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,
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.
Of course he knew what was going on. As I reported with
But then I talked to former Most Valuable Player
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
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
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
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
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
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
So giving Fehr his proper due without considering The Steroid Era is like saying the 1919 White Sox were a good team and
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.