Although the MLB season ended almost a month ago, and many fans have since directed their full attention to other professional and college sports, for me, the offseason is where the magic happens. Since my Philadelphia Phillies fell just short of glory, I have been recurringly checking for a holiday miracle signing at third base. (If by chance the Phillies brass is reading this, all I really want for Christmas is Chone Figgins.) But this offseason is notable for reasons other than a second straight year of slow activity and economy-effected salary decreases. There will be a new face around baseball this year as one man officially ascended into some pretty important shoes this week–and, no, I’m not talking about TBS’s replacement for absurd, former announcer Chip Caray, who was let go after too many botched play calls and silly catch phrases, i.e., “pensman” and “fisting”.

Legal Counsel Michael Weiner becomes the new head of the MLBPA

Donald Fehr, who served as head of the MLB Players Association since 1986, announced his intention to step down this past October, and his retirement became official this week. Michael Weiner, a Harvard Law graduate and long-time general counsel for the union, will take his place. Fehr’s departure caused some short-lived controversy as he was awarded an $11 million compensation package. The immediate reaction failed to consider that the hardworking Fehr had refused a salary increase each year since 2001 when he began receiving $1 million annually. Compare him to everyone’s favorite Scrooge, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who reportedly takes down $18 million per year, which would make him roughly the tenth highest paid player before considering other perqs/perks. But I digress.

So why is Weiner’s position so important? Because he represents a pretty powerful union (one where the average salary of its members is over three mil) that butts heads with its employer every few years, with potentially monumental repercussions for America. The next such conflict is set to occur in 2011 when the current labor agreement expires. I’ve previously discussed why fans should be fearful when that time comes, a theory bolstered with the Yankees’ recent championship–I’m telling you, it was bad for baseball! And while payroll disparities may take front stage, Weiner has other considerations to start resolving.

Some are rather mundane and uncontroversial. It seems there is already unanimous support for expanding the division playoff series from best-of-five to best-of-seven, while removing some off-days from the postseason schedule. And the union is unlikely to battle the owners on their demand for a draft overhaul that would subject new, foreign players who are currently considered free agents to the same status as amateur, domestic players. This would mean all teams would have the opportunity to sign international talent, if they could afford the expected contract. While an international draft may only attach to Latin America, it would be great if the MLB would also eliminate the posting system currently in effect with Japan. Consider that in 2006 the Boston Red Sox paid over $51 million to the Seibu Lions of Japan just for the right to talk to Japanese superstar Daisuke Matsuzaka–he then signed a contract with the Sox for $52 million over six years.

But for the foreseeable future, the pair of elephants everyone is looking at are named money and drugs.

Money is always a sensitive issue. Poor owners argue there should be a salary cap, as the Marlins’ $36 million payroll is no match for the Yankees’ $201 million investment. Meanwhile, wealthy owners are calling for a salary floor and a revamping of the system to ensure that small-market teams are actually using their revenue sharing funds for the benefit of the team. Opposition to a salary cap is no surprise when you represent the players, but Weiner is not expected to push for a minimum payroll either: “If a club legitimately trying to compete has a plan that calls for them to be at a particularly low payroll for a given year as part of a longer-range plan to compete the following year or years after that, management should have that flexibility.”

In addition, Weiner said the union will be against any sort of hard slotting system for draft picks, in which new players would receive fixed signing bonuses in accordance with their draft rank, rather than possess the ability to receive something above and beyond the “recommendation” the league currently imposes. “This union has always stood for the proposition that, you know, players should have the right to bargain individually for their compensation,” Weiner stated.

The accusation of owner collusion to drive down salaries is always a threat during agreement time as well. As of Wednesday, only nine of 171 free agents had reached deals. (Although, make it at least ten now with the Phillies’ pick-up of third baseman Placido Polanco occurring moments ago. There goes my wish list…) That makes it difficult to set the market for free agents and salaries may decline as a result. But any such drop is tough to segregate from the downtrodden economy’s effect even on professional athletes, so threats of collusion are pretty empty.

As for the steroids issue, there may be some more changes to the testing policy as each passing season reveals a darker tale of performance-enhancing drug use. This year belonged to Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, and, presumably, others will follow. The MLB also slightly increased its number of drug exemptions this year for players claiming to be affected by attention deficit disorder and thus in need of amphetamine-like substances. The number of players totaled 108 this past year, which is roughly 9% of the league and 5% more than the national average for 18 to 44-year-olds. That’s only five more players than in 2007, but it marks another incline from the “mere” 28 that claimed an exemption in 2006. Weiner, however, takes solace in the “healthy percentage of applications for new [therapeutic use exemptions]” that were rejected. Jingle bells.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has launched a new program that seeks to reduce the number of steroid-laced supplements that are available over the counter. Many players that test positive for performance-enhancing drugs claim they picked up something from GNC that they thought was harmless, only to find out later that it contains a banned substance. The agency, apparently in cooperation with the MLB and other sports leagues, is pushing for more effective state and federal legislation that will keep supplements with hidden steroid components from reaching consumers’ bodies. This would be a small move in the right direction, and hopefully Weiner and the union will push for even more regulation–like testing for human growth hormone, for which the league currently has no valid method of screening.

All in all, Weiner has his work cut out for him when it comes time to deal with the owners. The current collective bargaining agreement, negotiated in 2006, made history as the first to be reached before the previous agreement had expired, and joining hands again in 2011 will be difficult unless such critical issues continue to be addressed now.

Andrew Cunningham

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