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Michael Weiner: Voice of reason

Michael Weiner was the focus of only the occasional personality profile in his roles as a labor lawyer and head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. But writers in search of a human interest angle invariably headed in one of two directions: His fondness for Bruce Springsteen, or his lifelong allegiance to Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

A New Jersey boy to the core, Weiner found something magical and magnetic in the Boss' melodies and lyrics -- from the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets to barefoot girls sitting on the hoods of Dodges, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain. Yes, he represented millionaire Lexus and BMW drivers as head of the most successful and effective union in sports. But he did so with blue-collar sensibilities, minimal ego and perspective in abundance.

The shoes were no-frills and built for comfort, just like the man who wore them. Weiner kept a suit and tie handy for special occasions, but his work attire generally consisted of the white high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers, jeans, short-sleeved polo shirts and "hair by pillow," as his players' union colleagues jokingly referred to it. B.B. Abbott, the representative for Chipper Jones and numerous other big leaguers, once observed that Weiner "single-handedly dressed down" the annual baseball agent meetings.

That lack of concern with the superficial served Weiner well in the latter stages of his life. When he lost his hair to radiation and his face was puffy and sallow from chemotherapy to treat his brain cancer, he wasn't the least bit self-conscious.

"You know me," Weiner told me during an interview in November 2012. "I've never been a big appearance guy."

Weiner, heir to the Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr legacies as the MLBPA's executive director, died on Thursday after a long and courageous fight. He left behind a devoted wife, three loving daughters and scores of players, agents, media members, club and MLB personnel, and Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey Sunday school students who will feel the pain of his absence in ways too profound to contemplate.

From the moment Weiner experienced a mysterious numbness in his right side while walking from New York's Penn Station to the players' association offices in July 2012, his life took a sad-yet-inspirational twist. After a battery of tests revealed the presence of an inoperable tumor, the clock began ticking and he knew his days were numbered. Logic says that his family, friends and co-workers would buoy his spirits while he lamented his fate. But Weiner flipped the equation on its side; while the people closest to him struggled to accept the worst-case scenario, he lifted their spirits with his energy, commitment and positive attitude.

In his tenure as head of the union -- he took over from Fehr in December 2009 -- Weiner built a reputation as a dogged negotiator, calming voice of reason and sympathizer-in-chief. He was mentally acute enough to immerse himself in every detail, yet never lost sight of the big picture -- that he was privileged to have such a prominent role in safeguarding the game, and he could fulfill his mission only by treating the last man on a 25-man roster with the same respect as the superstars.

Thanks in large part to his harmonious working relationship with Rob Manfred, MLB's top lawyer, Weiner left a positive and enduring mark on the game. He helped ensure labor peace through productive collective bargaining negotiations, oversaw significant changes in the drug agreement, and had a voice in issues ranging from the World Baseball Classic to scheduling and realignment. He did so with a healthy mix of Yiddish colloquialisms and self-effacing humor.

"Michael was the perfect person for the union, at a time the game was as rich and robust and as economically healthy as it has ever been," said longtime agent Mark Rodgers. "He was the perfect consensus-builder. Marvin and Donald did a wonderful job building the foundation. Michael was smart enough to know that he couldn't improve on that foundation, but we needed to build up from there."

Weiner was born Dec. 21, 1961, in Pequannock, N.J., at Chilton Hospital, the same facility (he was quick to note) where Derek Jeter came into the world. His father, Isaac, ran a construction company, and young Michael gained an appreciation for hard work by lugging concrete and mixing mortar in the summers. He grew up rooting for the Yankees and Jets, and played what was once described as a "middling third base" on the Pompton Lakes High School baseball team.

At Williams College and Harvard Law School, Weiner developed a reputation for distilling complex problems into plain English. As word spread, fellow students formed a queue outside his door for last-minute tutoring the night before exams. He served as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Lee Sarokin, who recommended him to then-NBA union chief Larry Fleisher, who in turn endorsed him to Fehr. Weiner hooked on with the baseball union in 1988, and spent the next two decades taking on expanded roles under Fehr and his chief lieutenant, Gene Orza.

When Weiner succeeded Fehr as executive director, agents and players universally lauded the choice. In an ESPN.com story, I quoted veteran agent Barry Meister referring to Weiner as a genius, "but a regular genius." Although Weiner appreciated the comment, he wryly observed that it had made him a target for considerable grief among the women in his household.

Beyond his intellectual prowess, Weiner possessed an empathy and a human touch that resonated across the spectrum. Scores of players and agents have stories to tell about seemingly minor grievances or disputes that Weiner treated with the utmost care and respect. He was the trusted, empathetic voice that everyone wanted to hear at the other end of the phone line during trying times.

Seth Levinson of the New York-based ACES agency developed a close relationship with Weiner in the late 1980s, when they would sit for hours and discuss their mutual passion for baseball and players' rights over cold beers. He watched Weiner's intellect shine through in salary arbitration hearings, and saw the compassion that Weiner showed for players' families during the 1990 MLB lockout. At the 2003 All-Star Game, Weiner mingled seamlessly with baseball dignitaries, and was equally at home grabbing a slice of pizza on a Chicago street corner with some agents and fellow union officials at 2 a.m.

