The Evolution of A Game: Michael Weiner, Part IV

This is the fourth and final installment of our sit-down with MLBPA Executive Director, Michael Weiner where we talk about how the Yankees business model has effected baseball at large and some other good stuff that you the fans want to hear about.

As is well known, the Yankees, by virtue of their market and stature as baseball’s premiere franchise, are able to do business unlike most teams in baseball as they can afford to pay top dollar for the best possible talent. However, as history has shown many times that has hurt them because having all the money in the world doesn’t mean much if you don’t know how to spend it wisely (Insert awful contract reference here). For a while, a significant number of teams around Major League Baseball attempted to try and beat the Yankees at their own game but since no one else can do what the Yankees can, it set a number of these teams back several years as a result of them signing players to bloated contracts that never really panned out. Some would argue that the Steinbrenner model of constructing a winning baseball team has been bad for the game and other would argue to the contrary.

Weiner’s take on it was as follows:

“I think it’s been great for the Yankees and when George Steinbrenner decided to sign Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, or even Alex Rodriguez he wasn’t trying to do what was best for the game, he was trying to do what was best for the Yankees. The way the Yankee brand has been built up since when Steinbrenner took over the team has been phenomenal and that’s been in large part because of his willingness to spend on players. In retrospect have some of those players outperformed their contracts? Yes. Have some of those players under-performed those contracts? Yes. But overall the Yankee brand has been phenomenally successful and that has been very helpful to the growth of the game of baseball but that’s not why George Steinbrenner did it and that’s not the way the economics of baseball work. The economics of the game work by teams trying to maximize their local revenue, their local attendance, and their local media and what the Yankees have done in terms of maximizing all three of those areas has been phenomenal so my view is that the Yankees have done as good of a job as anybody over the last 25 years of embellishing their brand and maximizing their revenue while coming up with new and major revenue streams and they deserve a lot of credit for that.”

Regardless of how much money the Yankees have spent over the years in terms of acquiring the best players money can buy, the results have shown that you can’t simply purchase a championship in baseball. Meanwhile, as the Yankees were setting records in terms of annual payroll, the rest of the league was experiencing parity, the likes of which baseball had not seen perhaps in its history. My contention has been that the rest of the league woke up one morning and finally came to the realization, “we are not the Yankees” and as such amended the way in which they built teams and it prompted teams like Oakland and Tampa to figure out a way to efficiently win games by not spending exorbitant amount of money on salaries. Essentially the parity that baseball has seen recently is due in large part to the the existence of the Yankees and their “looser-than-most” purse strings.

Although the man, who has had a front-row seat to this new-found era of parity in baseball did not necessarily whole-heartedly agree with that sentiment he did concede that: “I agree with you that the parity we have seen in the game over the last 10-15 years has been unprecedented. I’m not sure if that’s because the Yankees spent a lot of money but it’s clear that although they won the World Series in 2000 and made appearances in 2001 and 2003 and won it in 2009, a number of other teams have been competing for and winning championships.”

“What the Yankees were able to do from 1996 to 2001 was in my view, the most remarkable thing that any team has done in the history of post season baseball. To win four World Series in five years, when you have to win three playoff series to win them is really remarkable, I don’t know if we will ever see that again, no matter how good the team is. But that wasn’t a function of how much money they spent, it was the nature of the players that they picked, many of them home-grown and many of them brought in by trades like Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, etc. I think what has happened both before and since then is that in collective bargaining we have done a lot of things to give an incentive to every single club to try to put a profitable and competitive team on the field and one of the things that has been proved throughout the history of baseball is that it’s better to be smart than spend a lot of money.”

“We have put incentives in place that reward smart management and encourage teams to put an entertaining and competitive team on the field, whether their sweet spot in terms of payroll is $100 million, $200 million, or $75 million, the incentives are there for teams to spend an optimal amount. I think provisions like the revenue sharing provision and some other provisions in the Basic Agreement are at least responsible for the fact that you see such variety of teams when it comes to the postseason. Depending on how you look at it, maybe as many as 25 or 26 teams this spring that can legitimately say coming into the season that they have a chance to make the playoffs.”

