Weiner battles on with MLBPA despite diagnosis
Michael Weiner has one of the most important, underappreciated jobs in all of baseball.
He is the executive director and general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association, which is the union that represents all players on 40-man rosters.
"Like any union, that means that we are the sole representative for all of the players on their working conditions," Weiner said in an interview last year before being diagnosed with brain cancer in August of 2012. "Having to negotiate their contracts, what their schedule is, what happens if they're hurt, traded, released, injured … all of that."
And Weiner is the vital cog that keeps the whole thing going. Weiner, just 51, doesn't bother hiding the fact that he isn't expected to defeat the cancer. ESPN reported in October that doctors had told him he had two to six months to live. Nor does he tout the fact that he has continued with his duties at the MLBPA. But he certainly has, providing leadership and guidance to the union that has benefited both the players and the league.
"I think the most important thing we do is make sure that the players are personally engaged in their careers," Weiner said. [Editor's note: Weiner's comments in this article were from the aforementioned 2012 interview.] "What the priorities are come from the players. What the most important thing that the union does is to involve, to engage players and to educate them as to what their rights are."
Those priorities included negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, good until 2016. The years of peace afforded by the agreement are something both Weiner and Commissioner Bud Selig are very proud of.
"I've worked here since 1988," Weiner said, "so I've been involved in difficult negotiations that have led to long stoppages, including a strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series. I've been involved in three negotiations now that haven't involved a stoppage. That's a great achievement. I think everyone involved is proud of that."
According to Weiner, the key to the process has been cooperation.
"I think there is a mutual respect for the bargaining process and for the bargaining parties -- by the owners, for the players, and by the players, for the owners -- that didn't exist when I started," Weiner said.
Despite that, negotiating a contract is never easy.
"It's an involved process. It took from Spring Training -- I think our first meeting was in early March or late February of 2011 -- and we announced an agreement [that] November," Wiener said. "There are so many different subject matters in a negotiation. You can't do it all at once. So the process is each side raising, in sequence, the issues that are important to them, and try to negotiate one by one through them."
Player representatives began discussing their negotiation goals as far back as December 2009. During the '10 season, Weiner and the MLBPA staged multiple meetings with each team to gauge their priorities. And at the close of '10, the players and owners got the ball rolling.
"Every single bargaining session we had, I was there along with members of the union staff, including some former players like Tony Clark and others who are familiar with negotiations. But we had current players at every meeting. Sometimes three or four, sometimes 20 or 30 or 40 depending on what the situation was," Weiner remarked.
The owners opted for a smaller committee. The players are very involved in the process, from start to finish. After all, it's called the Players Association for a reason.
"We have what are called our executive board -- the player reps and alternates from each team. Those players are elected by members of their own team," Weiner explained. "That's at least 60 guys, 30 reps and 30 alternates, and it's really more because many teams have more than one alternate.
"But then that group picks a smaller group called the negotiating committee that are going to really take a lead, and they're picked, in part by the player reps, but any player who volunteers can be part of that. So we have the smaller negotiating committee -- this time it was 25 or 30 players. And then for our executive board, there was probably 75-90 players."
Although negotiations are held across the country, most are hosted by the MLBPA's New York City headquarters. Thus, the Yankees' Curtis Granderson and David Robertson, and then-Mets Chris Capuano and Josh Thole attended a number of meetings.
Weiner named the Blue Jays' Carlos Villanueva and Jose Bautista, and Kevin Slowey, who was with the Indians organization at the time, as others who were very involved.
"We had over 230 different players attend bargaining sessions and we had many players attend time and time again," Weiner said.
"The players have learned that their opinion is what really matters. And when a player speaks to an issue, it has much more impact on the management and the negotiators than if I do, or somebody else. So it's a very rare meeting where the players aren't directly involved. [Player involvement] has been a crucial part of the process since Marvin Miller began the union in 1966. It's always been our view. Having said that, having that level of [player] participation [that we did] sort of took it up a notch this time."
Just because the contract has been signed on the dotted line doesn't mean Weiner doesn't have to worry about it.
"There is always a lot of time spent in enforcing the contract and to make sure that it is administered and implemented properly. That's a major part of what we're doing," he said.
But having the contract completed does mean Weiner and the players have more time to focus on other aspects of the MLBPA.
One of those is the Players Trust, a subdivision of the MLBPA that allows players to contribute their resources to various charitable organizations.
"We always recognized that there were a tremendous amount of players that would give back to the community," Weiner said. "They feel very fortunate that they can make a living playing baseball, and what the Players Trust does is allow players to do that as a group. A lot of players didn't want to take credit for what they did; they didn't feel that was the right thing to do.
"As a group, players are proud of what the group has done, and I think it's made a big difference for a lot of people, both here in the United States, but also in the Dominican Republic, and Japan and Haiti and a number of areas where we've helped out."
Weiner is always looking for other ways to utilize the union.
"Going forward, we'd like to see if there's anything else that the union can do to help players, whether that's players as they are leaving their active playing career, whether it's other kinds of ways we can give players," said Weiner. "Ultimately, it's up to the players themselves as to how union resources are spent, but we are thinking about other ways to try to benefit players."
Weiner emphasized that in his job, communication is crucial.
"The most challenging part of the job is also the most fun part of the job, and that is communication: player education, making sure agents, making sure fans, making sure the press, that everybody understands what the player is doing," Weiner said. "The most important part of that is the players, though; and it is a challenge, because unlike other unions, a player's career doesn't last that long. You're not going to be a member of this union from the time you are 18 until you are 65. So it is a constant changing membership, and it's always a challenge, but it's a tremendous amount of fun."
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.