personality profiles of Weiner are also contractually obligated to mention his fondness for jeans, wrinkled polo shirts and white, high-topped Converse sneakers.
"Michael has single-handedly dressed down our union meetings," B.B. Abbott, the representative for Chipper Jones, says with a laugh. "The agents used to show up in suits and ties. Now everybody wears jeans."
Faith, family and friends are the bedrock of his existence. For years, the Weiners have held a big summer party at their home in rural New Jersey and asked guests to pose for pictures beside a tractor. The tradition eventually got old, but not before they filled two scrapbooks with John Deere photos. When Weiner isn't doting on his three daughters (Margie is 22, Grace is 20 and Sally is 16), he teaches Sunday school at the local synagogue.
"He has a better balance of work and home life than anybody I've ever known," says Allyne Price, who has worked with Weiner for the Players Association since 1988. "And he wears 20 hats in each."
Fehr and Orza, Weiner's mentors, are brilliant attorneys with strong principles and a mission. But in their interactions with players, they frequently came across as more professorial than peer-like. Weiner, in contrast, puts on his Chuck Taylors one shoe at a time. When Weiner took over as union leader in 2009, veteran agent Barry Meister described him as a genius, "but a regular genius." The comment earned Weiner his share of ribbing among the four women in his household, but Meister's peers share that sentiment.
"Michael treats everybody the same way, whether it's Scott Boras or an agent with one 40-man roster guy," Abbott says. "He makes you feel as if you matter."
Tony Clark developed an appreciation for Weiner's integrity and work ethic during a 15-year career as a player with Detroit, Arizona and four other clubs. Now he sees it from a different perspective as the union's director of player relations.
"Michael walks into a room, and it's recognized that he might be the most brilliant person in the room," Clark says. "But he's able to articulate his thoughts to the person fresh out of high school or someone with a doctorate degree. His ability to communicate to the masses is bar none. He offered me an opportunity to come on board a few years ago to be a voice to the players for him. But at the end of day, he gets it, and the players recognize that he gets it. He respects and values player input, even though we all know that he's the sharpest tool in our tool shed."
For 15 years, Weiner made the walk from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to the Players Association offices so routinely that it had become second nature to him. But when he began to feel persistent tingling in his fingers and toes and some weakness on his right side late this past July, he decided to visit his internist in New Jersey as a precaution.
A dizzying array of medical tests soon followed. A CAT scan led to an MRI, which confirmed the presence of an abnormal growth in his brain. The tumor was so deeply embedded and located in such a sensitive area that doctors were unable to do a biopsy, but it grew rapidly enough over a three-week span that they were able to extract tissue and confirm that it is, indeed, malignant.
Starting on Aug. 19, Dr. Andrew Lassman, the chief of neuro-oncology at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, put Weiner on an aggressive regimen of treatment, beginning with chemotherapy accompanied by radiation treatments five days a week over a span of 27 days. Weiner received his last bout of radiation in time to jump in the car with Diane and attend Yom Kippur services at his synagogue.
From the outset, one of his biggest concerns was spreading the word to the union membership. A day after his treatment began, Weiner spoke to about 60 players on a conference call and addressed the issue in typically forthright fashion. "I don't want to bury the lead," Weiner told them, before sharing the news of his tumor. Ballplayers who were previously immersed in slumps, pennant races or their own personal issues received an instant reality check.
The Players Association sent representatives to 15 big league parks in late August to answer questions about Weiner's condition. But if the players and Weiner's officemates expected him to curl into a ball or go lie in a corner, he disabused them of that notion. In October, he attended postseason games in New York, Washington, St. Louis, San Francisco and Detroit. He is currently on his third round of chemotherapy, which he takes in pill form, and he still goes to the office five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., as a rule.
The good news: Although he looks tired and pale, his appetite is good, and he has generally been free from nausea or fatigue. His hair, which was thin to begin with, has re-emerged in random sprigs since his radiation treatments ended.
"You know me," Weiner says. "I've never been a big appearance guy."
As Weiner's co-workers urge him to spend time with his family and strike the proper balance during his ordeal, they simultaneously marvel at his energy and positive attitude at the office. They expected to be consoling him, and he raises their spirits by the hour.
"Michael is one of my mentors," Clark says. "Professionally and personally, my level of respect for him is off the charts. It's not surprising to me that he has responded in the fashion that he has, and his commitment to the players and the Players Association is as strong as it's ever been. I think Michael can leap tall buildings in a single bound. I always have."
Weiner, his wife and his daughters have used the illness as a catalyst to celebrate his life and their sense of togetherness. In October, they traveled to Minnesota for a barn party at the home of family friend and MLBPA official Cindy Abercrombie. Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, one of their favorite musicians, came up from New Orleans for the occasion, and middle daughter Grace brought down the barn with a rousing rendition of Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free."