Some argue that the MLBPA has been pivotal in creating this new era of parity in the game, although Weiner won’t take all of the credit: “I think we (the Union) are responsible in part, over the last four negotiations, the 94 strike negotiation started it because we negotiated the first revenue sharing plan and we’ve improved upon it the last three rounds and some of the other things that have been involved have been designed to achieve competitive balance to make as many teams as competitive as possible. Certainly the 15-15 alignment and expanded playoffs are designed towards that as well. I think we have done a good job of putting the incentives in place and I give owners at the local level across the league credit for taking advantage of those incentives and making sure they have a competitive team.

At the end of the interview we decided to pivot and sort of come back to where we started in taking a retrospective look at Weiner’s 25-year career at the Player’s Association and some of the most memorable moments:

In talking about his favorite moments over the years at the MLBPA, Weiner said:

“There’s a lot of things I could talk about and a lot of things I can’t talk about because they are confidential. But the first that comes to mind is this: 1990 was the first round of collective bargaining I was personally involved with, we had a lockout that extended deep into Spring Training, which I think was settled on the 17th or 19th of March but I remember very clearly, a meeting in New York. At this time we were looked out and we had over 100 players there and this was late into the lockout, some time in mid-March and we were deciding what to do. What I remember most vividly about it is first, the talk of Marvin Miller; I had met Marvin before and I had seen Marvin before but I never saw him address players and at that point to see him get up in front of a room of 100 some-odd players and in his own way, with a very calm/smooth demeanor, just completely dominated the room. The second thing I remember about that meeting was Dave Winfield. In 1981, Dave had signed a contract with the Yankees that made him the highest paid player in baseball history and it was a 10-year guaranteed contract. Regardless of what was going to happen the next year when there would be a strike all that could really happen to Winfield is that he would lose money, it wasn’t a strike from him because his contract was already in place. Nevertheless, he still got up in front of the players and explained to them the importance of going on strike, he was one of the veteran leaders of the union at the time, it was important to him to give back to the players who had made his success possible. It was something extremely powerful to witness.”

Over the years, the Major League Baseball Players Association has had some pretty prominent, even legendary figureheads at the forefront of the organization from the Legendary Marvin Miller to Donald Fehr. During the course of their respective tenures, both Miller and Fehr left a lasting legacy on the Union, on the game of baseball, and on sports. To cap off our sit-down, I asked Weiner when he ultimately and (hopefully not anytime soon) hands the rein over to his successor, what he wanted to be remembered for/what he wanted his legacy to be for his time at the Union, to which he initially responded: “I don’t really have an answer for that.” But then as he has been known to do time and again, composed himself and crafted a candid and genuine response:

“Like I said, way back when I was lucky enough to get the Executive Director position, it’s an incredible honor and incredibly humbling to be in the same sentence with Marvin and Don. I mean we’re talking about giants, we’re talking about people who have guided this Union: In Marvin’s case for 16 years and in Don’s case much longer than that. Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with them really is an honor. My legacy might be different now than when it started, given my personal situation, part of my legacy would just be the ability to say that I was the Executive Director of the Player’s Association for a while, (which might be open to some question given my health status.) You can’t pre-judge what issue you’d be looking at or want to achieve; I guess if I had to choose one thing besides a little bit longevity would be at least being partially responsible for the active engagement of the players and the control of their own union. It is something that the Union has always stood for, it’s something that is very, very important to me personally, that players really do get involved, and that the players understand that their voice is important. So if I had to pick one thing that I would be looked back on, whether I am able to do this job for another year or another 10, maybe that would be it.”

To which I could only respond: “That would be pretty good for me.”

Thus concludes our series, I hope you guys enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed doing it. Of course a special thanks to Michael Weiner and everyone at the MLBPA for being so accommodating and letting me harass him for an hour, it was truly a pleasure.