"The brilliance of his life serves as a lesson to all," Levinson said, "that greatness and genius can truly come in the form of a humble, purely decent and regular guy."

Weiner was also principled, sometimes to a fault. Rodgers, who negotiated a $121 million contract for pitcher Mike Hampton with Colorado in 2000, considered Weiner a good friend throughout their 25 years together in the business. Several years ago, Rodgers represented a player with a potential grievance, and they planned to discuss the problem with Weiner over dinner at a steak house in Florida.

At the end of the meal, Rodgers handed the server his credit card and waited for the check to arrive. But when Weiner returned from the restroom and realized what had transpired, he immediately changed the payment arrangements.

"Michael explained to us that even though it was a pleasant evening and more social than business, neither a player nor an agent is allowed by law to buy dinner for anybody from the union," Rodgers said. "My client and I were completely embarrassed. If we had known he was buying dinner, we would have gone out for iced tea and chicken rather than a good bottle of wine and filet mignon. It was a humbling moment for us. It just reminded you of how ethical and honest this guy was."

As Weiner grew progressively sicker with cancer, the baseball world wrapped him in its arms and embraced him. Shortly before Thanksgiving in 2012, I visited his midtown Manhattan office to find autographed jerseys from all 30 teams hanging from a portable clothes rack. Weiner seemed genuinely touched that so many players, coaches and managers found the time to remember him. Unbeknownst to him, so many big leaguers were calling the MLBPA office in an attempt to send him free Chuck Taylors that union officials finally had to issue an informal cease-and-desist order.

When Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck held up a StandUp2Cancer placard with Weiner's name on it during the broadcast of Game 1 in the 2012 World Series, the public outpouring of affection increased. Weiner received the Arthur Richman "You Gotta Have Heart" award at the New York Baseball Writers dinner in January. And when the Voices Against Brain Cancer organization held a 5-kilometer road race in Central Park last winter, members of the group "Friends of Mike" came out in force carrying signs with the Springsteen lyric, "No retreat, baby, no surrender."

Weiner's trips to spring camps in Arizona and Florida were among his favorite times of the year. He relished the opportunity to talk to the players and get to know them personally, and the players came to regard him as a benefactor and friend. He cared because he cared, not because it was his job, and they could make the distinction the moment he walked in the door.

"You hear these clich├ęs all the time," said Dodgers pitcher Chris Capuano. "People say, 'This person is one of a kind,' or, 'They're extraordinary.' But to meet someone with that kind of prodigious intellect and mind who also has a warm heart and is a normal, down-to-earth person and so kind -- there aren't a lot of those people out there."

Near the end of his life, Weiner refused to give an inch to the cancer that ravaged his body, or waste a precious moment feeling sorry for himself. Michael and his wife, Diane, his soulmate-to-be from the moment they met as second-graders at Lenox Elementary School, took time to laugh, travel and indulge in their mutual passion for music. Weiner was also quick to share his thoughts on the latest Michael Chabon novel, or talk baseball from a fan's perspective, or share his sense of pride in the achievements of his beloved daughters.

When Sports Illustrated ranked the 50 most powerful people in sports in early 2013, Weiner's name was absent from the list. The omission seemed strange given that baseball has grown to an $8 billion industry and Weiner had been a huge part of the game's success and ongoing labor peace. But if Weiner felt personally slighted by the oversight, no one would have known it.

"We were all dumbfounded, but Michael was probably pleased and relieved," Rodgers said. "If it was all about him, he would have dressed in $5,000 suits and worn a $300 pair of shoes and gotten a good haircut so he could look good in front of the camera. But he didn't do any of those things. He was a complete throwback -- a guy who believed in unions and players' rights and understood that players were the game. He was just an amazing advocate for them."

It's a comfort to those who knew Weiner best that he did, indeed, come face-to-face with the man who wrote the soundtrack to his life. When Springsteen held a 2003 concert at Shea Stadium, Seth Levinson and his brother, Sam, helped arrange a meeting between the iconic rocker and the union lawyer who so adored him. "I can tell you I've never seen Michael happier, just having a chance to meet Bruce and shake his hand and talk to him," Seth Levinson recalled.

One of the tragedies of Weiner's death, beyond the personal impact, is that he had settled into his dream job and had so much left to accomplish. But sometimes the value of a person's life can't be measured in years, months and days. During the most difficult period of his life, Weiner inspired others by confronting his challenge with fearlessness, grace and a can-do Jersey attitude. The Boss would have been proud.

"I don't take any day for granted," Weiner told me that November afternoon in 2012. "Maybe this is a lot to ask, but here's what I look for every day: I look for meaning, I look for joy and I look for beauty; and I welcome any interaction with people that helps to support that."

In the course of his life's journey, Michael Weiner gave far more than he received. This is his ultimate legacy: The endless line of people who feel enriched for having known him.