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MLBPA head Weiner passes away after cancer battle at 51

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The Canadian Press
11/21/2013 9:17:10 PM
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NEW YORK -- Michael Weiner, the plain-speaking, ever-positive labour lawyer who took over as head of the powerful baseball players' union four years ago and smoothed its perennially contentious relationship with management, died Thursday, 15 months after announcing he had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. He was 51.

The Major League Baseball Players Association said Weiner died at his home in Mansfield Township, N.J.

"We wouldn't be where we are today without his expertise," San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeremy Affleldt said in a text to The Associated Press. "We will all feel this loss of such a great man."

As Weiner's health deteriorated this summer, a succession plan was put in place. Former big league All-Star Tony Clark took over Thursday as acting executive director and is to be approved as Weiner's successor when the union's board meets from Dec. 2-5 at La Jolla, Calif.

"Words cannot describe the love and affection that the players have for Michael, nor can they describe the level of sadness we feel today," Clark said in a statement. "Not only has the game lost one of its most important and influential leaders in this generation, all involved in the game have lost a true friend."

At Weiner's last public speaking engagement, a 25-minute meeting with baseball writers on the day of the All-Star game in July, he was confined to a wheelchair and unable to move his right side. Yet, he wanted to respond to questions about his illness and issues in the game, and did so with the grace and humour he was known for throughout his life.

"I don't know if I look at things differently. Maybe they just became more important to me and more conscious to me going forward," he said. "As corny as this sounds, I get up in the morning and I feel I'm going to live each day as it comes. I don't take any day for granted. I don't take the next morning for granted. What I look for each day is beauty, meaning and joy, and if I can find beauty, meaning and joy, that's a good day."

Weiner first experienced weakness and tingling on his right side in July 2012 and was diagnosed with a glioma the following month. By June 2013, he had experienced a rapid increase in symptoms. As he sat in a wheelchair in foul territory at Citi Field the following month before the All-Star game, players lined up to speak with him.

His voice had gotten raspy by early August, when he responded on behalf of the union to drug suspensions handed down to Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and other players.

"Michael is a tremendous person. That's why everybody loves him," New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera said Thursday before Weiner's death was announced. "He can relate with every player and had time to talk with every player."

Known for wearing blue jeans and Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers to work, Weiner's easygoing manner with players was a change from former head Donald Fehr's more lawyerly approach. His style connected both with players and the students he taught during Sunday school at his synagogue.

"Lost a great friend today," Arizona reliever Brad Ziegler tweeted. "One of the best leaders & men I knew. Prayers for his family."

Weiner was hired by the union as a staff attorney in 1988 and wound up succeeding Fehr in December 2009. Weiner became just the fourth head of the organization since 1966.

A longtime New Jersey resident and a graduate of Williams College and Harvard Law School, Weiner clerked for U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin in Newark before joining the players' association. Once at the union, he became a key figure in the lengthy process to parse the $280 million collusion settlement among individual players.

Weiner also was a junior lawyer during the 7 1/2-month players' strike in 1994-95 strike and the negotiations that finally led to a new labour agreement in March 1997.

"I think that helped some people on the owners' side to finally accept that the union was a fixture and the union was an entity they were going to have to deal with," he said. "There was never a chance for anything to settle in until we got through collusion, and really until then we got through the bargaining in '94 and '95."

Following eight work stoppages in a 23-year span, baseball has since negotiated three straight labour deals without interruption.

Weiner headed talks for the last deal, in November 2011, which instituted a series of significant changes that included restraints on signing bonuses for amateur players and increased the number of free agents able to switch teams without requiring the loss of draft picks as compensation.

"It took a while for the owners to appreciate that the union is not only here to stay, but that the union and its members can contribute positively to a discussion about the game -- about its economics, about the nature of the competition, about how it's marketed in every way," he said.

In addition to the labour contract, he headed the legal team that in 2012 convinced an arbitrator to overturn a 50-game suspension imposed on Braun, the Milwaukee outfielder who was the previous year's NL MVP. The union argued his urine sample had not been handled properly.

Last summer Braun agreed to accept a 65-game suspension for his activities relating to the Biogenesis of America anti-aging clinic and his public statements.

Following a line of leaders that began with Marvin Miller and went on to include the short reign of Kenneth Moffett and the long tenure of Fehr, Weiner was exceedingly conscious of the union's history and traditions of player involvement. He appeared with Fehr and the then 95-year-old Miller at a 2012 discussion at New York University's School of Law marking the 40th anniversary of the first baseball strike and the rise of the union.

Fehr, now the head of the NHLPA, released a statement on Thursday night to lament Weiner's passing.

"My wife Stephanie and I are enormously saddened to learn of Mike Weiner's passing today, and our thoughts go out to Diane and their three daughters," said Fehr in the statement. "Mike was an extraordinary individual in so many ways: as a loving husband and father, as an exceptional union leader and lawyer, and as a great friend to so many. He was an indispensible part of the MLBPA staff for more than two decades, and was the right man to lead the union. This is a great loss, for his family, for his friends, for the players, and for everyone who crossed his path.”

His hair nearly gone from his treatment, Weiner returned to NYU in January for a memorial celebrating the life of Miller, who died two months earlier. He humbly referred to "our little sport of baseball."

"He was not just too young to die. He was too good and decent, too kind and brilliant," said Gene Orza, the union's former chief operating officer. "I never knew anyone finer."

Said NFL players' union executive director DeMaurice Smith: "The family of Michael Weiner and the community of athletes worldwide have lost a leader. I will miss my friend."

Weiner is survived by his wife, the former Diane Margolin, and daughters Margie, Grace and Sally.

Michael Weiner  (Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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