Tuesday June 23rd, 2009

After more than a quarter of a century of serving as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and on his way out the door, Donald Fehr still marveled at what he called the "freedom" of the position. What other lawyer or labor leader, he said, is given the power "to get to do what you think is the right thing to do." It is a union not run by the rank and file, but by its executive director, "as long as you make a reasonable case for doing what you think is the right thing to do," Fehr said.

It is a powerful responsibility, and one Fehr exercised well, always guided by what he believed to be in the best interests of all those ballplayers who gladly ceded operational and philosophical control to him. The way Fehr spoke in gratitude about this "freedom" yesterday, as he announced his pending retirement, he unintentionally put a spotlight on his personal responsibility for The Steroid Era, one of the darkest and most fraudulent eras in baseball history.

Fehr did his job too well. He used his "freedom" to help preserve the status quo, which was to allow baseball and its record book to be decided by which great ballplayers used the best chemists and the best drugs, and to push the clean players of his union to either cheat or be competitively disadvantaged. Even now, with the reputations of most of the greatest players of a generation ruined, Fehr leaves with little contrition. Indeed, he could hardly even speak the word "steroid," at one point yesterday coming to a halt when anybody else would have said simply "steroid testing," then proceeding with the euphemism "this kind of matter."

Moreover, consider his answer when asked about That Which Cannot Be Spoken:

"If we, I, had known or understood what the circumstances were a little better, then perhaps we would have moved sooner," he said.


If we, I, had known ... ?

Of course he knew what was going on. As I reported with Joe Torre in The Yankee Years, Rick Helling, a union executive board member, told Fehr as far back as 1998, and in each subsequent year, he had a huge steroid problem on his hands. By 2000, baseball sources were estimating in print that anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the players, and most of the best players, were using steroids. By 2001, Major League Baseball instituted a minor-league steroid testing policy. By February 2002, MLB presented to the union as part of negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement a 10-page, single-spaced proposal to ban steroids and amphetamines and to test players three times a year.

And still Fehr didn't know? The owners' proposal was shoved aside. (To be fair, the owners did not sell it urgently enough.) Union officials had been telling people for at least three years that they weren't even sure steroids helped the performance of players. (And they were using because they ... what? Tasted good?) They also claimed, with great moral high ground, steroid testing would be a violation of the players' "privacy."

But then I talked to former Most Valuable Player Ken Caminiti in May of 2002 about steroids, and he was the first player to publicly admit he and the game were juiced. Not only did he use steroids, Caminiti told me, but also they worked amazingly well and he had no regrets about using them because steroids were an accepted way of life in the big leagues. For his honesty, Caminiti was harshly scolded by union officials. When I asked Alex Rodriguez the same questions then -- a Rodriguez we now know also was juicing at the time -- he invited me to his hotel suite and gave me elaborate, poorly acted lines about how, gee whiz, he didn't even know there were steroids in baseball or what they did.

The public pressure was so great after Caminiti's honesty, Fehr suddenly dropped the Gibraltar position of the "privacy" issue and two months later consented to a drug-testing agreement with the owners. Ah, but even then there was a dodge. First, the union decided, it would have to find out if a steroid problem even existed! This was at least five years into raging use throughout the game, mind you. Baseball would test the players in spring training -- announced testing! -- and if more than five percent of the tests came back positive, then a toothless steroid testing policy would be put in place. It was such a laughingstock of a policy that the American Swimming Coaches Association petitioned the U.S. Olympic Committee to throw Fehr off its board.

But when I looked back on my notes from those days, I also found this from a veteran player close to negotiations: the owners, he said, "came to us and basically said, 'Come up with something to make this [image problem] go away.' Let's face it, they like all the home runs. This is a small step forward, but it's not going to change a whole lot."

The blame is shared, just as you would expect from a fraud of this magnitude.

Of course, not enough players could stay off the juice and the problem didn't go away. The game thankfully did change a whole lot, though after Caminiti it still took Jose Canseco, the BALCO bust, Congress and the Mitchell Report to drag it forward.

The problem for Fehr, as goes his legacy, is that the era was too corrupt and his responsibility too great for steroids not to diminish his brilliance as a director and negotiator. Remember, owners must have taken him for a lightweight when he replaced Marvin Miller in December 1983, because it wasn't long afterward that they hatched a plan to collude on artificially suppressing salaries. Fehr nailed them on it, winning a $280 million judgment.

When that didn't work, the owners tried to unilaterally impose new working conditions in 1995 -- salary cap, replacement players and the like -- after claiming to have negotiated to impasse during a players' strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series. That didn't fly, either, thanks to a ruling from Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and soon Fehr whipped them again, essentially giving the owners nothing from their hardline, costly position.

Fehr regarded that post-strike CBA as his proudest achievement, saying, "It was a very satisfying end to say that the players got through it, they got through it in one piece and regardless of what it took to get there, they got a very good agreement."

Such pride sounded odd, given the strike's cost and especially considering that Fehr could have chosen the CBAs from 2002 and 2006, the only ones in baseball labor history to come about without a work stoppage, the latter without even the threat of one. Indeed, Fehr's greatest achievement is that with Bud Selig he helped bring about 16 uninterrupted years of labor peace (through 2011, when the current CBA expires), and despite the myths you have heard about Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, this peace has done more to grow the game than anything else. But in the spirit of Miller's union, Fehr appreciated his war, his purple heart.

Truth is, Fehr's ballplayers don't have either the stomach or need for militancy that Miller's rank and file did. In that sense, Fehr's job has been harder. He doesn't have the hammer of history. Indeed, one could argue -- and Miller has been critical himself here of Fehr -- that the pendulum has swung again.

As Fehr leaves, the minimum salary for a major-league player is 16 percent less than what it is for an NHL player, despite baseball easily trumping hockey in total revenue. Player salaries haven't kept up with revenues, meaning players are getting a smaller slice of the revenue pie than they did a decade ago. The two highest paid players in the game this year, Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, have been identified in the past five months as drug cheats, more kindling on the bonfire of ruined reputations. Rodriguez, in fact, would have skated through his years of steroid use if his union had destroyed the 2003 test samples as quickly as possible, as was its right, before the feds got their hands on them. For the next two decades the Hall of Fame will go without inducting many of the players with the greatest statistics in the game because The Steroid Era went on too long. No wonder Fehr, at 60, is worn and tired and doesn't have the enthusiasm to negotiate another labor deal.

So giving Fehr his proper due without considering The Steroid Era is like saying the 1919 White Sox were a good team and Pete Rose was a good manager and leaving it at that. There is no distancing from it, just as there is no such relief for Selig, the owners, the players, the media and the fans.

What must be remembered, though, is that Fehr's primary responsibility, despite what fans may think, never was to be a custodian of the game. His job, as legally charged, is to represent the rights of his constituents to the best of ability. He was given amazingly wide berth, that "freedom" he talked about to do what he wished. He truly believed he was doing right by his players by letting the steroid culture run its course, by some ratio of design to ignorance (though more than a dollop of ignorance from such a smart man challenges the imagination). And by his own definition of the job, in which he was thrilled to "get to do what you think is the right thing to do," his personal responsibility is enormous.

Donald Fehr did his job very well, as history will record very well.

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