Fehr: No room for baseball's romance
With the exception of a brief, yearlong stretch between giants, the 43-year dynasty known as the Major League Baseball Players Association has boasted just two leaders. The first, Marvin Miller, is 92 years old and living in Manhattan, the greatest labor leader in the history of American professional sports.
The second, Donald Fehr, announced Monday that he will resign as executive director of the union before next season begins. After 26 years, he will leave the job with a legacy that should be considered every bit as important and formidable as that of his legendary predecessor.
Monday was a great day for Fehr. His brother Steve told me that Don "is in good health, had a hell of a run and is leaving on his own terms." But it is not necessarily a day of joy for anyone interested in baseball beyond the wins and losses on the field, for anyone who respects the rare combination of intelligence and toughness that Fehr brought to the union.
He is not an easy man to like. He is wary and suspicious, yet confident in his positions. He is fearless, unafraid to challenge people to look at baseball without the witless nostalgia that can turn very smart people into mushy 8-year-olds pounding their fists into their first baseball mitt. He does not hesitate to teach the hard history lessons of labor relations going back long before Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, two years before Fehr became the union's executive director. He has no intention of pandering to the crowd looking for concessions "for the love of the game."
On camera, Fehr can appear joyless and serious, the antithesis of the sunbursts people associate with the summer game, and that makes him an easy target. As the power of his organization increased, the charge was often made that Fehr and the players had lost their way.
Like commissioner Bud Selig, Fehr may well be remembered best for his role in the rise of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, which produced big money for players and for owners at the high price of lost reputations. During the steroids era, Fehr and the players seemed unwilling to confront an issue that simultaneously provided them enormous wealth and tore them apart.
Over the years -- his institutional memory with the union dates back to August 1977, when he became Miller's top lawyer at the players' association -- Fehr has been accused of being unable to escape the suffocating boundaries of mistrust that had defined baseball's management-union relationship, perhaps in large part because union leadership never forgave the owners for colluding to keep the salaries of free agents down in the mid-'80s. A line of thought has existed, at one point promulgated by some in Congress, that baseball wouldn't be able to emerge from the steroids era until he and Selig resigned. The animosity went too far back, ran too deep.
But if Don Fehr is on your side, you are tremendously better off for it. He does his job, which is to protect the interests of his players; and he has done it exceedingly well at a time of great assault against American unionism in general.
For roughly 11 hours on March 17, 2005, members of the House Government Reform Committee savaged Fehr and the union, essentially blaming his leadership for the steroids crisis in the sport.
Selig wilted under his own barrage of criticism from the congressmen and Rob Manfred, then baseball's legal counsel, lost his cool on national television, but Fehr -- under the most pressure -- held his ground, providing testimony regarding the decisions that shaped the union's thinking about the steroids issue. Even his detractors called it remarkable.
Fehr has little time for the baseball watchers who don't want reality to get in the way of their fun and games and therefore are numb to contracts, labor, money, power or steroids. He does not romanticize the sport, and can be dismissive of those who do, especially if they happen to be journalists.
He does not accept the easy arguments that tried to explain the steroids era, and he often is disappointed by the lack of clarity being brought to the complex issues that define his time as executive director.
In small groups, Fehr is intimidating for his brilliance, sharpness of argument and scope of knowledge. If you are willing to engage beyond the cacophony, sound bites and preconceived narrative that characterize the public discourse, his intelligence and personality flower.
And on so many issues, he has been correct. Baseball reflects society at large, and we live in a society where a pill exists for everything, whether it is obesity, high cholesterol or erectile dysfunction. Yet society expects baseball players -- or any professional athletes -- to be immune to the same impulses that have created today's culture of pharmacology.
The juicing of the game, Fehr once told me, was no different in baseball than in any other sport. Whether in hockey, basketball, football or the Olympics, each sport attempts, usually through rule changes, to manipulate the game to create more offense. Baseball, through stadium construction, pitching rules and the vexing issues of performance enhancers, has undergone similar manipulations.
At this level of discussion, Fehr is at his best. He demystifies the great sanctity of baseball and reduces it to its most obvious form: It's just another business in which people make critical, often incorrect decisions. And he grows frustrated when the conversation disintegrates into noise.
The public hasn't seen enough of that side of Fehr.
He has not been perfect. Perhaps his greatest failure was in not viewing the steroids issue in terms of protecting the reputations of his players. That perspective came far too late, and now many of those players are struggling unsuccessfully to reclaim their legitimacy with a public that still watches even as it questions what it's seeing.
Fehr's legacy likely will be less heroic than Miller's, but Fehr presided over a less heroic time. In the end, the public probably won't see him as a courageous figure. But the public is not always the final, or most appropriate, judge.
Fehr was asked to maintain the gains the players achieved in the era that preceded his tenure. He did that and more; and if you happen to be a baseball player today, you owe Fehr a tremendous debt.
For all his accomplishments, Miller never felt appreciated by the generation of players who benefited from his work at the union. If Fehr is fortunate, the players will do something they never did for Miller: They'll pick up the phone to say thank you.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.
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