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Baseball Union’s Business Arm Drafts Lawyers Before Opening Day

March 5, 2021, 11:01 AM

The commercial arm of the Major League Baseball Players Association has added two attorneys to its lineup of in-house leaders as spring training gets underway.

Robert Sanzillo, a former minor leaguer who went on to work at Herrick, Feinstein in New York, joined MLB Players Inc. in February as vice president of strategy, operations, and baseball affairs. Sanzillo spent the past two years as general counsel for the Premier Lacrosse League.

MLB Players has also recruited vice president of business and legal affairs Shawn McDonald, a former associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Fulbright & Jaworski who is also a nephew of pop icon Mariah Carey.

McDonald declined to discuss his famous family, but through MLBPA spokeswoman Silvia Alvarez, said working on behalf of MLB players was a “dream job” he couldn’t turn down. He joins the MLBPA’s for-profit arm from VCN Partners LLC, a Dallas-based advisory firm McDonald started in 2018 after spending four years at Nike Inc.

It was during McDonald’s time at Nike that he became acquainted with MLB Players managing director Evan Kaplan, through both of their work on various deals and programs. McDonald and Sanzillo will both report to Kaplan.

Both lawyers, who will be based in New York, were unable to travel to spring training due to restrictions related to Covid-19, Alvarez said. MLB’s 2021 season starts April 1.

Career Change

Sanzillo, a late round draft choice of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007, spent a year catching in the minor leagues before deciding to pursue a legal career. He said via Alvarez he’s “thrilled” to land at the MLBPA.

“When it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it to the big leagues on the field, my focus shifted to getting back around sports through the front office,” he said. “My first thought was to take the agency route, hence law school.”

That led to Herrick and the PLL, where Sanzillo also served as senior vice president of lacrosse operations. The league is currently looking for a new head of legal.

At MLB Players, Sanzillo joins a business that will be involved in future labor negotiations with league management.

“Professional athletes are starting to rethink how they engage with brands, partners, and their fans,” said Sanzillo, noting his new job gives him the “opportunity to be at the forefront of that evolution.”

The MLBPA announced Jan. 29 its hire of Craig Edwards, a lawyer-turned-baseball writer for the website Fangraphs.com, as a senior analyst of economics and collective bargaining reporting to Ian Penny, the union’s general counsel.

Wahlke’s Return

Lydia Wahlke, a former Kirkland & Ellis associate who went on to be general counsel for MLB’s Chicago Cubs, returned to the law firm last month as of counsel in its litigation group in Chicago, according to her LinkedIn profile and Kirkland’s website.

Kirkland didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about Wahlke’s role at the firm, which she initially left in 2010 to join the Cubs. Wahlke bid adieu to the Cubs in mid-2017—the year after the club won its first World Series in over a century—to become chief legal officer for the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The USSF put Wahlke on administrative leave a year ago this month in the aftermath of a controversial brief filed in a pay equity dispute between the organization and U.S. women’s national soccer team. The USSF is a nonprofit that serves as the U.S. governing body for professional and amateur soccer.

The most recent federal tax filing by the Chicago-based USSF shows that it paid roughly $436,400 to Wahlke in fiscal year 2018-19. Wahlke resigned as legal chief in May as the fallout from the pay bias litigation led to a management overhaul at the USSF and shakeup of its outside counsel.

The USSF announced last summer its hire of Karen Leetzow, a former general counsel for auto racing circuit NASCAR Holdings Inc., as chief legal officer. The organization promoted longtime in-house lawyer Gregory Fike to general counsel in October. Wahlke served as a consultant to the USSF until Sept. 15.

Wahlke didn’t respond to a request for comment about her exit from the USSF or return to Kirkland. The firm has previously represented USSF board members in antitrust litigation involving the now-defunct North American Soccer League.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com
Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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