BY DAN GRAZIANO
This week brought the news that Don Fehr, the longtime head of the Major League Baseball players' union, was retiring. Reports have said he would be replaced by New Jersey native Michael Weiner, currently the union's general counsel.
Weiner himself refuses to jump the gun, saying the union's board still needs to discuss and vote on Fehr's successor next month. But he was good enough to submit to an interview with newjerseynewsroom.com in the meantime – provided we made it clear that he doesn't yet have the job and isn't assuming he'll get it.
Weiner's New Jersey roots run deep. He was born on Dec. 21, 1961 in Paterson, where his mother and father were raised and went to high school. The family moved to Pompton Lakes when Weiner was two years old, and he went to high school there. He went to Williams College and Harvard Law School before returning to Newark to clerk for Judge H. Lee Sarokin.He now lives in Warren County with his wife and three daughters, commuting 50 minutes each way to work in New York City. He grew up (and remains) a fan of Bruce Springsteen and the Yankees. He's worked for the union for 21 years, which means he's been in the middle of a lot of very interesting negotiations between players and owners – some uglier than others.
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM: What led you to the MLB players' union?
MICHAEL WEINER: The judge that I clerked for coming out of law school was a federal court judge named H. Lee Sarokin. I worked for him for two years, 1986-88. He was very close with Larry Fleisher, who founded and for many years led the NBA players' union. I'd always had interest in labor and employment law, and I'd actually been extended an offer to work for a small firm in North Jersey that specialized in employment law. But the judge introduced me to Fleisher, and Fleisher introduced me to Don (Fehr), and Don decided to take a chance on me. So my story is not one that, when people ask me how did I get into sports labor law and what's a good way to do that, it's not one that gives people a lot of encouragement. I was in the right place at the right time.
NJNR: You started out as assistant general counsel, but basically they threw you right into the fire in terms of the collective bargaining negotiations.
MW: I was responsible for the handling of grievances, assistance in salary arbitration, providing assistance on the legal side of the administration of the CBA. And pretty quickly after I started, the basic agreement expired at the end of '89. So we were bargaining pretty quickly. That was the negotiation that resulted in the 1990 spring training lockout.
NJNR: Were you surprised by how negatively the players, the union and especially Don Fehr were viewed by the public during those disputes?
MW: Don took a chance on me – took a tremendous chance on hiring somebody without any hands-on legal experience. And obviously I'm tremendously grateful for that. But having now worked here 21 years, being involved in four rounds of bargaining, and being involved in some high-profile grievances and litigation such as Steve Howe's situation and other drug-related issues, I can say I definitely understand that there's a tremendous amount of public interest in labor relations in baseball. And that's because there's a tremendous public interest in baseball. Which there should be. It's a great game and I love it very much.
NJNR: But a lot of that attention comes through in a very negative way, especially toward somebody in the position of leadership of the union.
MW: Whoever serves as executive director is in a public job and a job that's going to be scrutinized by the public and dissected by the press and the public. I don't want to be presumptuous and predict what's going to happen in the future. But if the players do see fit to give me this job, my eyes are open.
NJN: Why do you think the public seems to be so anti-player in these kinds of disputes?
MW: I think the public sees baseball players differently than other entertainers, and even than most other athletes. The public identifies with baseball players in a different way than football, basketball and hockey players, whether that's because the public lives with their team every single day in baseball or because of the nature of a baseball player. People don't imagine themselves being able to dunk a basketball or being able to perform on a football field. But everybody has, at one time or another, held a bat in their hands. And for that reason, I think, there's a different feeling about the money baseball players make. I think I realized pretty early on that there was a different kind of attention there. I thought, and still think, that the positions the players took in the strike in 1994 were completely justifiable. And yet I found that there were people you would have thought would be supportive, given their politics, that were anti-player. Unions aren't popular, and if you're a baseball player and a member of a union on strike, people don't want to listen to you.
NJNR: What's different about the labor landscape in baseball today from 21 years ago? Why so much more peaceful and cooperative?
MW: I think there's a greater recognition by management that there's a role the union has to play in the institution and in the game and in the business of baseball. In the late 80s, there were people in the commissioner's office who begrudged the union and wanted to break the union and all of that. But in recent years, there's been a respect for the idea that the union is a fixture on the scene and that the game can thrive and the institution can thrive with the union being an integral part of that.
NJNR: Who or what do you think is responsible for that change in attitude?
MW: I really don't know. I don't know if it's just a respect earned over time, or a change in ownership to individuals who've had experience with unions or who came into the game when the union was already established as a factor. I'm not sure, but there's definitely more of a cooperative attitude.
NJNR: A question that's been debated a lot in recent days: What do you think is Don Fehr's legacy?
MW: I'm obviously biased, since I owe what I have here to Don taking a chance on me. But you ask me the question anyway, so my answer is this. I think his legacy is a couple of things. First, an unstinting devotion to the cause of the players, furthering Marvin (Miller's) legacy of being a devoted and aggressive advocate for the rights of players and never wavering from that. And second, Don's been accused of a lot of things, often unfairly, but I don't know that anybody's ever questioned his character or his integrity. He's shown that you can aggressively defend individuals and protect their rights and do so while maintaining your integrity. If you think about a legacy in the broader sense, the game and the institution have prospered immensely over the past 25 years. You look at the growth and the interest in the game, the internationalization of the game, attendance, revenue, quality of play, innovations that are now accepted as improvements in all kinds of respects, he and the union that he's led over the last 25 years have to be given credit for some role in what's happened in the game. People aren't reluctant to give us our share of blame for things, but I think any fair appraisal of the situation would have to give us some share of credit for the ways in which the game has grown and improved as well.
NJNR: You say you're still a fan of the game. Do you get to a lot of games?
MW: Not as many as I'd like to, mainly because I have three daughters who live 50 miles away (from the office). But I remain very much a fan of the game. Some people suggested to me when I first started that having a job in the game would detract from my appreciation for the game, and it's been just the opposite.
NJNR: Are you still a Yankees fan, or do you have to remain impartial?
MW: I was a Yankees fan growing up, and that came from my father and my father's mother, my grandmother. My dad always said, when he was growing up, if the Yankees didn't win it was a tough night at home. Fortunately, my dad grew up in the 40s and 50s, when the Yankees didn't lose a lot. The first World Series I remember is 1968, the Tigers and the Cardinals. The Yankees weren't very good at that time. And I'm married to a Mets fan now, and I watch all kinds of games. But I don't make any bones about the fact that, as a fan, I maintain my interest in the Yankees.