"Mike's reaction was to say, 'OK, I've got a problem, but I'm not going to make it into more of a problem than it is. Anything that this illness leaves to me, I'm going to enjoy,'" Diane says. "There were family members who immediately embraced that, and others who considered digging a hole and trying to sit in it and hide, but that's not nearly as much fun. I always say, 'I'm struggling to keep up.' Mike's world is so enjoyable and interesting, that's where you want to be. Sometimes you just have to jog a little bit to keep up with him."
The people who share an office with Michael Weiner on Manhattan's East side have fretted over him and cried tears of concern in his behalf, and his medical odyssey has taken an understandable toll on the emotions of his family. But in an uplifting kind of way, the story has cast a positive light on human nature. While newspaper columnists skewer Jeffrey Loria for dismantling the Miami Marlins and insults fly on Twitter in response to the Trout-Cabrera MVP debate, baseball has quietly rallied around one of its own.
Since word of Weiner's illness became public knowledge, he has been besieged by random acts of kindness. Within days of the news, Price received a flood of phone calls and text messages from players asking for his shoe size.
"I told everybody, 'Please don't send him [Converses]. He's got 500 pairs already,'" Price says.
Dan Horwits, a player agent who has known Weiner since the 1980s, arrived at the union offices one day and tossed two waiver forms on Weiner's desk and told him he would be serving as a guest host on SiriusXM's "E Street Radio." On a sleepy Sunday morning in October, fellow Springsteen fans tuned in and heard Michael Weiner, Boss for a day, introducing "Racing in the Streets," "Talk to Me" and other tunes that helped form the soundtrack of his life.
Weiner has received goodwill emails from old summer camp counselors and former law students who once benefited from his career advice. When Chipper Jones was in New York signing jerseys as part of his farewell tour, he asked that one shirt be set aside for the head of the Players Association. And when Weiner traveled to ballparks in different cities, MLB teams routinely left him a pass in the players' parking lot so he wouldn't have so far to walk. Weiner initially felt sheepish because he didn't want to pull rank, but finally relented.
When Jewish friends ask for his Hebrew name so they can say a prayer, he tells them Shlomo Moshe ben-Yitzhak and thanks them for their concern. Several weeks ago, Weiner received a call from Willy Taveras, a former big league outfielder from the Dominican Republic who has started a church with his wife in Houston. Could they say a prayer for Michael on his behalf? Weiner, touched by the gesture, gave them his blessing.
"I joke with people when they say I'm in their prayers," Weiner says. "I tell them I require no certificate of authenticity. I'll take a prayer from any denomination, any faith, any stripe. Positive secular thoughts, whatever. I've had people say to me, 'Mike, I don't really believe in prayer, but I have been thinking positively.' I tell them, 'Call it whatever you want to call it.'"
On the first Sunday in December, religious school has been canceled at the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey so the kids and their families can come to New York and cheer on Team Mike in the cancer run. Big league players are rooting hard, too. Capuano was lifting weights at a facility near his home in Arizona recently when teammate Jerry Hairston inquired, "How's Michael?" Capuano hears that question a lot these days. Last week, he traveled to New York for a meeting in his role as a Players Association pension representative, and thoughts of Weiner consumed him on the flight home and long after the wheels hit the runway.
"I've had this laundry list of things to do around the house lately," Capuano says. "You're stressing out about your landscaping project, or the brake pads need work. Then I saw Michael and I thought, 'This guy has such an amazing outlook and perspective on life.' I told myself I need to get my priorities straight.
"You hear these clichés all the time. People say, 'This person is one of a kind,' or, 'They're extraordinary.' But to meet someone with that kind of prodigious intellect and mind who also has a warm heart and is a normal, down-to-earth person and so kind & there aren't a lot of those people out there. I want to be more like Mike."
Since his diagnosis in early August, Weiner has done lots of reading, less about malignant gliomas than big-picture things. Adversity can test a person's mettle, and he has come to grips with his place in the universe and his role as both a family man and a lawyer. Maybe a collection of millionaire ballplayers doesn't fit the classic definition of a "union," but in his quest to protect the Players Association's most vulnerable and expendable members, he has emerged as its strongest link.
Weiner approaches each day with a steely determination, while drinking green tea from an aluminum cup with the inscription "Cancer Fears Me." It was a gift from the son of Mark Belanger, the former Baltimore Orioles shortstop and players' union official who died of lung cancer in 1998.
"Humility aside, you go through life and hope that maybe you have an impact on people," Weiner says. "An event like this reinforces that. It is humbling and at times overwhelming. An awful lot of people have decided it's important to try to support me. That's really a wonderful thing."
In the face of setbacks and long odds, he is determined to keep putting one sneaker in front of another in the pursuit of life's Triple Crown of beauty, meaning and joy. Feel free to say a prayer for Michael Weiner this Thanksgiving. No certificate of authenticity required.