Commentary

Labor of love

Terminal cancer hasn't kept Michael Weiner from his dream job

Originally Published: October 1, 2013
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Jones IlloMark Matcho for ESPNMichael Weiner spent two decades climbing the MLB union ladder. Then he got cancer.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 14 Bay Area Issue. Subscribe today!

MICHAEL WEINER'S CANCER fight began with a faint tingling in his right arm and foot. His doctor sent him for tests, and there was a lesion on his brain. More tests revealed that the lesion was in fact a cancerous tumor, Stage 4, inoperable. Today, 14 months later, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association sits in his wheelchair in the middle of his Manhattan office. He's lost the use of the right side of his body. He is so thin that he wears his watch over the sleeve of his fleece. He has exceeded the expectations of his doctor, and he continues to receive treatment. He sips from a stainless steel cup that reads CANCER FEARS ME. His cancer is still winning.

"I want to live," he says. "I'm 51 years old, and I want to live until I'm 151 years old, and I hope we find some miracle. But I'd be lying if I said I was thinking past our executive board meeting." Weiner measures time with baseball, but he follows a different season than most. He began working for the union in 1988; he became its executive director in 2009. Between rounds of chemotherapy, his calendar is filled with player grievances and licensing discussions. The executive board meeting he will not think past is scheduled for the beginning of December. His doctor is unsure if he will make it. Weiner has been told he has between two and six months left.

He does not have a bucket list. He did not go skydiving or climb any mountains while he still could. He has divided his evaporating time between the union and his family. He turns in his chair to look at a wall filled with photographs and children's drawings. "You see an awful lot of people up there," he says. There are pictures of his brother and sister, his nieces and nephews, his wife and their three daughters, the youngest a high school senior. He pauses. "Family is everything."

So why has Weiner continued to work as hard as he has? "I have a good job and I enjoy being here," he says. "This place means a lot to me. The cause of players means a lot to me." He has prepared a succession plan that he will not reveal; he has laid the foundation for a future that he will not see. He spent the rest of his summer on Biogenesis and its fallout, coming to agreements on all but Alex Rodriguez's 211-game suspension. He would like to help more with A-Rod's appeal -- "They're our clients and we have to represent them as well as we can," he says -- but he doesn't have the physical strength to defend the man who paid to get his from a needle.

It's remarkable that Weiner has done as much as he has. Reporters gave him a standing ovation after his All-Star Game news conference. He's become a symbol in a lot of ways, a source of inspiration, the way we often turn the very sick into abstractions, into mystics who know something we do not.

That's a mistake. There is nothing mystical about Weiner. He is a 51-year-old man dying too young from cancer in his brain. Whenever that tumor finally takes him, he will leave behind all of the people in those photographs on his wall. He will leave behind the players he's represented in some capacity for 25 years. They will hang his portrait in the boardroom next to those of Marvin Miller and Curt Flood, other legends of labor, and he will remain present in many ways, in hearts and in history books, but in the most real way he will be gone, and it will be cancer's fault. That is how this story will end.

But for one more day Weiner is here. He is living. He is working. Today he has a full schedule. Visitors greet him by grasping his left hand, and he gives each of them some precious remainder of his attention. Everybody does a pretty good job of acting as though it's business as usual. Everybody somehow holds it together. Then his visitors leave his office and retreat to quiet corners, and they bawl like babies, precisely because there is no mystery in Michael Weiner. He makes it impossible to pretend. He takes everything we'd prefer to ignore and lays it bare, and there is nothing that leaves you with a hurt in your chest like an instant of absolute truth, like a feat of genuine strength performed in front of your very eyes.

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Chris Jones is the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @MySecondEmpire.

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