Missing: The MLBPA leader who didn’t like to wait

Michael Weiner

Michael Weiner, watching pre-game activity at the 2013 All-Star Game, four months before his premature death. Would the late MLBPA leader have helped things be very different now if he could have lived longer?

This much we know about baseball’s current paralysis: The owners and their trained parrot (it’s almost impossible to think of Rob Manfred as a proper commissioner) think both the players and (most) fans make a bag of hammers resemble the Harvard Classics. The Major League Baseball Players Association, however, did commit one barely discussed but crucial error.

Musing about how the owners and the players might, maybe, be able to straighten their priorities out, ESPN’s Buster Olney remembered a not-too-distant time when the players, at least, did a lot more advance work with a collective bargaining agreement’s expiration on the horizon.

“Why didn’t we start this sooner?” Olney thinks the players should ask themselves, before remembering someone on their side who actually did, once upon a time.

“The late union leader Michael Weiner constantly engaged with Major League Baseball in the months leading up to the CBA expiration, working through the complicated puzzles,” Olney writes. “[Current MLBPA director Tony] Clark has taken a very different approach in the past two CBA negotiations, waiting and waiting before diving into the core issues.”

Earlier in the essay, Olney remembers Manfred speaking of “wanting to forge relationships with individual players” upon becoming commissioner but failing to do precisely that. Further down, Olney suggests the players with Weiner’s successor (and former first baseman) Clark could do with doing similar, among themselves and with the commissioner’s bosses.

“The players are rightly furious about some of the owners’ tactics and PR spin,” Olney continues. “But is it possible the union would be better served by a Weiner-style engagement? Moving forward, could the business relationship be improved by more consistent dialogue?”

Weiner’s death of an inoperable brain tumour in November 2013 saddened a sport that came to love him back as much as he loved the game. He was known as a geniune baseball fan, who didn’t let that stop him from both reasonableness and deep-diving preparation. He was practically the union’s version of a commissioner who’d died prematurely, too.

Weiner was a man with vision though not a proper professional scholar. But he had this much in common with A. Bartlett Giamatti: Whatever particulars confronted them otherwise, Giamatti didn’t seem to believe the good of the game equaled little more than making money for the owners, and Weiner didn’t seem to believe the good of the game equaled little more than making money for the players.

Both men grew up as polar opposite baseball fans. Giamatti grew up loving the Red Sox; Weiner grew up loving the Yankees. Giamatti became a baseball executive in 1987, as president of the National League; Weiner joined the Players Association in 1988, the year before Giamatti became commissioner. Surely the two looked upon each other, measured each other’s lifelong rooting commitments, and concluded, “Well, that doesn’t make him a terrible person.”

Both men loved the game itself too deeply to isolate to single passions or by way of single quoted commentaries. They also loved the game too deeply to let either the owners or the players push it to the point of no return.

Giamatti could be seen visiting spring training camps and mingling with players, umpires, managers alike. He could also be seen in the stands, itching to shake his fist and cheer, when Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan blew Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson away for Ryan’s precedent-setting 5,000th career strikeout. “Giamatti knew,” wrote the New York Times‘s George Vecsey upon his death, “that baseball is about rooting, about caring.”

Weiner could be seen in the spring camps every year, too, spending as much time just enjoying the sounds and sights of players rounding into season’s shape as he did picking their brains. You just knew Weiner, by then wheelchair-confined, unable to walk or use his right arm, was dying to leap if he could and holler with the Citi Field masses when Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera—entering with the field left empty by both sides, allowing him to stand for tribute before throwing eight warmups alone—became the 2013 All-Star Game’s ceremonial and baseball story alike, and its most valuable player.

The Pete Rose case overwhelmed too much of the commissioner’s other business. But Giamatti’s handling and disposition showed baseball’s government was in good hands. The second case of Ryan Braun and actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances plus the Biogenesis/Alex Rodriguez case didn’t overwhelm Weiner’s union business quite so heavily. But his handling of both—and, especially, his shepherding of the union’s emerging stance athwart such substance users—showed the union was in hands just as good.

Said former major league general manager Jim Duquette upon Weiner’s death, “It was almost ridiculous. You’d be negotiating contracts with agents, or just talking shop, and you’d always hear it: ‘The most reasonable guy in the union, the guy with the best rationale, is Michael Weiner.’ Then they’d go on to explain how he thought about something, and you’d think, ‘Wow—this guy really gets it’.”

He even delivered what might have proven only a beginning toward a redress of certain injustice had he lived to build on it further. He worked with then-commissioner Bud Selig to give pre-1980, short-career major leaguers—frozen unconscionably out of the 1980 pension re-alignment—a $625-per-quarter stipend for every 43 days’ major league service those players actually had, up to four years’ worth. (Reminder: The owners’ lockout also blocked their February payments; the payments are covered by CBAs.)

Weiner’s death prevented any further, more advanced redress for those players. Clark seemed distinctly disinterested in pursuing further such redress even prior to the current owners’ lockout. Never mind that the players in question often walked pickets and supported the union’s battles themselves, on the path toward ending the abusive reserve era.

But Weiner believed in advance and continuing dialogue and in preparation going in. He knew that waiting until somewhere too close to the eleventh hour did neither the players nor, truly, the owners any big favours.

Nothing here should be construed as saying baseball’s present paralysis is anyone’s fault other than the owners’. But it’s only too possible that a far different commissioner and a far different union leader would have avoided it. Even if they’d agreed, as should have been done this time, to just operate and play under the terms of the expired CBA while wringing forth a new, better one.

“Rational thinking can be hard to find in baseball, with so many competing interests among—and within—the ranks of the players and the owners,” wrote another New York Timesman, Tyler Kepner, upon Weiner’s death. “Weiner always had it.” Had he lived, he might even have persuaded Manfred and the owners that a lockout equaled the next best thing to a suicide mission.

Above and beyond what they used to call the vision thing, and each man’s genuine love for the game, Weiner has one more sad thing in common with Giamatti. Both men were the same age upon their deaths—51.

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