PHOENIX — “Jelly bean?” Bruce Meyer mouthed.
He was on a phone call, pacing the lobby of a Phoenix hotel, occasionally slipping his hand into a brown paper bag wedged under his elbow. He stopped, held out the bag and raised his eyebrows.
The new chief negotiator for the Major League Baseball Players Association just may have a jelly bean problem.
“I do,” he said. “It’s awful. It’s probably the only thing I have in common with Ronald Reagan.”
He grinned and raised his arms, whatta-ya-gonna-do surrender.
He’s 57, wears his hair and beard — silver, mixed with black — mown close, has a pullover zipped to his chin and is lean like a distance runner. He also stares at a recording device as he speaks, as if literally watching his words. His friends say he is funny in a sly, self-deprecating way and wholly loyal and about the smartest lawyer they know. His friends would probably know, as they are some of the best trial lawyers in the world. They also want you to know the cover band for which he plays guitar in various New York City joints is pretty good, and not pretty good in that way your voice rises at the end, the way you say it for a friend, but really good.
Meyer won’t tell you the name of his band, though.
“I’m going to take the fifth on that,” he said. “I never liked the name of the band.”
The lead guitarist, that being him, he said, “is good for a lawyer.”
He says it with a shrug, his modesty feinting, I sorta shred, actually.
He told a story about one of his three daughters meeting another girl and the two of them starting a conversation that led eventually to what their dads did, and how the other girl said her dad played guitar in a band, and Meyer’s daughter saying her dad played guitar in a band too, and the other girl asking what Meyer’s band was called. His daughter revealed the name of the anonymous cover band that must not be mentioned and asked what her dad’s band was called.
“Black Crows,” she said.
Bruce Meyer grew up on Long Island. His father was a criminal attorney of some notoriety and a pissed-off Brooklyn Dodgers fan. His mother was a teacher. Bruce was swept away by the 1969 New York Mets. He has a Tom Seaver picture on his office wall, a half-century later. While his father had sworn off baseball when the Dodgers went west, and indeed grumbled about the game when Bruce watched the Mets on television, he did take his son to Shea Stadium for his birthday every June. More often, they went to see the Giants play, or the Knicks, or the Islanders.
What followed was Penn, Boston University and a career of three decades on Fifth Avenue at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, where hundreds of lawyers in New York and around the world did — and still do — lawyer stuff. Meyer was one of them. In his time there, he advised players’ unions for the NHL, NBA and NFL, and some with the MLBPA. He became a skilled litigator, a tireless advocate, a ferocious fighter, a deal-maker, a colleague who would break up a tense room with well-timed levity and a guy with an axe to play.
“I know the classic rock repertoire pretty well,” he said.
Seeking new challenges, he left the firm for the NHLPA and its leader, former MLBPA head Don Fehr, three years ago. In August, after having his fill of the weekly New York-to-Toronto-and-back slog, Meyer was hired by Tony Clark to engage in what appear to be the most critical collective bargaining negotiations in a generation.
So, after one job for three decades, he’s had two in three years. What he may be searching for, Meyer said, was a “deep question.”
“You know,” he said, “I guess I reached a point where I just felt like I needed some kind of a change. The sports stuff was always something that I did in addition to many other kinds of things. I found that I was enjoying the sports stuff the best, representing unions. When the opportunity came along to do that full time, I sort of took a leap of faith, with the support of my wife, [Jacqueline], which was essential, in all things.
“I always had a passion for player advocacy in the sports area. Always represented the unions and players. Been through many battles in that area. And then the ability to work directly for one of the unions with the NHLPA was a great experience. Learned a lot. It added a different perspective, being inside, as opposed to being an outside lawyer. Got to work with Don Fehr, obviously a lot to learn from him. Hockey players were great guys and enjoyed dealing with them. The commute, as I was still living in New York, my youngest daughter still in high school, my wife still there, and commuting Monday morning, coming back Thursday night, it really became very difficult. I expected it to be difficult. But, in practice these things are more difficult than you expect them to be. So when the offer came from MLBPA to continue, really, the work I was doing at the NHLPA and be back in New York, it was really too good to pass up. From a family standpoint.”
The New York-based attorney James Quinn, whom Meyer identified as a mentor, called Meyer, “Very down to earth. A terrific lawyer. Very smart and easy to have a beer with. He’s loved sports from day one,” adding, “Sadly, I think he’s a Mets fan. But that’s his fault. And not my issue.”
Beyond that, Quinn said, “He’s always interacted well with groups of people, with players. He’ll bond well with the baseball players, who are smart guys and dedicated. And he’s a good negotiator, not with vitriol, but with a sense of humor.”
And Jeff Kessler, another decorated attorney who helped to mentor and also worked alongside Meyer and was the source of the kind guitar review, noted Meyer arrives in baseball at a pivotal time. Players have gone public in their discontent with the free-agent market, the middle class is disappearing, and more than a few franchises are being accused of tanking. The CBA extends to the end of the 2021 season, and the MLBPA seems intent on evening a field it believes has come to favor the owners. Of course, it negotiated this deal barely two years ago, the one its members don’t care much for today.
“The baseball situation may be moving into a more contentious area than it has been in the recent past,” said Kessler, who has vast experience in high-profile sports litigation. “All these relationships go through cycles, that’s just sort of part of it. At the end of the day, the parties will wind up making a deal. What it takes to get there is another story.”
In comes Bruce Meyer, part of Clark’s team.
“Jim [Quinn] and I sort of helped raise Bruce together,” Kessler said. “He became dedicated to the fact these athletes give so much over such a short period of time and it could be over every time they step into the box. They have nothing but my admiration. And Bruce’s admiration. And Jim’s.”
So, it would seem change is coming, on the field, in the meeting room, in the owner’s box, in the clubhouse, wherever the future of baseball lies. Left to sort it out, out front, will be commissioner Rob Manfred and Clark, deputy commissioner Dan Halem and Meyer. What’s next is maybe not whether there is a fight, but the size of the fight, and even that can’t be known until the day arrives.
“I think anyone just reading the papers these days will see there is a lot of concern among the players about the current system and the way that it’s functioning or not functioning,” Meyer said. “There’s been some apparent changes in owner behavior that are justifiably concerning and people want to understand why it’s happening and what, if anything, we can do about it. So, to that extent, I do think we’re at an interesting period in terms of the relationship between the players and management. It remains to be seen how it sorts itself out.
“My job and the job of the union is to advocate for the players and to see that, to the extent possible, that players have the ability to access a free market for their services and to achieve a fair value for their services. The history of labor relationship in sports from the players’ standpoint has been a struggle to remove any impediments to their ability to get a fair value for their services. … These sports are multibillion dollar enterprises and the players are the product and they, in our view, deserve to be fairly compensated in light of the fact that this is a hugely profitable industry.”
All these years later, remember, he remains the guy with the Tom Seaver poster on his wall. The summer nights at Shea. The guitar leaning in the corner. The jelly beans everywhere.
“Like a lot of people, I always liked the statistical part of it,” he said. “It’s associated with the summer and being outside and talking with friends and enjoying like a nice spring or summer day. I like the fact it’s at a somewhat more leisurely pace than other games. It’s the only game that has a deep connection with our country. It’s sort of embedded into the fabric of our identity as our country. That resonates with me like it does with a lot of people.”
And if you see him, ask him the name of his band. He’ll probably tell you, long as you promise not to tell anyone else. And it’s actually not so bad.
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