For Fehr it was union first, always at a cost

Updated: June 23, 2009, 11:54 AM ET
Former baseball players' association head Donald Fehr had a knack for never saying what baseball fans wanted to hear. He was the embodiment of fine print, someone to deliver the legal disclaimers to anyone who clung to his childhood vision of what professional sports could be.

If you grew up watching the World Series several decades ago and could remember the October brilliance of Roberto Clemente and Reggie Jackson, and if your life experience was built around the joy of Carlton Fisk and Bret Saberhagen, what you wanted him to say in August 1994 was that the notion of an autumn without a Fall Classic was preposterous. You wanted him to say that of course the dispute between the players and the owners would be resolved, and there would be another season of memories.

But that wasn't his job. His responsibility was to serve as an advocate for the players, and so Fehr effectively wielded the sentiment of baseball fans as a weapon; he gambled that the pressure on the owners to resume the business of creating memories would force them to capitulate, and he won, as he almost always won, in the spring of 1995.

The success of Fehr and the union was so pervasive that in time, he became the most powerful figure in the sport, for all practical purposes -- more powerful than any commissioner or acting commissioner, more powerful than any owner; more powerful than any player. The game could not veer or move unless Fehr allowed it. What baseball fans longed to hear from him were some stanzas about the greater good of the game.

But that wasn't his job. His responsibility was to serve as an advocate for the players, and he did so, often without a smile or a sense of humor. Nothing about him was light or sentimental, not to a public that didn't know his private sense of humor. Fehr did what he thought was right.

What you wanted him to say in the summer of 2002, as another round of negotiations loomed, was that there couldn't be a work stoppage so soon after Sept. 11, that to seriously consider shutting down the sport was reprehensible. You wanted him to assure fans that baseball would be part of the healing. But there Fehr was late in the summer of 2002, fully prepared to recommend a work stoppage, fully prepared to stand out front and again say that regretfully, he had to report to the players that not enough progress had been made in negotiations with owners. In the end, some veteran players stepped in and insisted that a deal with landmark concessions be struck, and Fehr did what he was asked to do.

What you wanted Fehr to say, early in this decade, was that it was increasingly evident that his union had a growing drug culture. You wanted Fehr to say that it was completely unacceptable to have a sport of such tradition to be filled with players pumping their bodies with illegal steroids and other performance-enhancing substances, many using unregulated and dangerous means to acquire them. You wanted the most powerful man to step in and do everything he could to fix the growing problem.

But that wasn't his job, as he saw it. What Fehr did was to present a constitutional argument, for privacy rights, and resist drug testing. He represented the players in what he thought was the best way possible -- despite mounting evidence that the best interests of the players who didn't want to take steroids were being overlooked, and that the union's philosophy had become antiquated in the face of a serious internal threat.

You wanted him to concede, relent, acknowledge. But he never did. He never backed down, but at times, maybe he should have. Mistakes were made along the way, mistakes that an entire generation of players -- the players from the steroids era, many who didn't participate -- will pay for forever with a tarnished legacy.

But nobody could say that Don Fehr failed to do his job as he saw it. As much as we wanted him to be an advocate for baseball, Fehr instead tirelessly represented his clients, the players of the union.

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