Fehr's dual legacies: Dollars and drugs

Gordon Edes

Marvin Miller will forever be known as the Great Emancipator for bringing free agency to players kept in servitude by the reserve clause. Donald Fehr goes out as the Great Enabler, the same steroid-stitched badge of dishonor that will be attached to Bud Selig when the commissioner elects to depart, something Selig, five weeks shy of his 75th birthday, has shown no inclination to do.

It is not how Fehr would wish to be remembered, not after a career in which he proved to be every bit the bogeyman his predecessor Miller was for Major League Baseball owners while enriching the players he served beyond their wildest dreams. Now Fehr says he's stepping down as executive director of the players' association after 25 years.

"He told me eight years ago he was going to quit,'' one associate said Monday. This time Fehr, 60, means it – he plans to stick around only long enough to see the players approve his successor, almost certainly union general counsel Michael Weiner, who held the same role Fehr did when he succeeded Miller in December 1983.

It is another example of history's twisted sense of humor that long-time adversaries Fehr and Selig would be publicly pilloried together by a Congress that had no patience for Fehr's avowals of trying to protect a player's privacy or Selig's declarations of ignorance, before shoving a drug-testing plan down baseball's constricted throats

That the testing program seems to be working does little to quiet the howls of those bent on painting Fehr and Selig as partners in a dirty game of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' that cynically allowed steroids to flourish because baseball's coffers were bulging like never before. There were no apparent losers in that game – players and owners both got richer, and the media and fans didn't seem to care – until baseball discovered that its integrity had evaporated, and there was no female fertility drug able to bring it back.

"So this is my Barbara Walters question – 'How do I feel about it?' Fehr said Monday when asked about the accusations that the union had acted too slowly. He reiterated, as he has said many times, that "perhaps we should have moved sooner [on testing].''

But Fehr's departure should not be framed merely in the context of steroids. His departure marks the end of an era in baseball labor relations, one in which feisty combatants like Miller, Fehr and his chief lieutenant, Gene Orza, forged remarkable solidarity among the union rank and file while transforming the industry's economic landscape.

"You could truly make the argument that they were probably the most successful union in American history," said Paul Staudohar, a labor arbitrator and professor who has written several books on the economics of sports.

But like the faded warriors of the Cold War era, they are shaped by a conflict no longer being fought. Baseball's biggest wall crumbled in 2002, the first time a collective bargaining agreement was reached without a work stoppage. There had been eight stoppages since 1972, including the 1994 strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series that year and the odious hiring of replacement players the following spring.

Negotiations remained contentious in 2002, but a last-minute agreement was reached. Four years later, another five-year deal was passed, this one without going to a deadline.

Hard-liners like Fehr are no longer needed, which perhaps offers some clue as to why he chose to bow out now. He said he didn't want to be point man for the next round of negotiations on a new CBA. He has given a quarter of a century to the cause, at a salary much lower than union leaders in other sports (Fehr never took more than $1 million), and undoubtedly negotiated a nice severance package to pursue the next phase of his life.

The union will never be as strong as it was in Fehr's heyday, not because the balance of power has shifted back to the owners, but because the union is a victim of its own success. With an average player salary of over $3 million – it was around $45,000 in 1975, the year before owners agreed to a system of free agency, and didn't cross the $1 million mark until 1992 – the days of owners and players as immovable adversaries are over. Instead, they are all but prosperous partners in a $6.5 billion enterprise.

This is no reflection on Weiner, who in the last few years has increasingly taken on responsibilities that had once been Fehr's. Weiner is an outstanding lawyer whose communication skills probably eclipse those of the acid-tongued Fehr, who was smarter than anyone sitting on the other side of the negotiating table and made sure everyone knew it.

But unless the owners do something ridiculous like putting a salary cap back on the table, or anything else that would drastically reduce the percentage of revenue going to the players, it is difficult to imagine Weiner creating the kind of united front that regularly won the day for players far more cohesive than the bickering owners.

"I think the most important thing about the players union was that its solidarity was forged out of the era of the reserve clause,'' said Andrew Zimbalist, the Smith College professor and author of numerous books on baseball economics.

"When you're in that kind of world, and the players know and everybody else knows they're contributing a lot more value to the team, then it's easy to generate that kind of solidarity.

"I don't think the union has had that kind of strength and solidarity since the strike of '94 and '95. I think the union ended up signing agreements in 2002 and 2006 that basically functioned to lower the salary share of total revenues. I don't think players earning $3 million a year are going to be interested in striking.''

The drug-testing issue has created some cracks. The huge salaries going to the top one percent of players while an increasing number of veterans can only manage nonguaranteed offers may create more. But perhaps the biggest agent of change is that for the majority of players, the battles of the past are a distant memory.

A player steeped in the history of his predecessors fighting for free agency and higher salaries will be willing to go to the barricades. But when the most pressing issues are percentages of luxury taxes and revenue sharing, the clarion call may well go unanswered.

Don Fehr is walking away from the fight when there is no longer a fight to be won.