Long before Michael Weiner became head of the players’ union, a prominent agent told me that I needed to get to know him.
The agent said, in so many words, “He is the smartest, fairest, kindest person you will ever meet.”
Good scouting report.
Fans should expect to hear many tributes for Weiner, who died Thursday after a 15-month fight with brain cancer — tributes from players, agents, media members and even his professional adversaries in the commissioner’s office.
The man was that beloved, that special.
Weiner, who was 51, served as the union’s general counsel before taking over for Don Fehr as executive director in December 2009. I met him around that time, and gradually developed a personal as well as professional relationship with him.
We were about the same age. We both were married with three children. And we shared a passion for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and talked about their music far more than we did about, say, Ryan Braun.
If I had to think of one word to describe Michael, it would be “unassuming.” His standard attire — a polo shirt, jeans and sneakers — was part of that, of course. But Michael was so down to earth, so easy to talk to, you almost forgot how brilliant he was. It was not within him to be condescending. Which, if you think about it, might have been his greatest quality of all.
I remember visiting Michael at the union offices in Manhattan last year, shortly after he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. We sat down, and he started telling me, in great detail, about his cancer and his challenges ahead. Tears came to my eyes — Allyne Price of the union would chide me later, “You got mushy!” But Michael continued to speak, evenly, clearly, dispassionately. He was going to fight, and fight hard, and that was that.
He wanted people around him, wanted to see his friends and family, wanted to continue working — and for the longest time, he did. All cancer survivors are courageous; that goes without saying. But Michael, as a public figure, displayed a special form of courage.
If anything, he became even more open, more accessible. He also maintained his sense of humor, asking reporters at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America meeting at the All-Star Game, “Any questions not related to Biogenesis or brain cancer?”
Michael was on the field at Citi Field that night, watching batting practice while sitting in a wheelchair; the cancer had basically robbed of him his ability to walk and use his right side. He was happy to see the players and all of the other people he knew in baseball, yet resistant to anything resembling pity. After we spoke, I just sort of lingered next to him, not wanting to walk away. He sensed my awkwardness, then told me, in his weakened voice, “Go do what you have to do. You don’t have to stay with me.” So I left him, tears forming in my eyes again.
He was the heir to the most powerful union in sports, a union created by the late Marvin Miller, advanced by Donald Fehr and fortified by the unyielding leadership of both. Times changed. Issues changed. Weiner steered the union in a different but necessary direction, working with the commissioner’s office to reduce the players’ use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The Joint Drug Agreement put the union in a tricky spot, forcing it to both penalize and protect its members. Some who remember the union under Miller and Fehr — the repeated work stoppages, the intense and often warranted distrust of management — believe that the union has gone soft. But Weiner correctly recognized that on the subject of PEDs, the conflict was not between players and owners, but players and players — those who cheated, and those who did not.
He listened. He acted. And, as always, he struck the proper tone, noting that while the cheaters should be punished, they also deserved a vigorous defense. The players revered him not only because of his sensitivity to their wishes, but also because of his sheer, inherent decency — a decency that never wavered, even when his body was broken.
That agent from many years ago had it right: Michael Weiner was the smartest, fairest, kindest person I ever met.