These days it’s very easy to get caught up in thinking about what is wrong with the game of baseball, choosing to focus on the controversial figures in the sport but very rarely do we acknowledge those who do all the right things and make a tremendous impact without the fanfare. Michael Weiner was one of those who fell into that latter category, a man who spent 20-plus years at the Major League Baseball Players’ Association before being named Executive Director in 2009. A man who exemplified what it means to do things the right way, during a time in a sport characterized by scandal and excess.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone that even come close to saying a single bad word about the man as he was as genuine as they come, beloved by virtually all those that came in contact with him. It’s plain to see what Weiner’s membership thought of him, given the outpouring of support from players following his diagnosis and subsequent battle with Stage 4 Glioblastoma. It was never more apparent than it was this past Summer during the All-Star Game festivities at Citi Field during MLB’s “Stand Up to Cancer” Tribute where players and fans alike stood up for an individual they knew who was afflicted or battling cancer and virtually all of the players stood up for Weiner something he described as “truly moving” in email correspondences.
Michael’s influence stretched well beyond baseball as he was extremely generous with his time even after his diagnosis, he spent weekends volunteering and teaching at his local Hebrew school and took on a number of speaking engagements both in and outside of the academic sphere. He even served as a mentor of sorts to his fellow Sports Union Leaders as he was very close to his predecessor and current NHLPA Executive Director, Donald Fehr as well as NFLPA Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith.“He was what we aspire to be: a great father, champion of the rights of players and working people, a brilliant lawyer and above all else a kind and loyal friend.” Said Smith when asked to comment on his experiences with Weiner both personal and professional.
My first encounter with Weiner was in late 2010, mere months into my undergraduate career and he was speaking on a panel at the Marriott Marquis alongside former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent and ESPN Radio Personality, Mike Greenberg. At 18 years old I couldn’t really muster up the courage to say anything intelligent or substantive so all I can recall is airing some type of a complaint about TBS’ Playoff Coverage and having to listen to the same Kid Rock song in virtual perpetuity, to which he was he very gracious and understandably dismissive.
The next time I had the opportunity to listen to him speak was in the Spring of last year, in the midst of his battle with Cancer; physically he did not quite resemble the same man I had met two years earlier but he did not miss a beat intellectually and was his usual candid self. This time he was speaking at NYU Law in a large but sparsely crowded room but he still delivered and answered questions with his hallmark wit and candor regardless of whether there were 10 or 10,000 people in the room. That was really the beauty of listening to Michael speak, although he was a lawyer by trade, he would never use rhetoric to avoid question, if you asked him an honest question he would give you an honest answer.
I would have the opportunity to listen to Michael speak several times that Spring, once in one of my classes and another at an awards dinner and each time he managed to captivate the room in a way that only he could. After hearing him speak in one my classes, I asked him if he would be amenable to letting me sit-down and interview him for an article I planned to write for IIATMS but in reality, I didn’t even have as much as an outline or a premise for an article in my head at the time but I just knew that if he let me pick his brain for 20 minutes, then there would somehow be a story.
A few weeks later after several emails back and forth, we set up a time to talk, where I could only hope for 25 minutes, I was given in excess of an hour. In my short life I have had the great fortune of interviewing and getting close to some of my childhood sports heroes, experiences that many of my friends could only dream about but nothing came close to the hour I spent talking with Michael at the MLBPA Offices in Midtown. It was truly a surreal experience, where a man with limited time chose to give up an entire hour to a 20-year old kid with a tape recorder and notepad full of questions. That one act really sums up the kind of man Michael Weiner was, his accomplishments for the game of baseball speak for themselves but they will never amount to his accomplishments as a human being.
When we spoke back in May, I asked Michael about his legacy and what he wanted to be remembered for to which he responded:
“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.”
In the Jewish tradition the Yiddish word Mensch is thrown around in certain contexts, if you Google “Mensch” the dictionary definition will read: “A person of integrity and honor.” However, it is more than that, it is someone that goes above and beyond, someone who regardless of the circumstances will always do the right thing even if it isn’t convenient or necessary.
When people who have never heard the term Mensch ask me what it means, it’s usually tough for me to define but now when they ask me I think back to that conversation and simply answer: Michael Weiner.