If there were a labor leader Hall of Fame, Don Fehr was headed to a first-ballot, slam-dunk election. But now, as with so many members of his constituency, steroids have reared its ugly headlines and caused his career to be re-evaluated in a new light.
It’s a familiar story in this jaded age of baseball: Superstar performer puts up staggering statistics, only to have his legacy tainted in the waning days of his career by the specter of steroids.
The superstar in this case happens to be Donald Fehr, the long-time executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, who this week announced his pending retirement.
Thus ends, with a whimper rather than a bang, one of the most productive careers in the history of organized labor.
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Faced in 1983 with the daunting task of following legendary union founder Marvin Miller — technically, Fehr followed the brief tenure of Kenneth Moffett, who was the MLBPA’s Phil Bengston to Miller’s Vince Lombardi; but it was the looming presence of Miller that always stood as his standard — Fehr lived up to that task.
Which is to say, he continued Miller’s habit of scoring lopsided victories over the owners at every turn. Strikes. Lockouts. Collusion. Contraction. No matter the issue, the players invariably ended up with more power and more money.
Then, in the past decade, Fehr showed that he could be conciliatory, too. He and Bud Selig worked hard to find enough common ground to forge labor peace over the past decade and a half. The sport is far the better for it.
If there were a labor leader Hall of Fame, Fehr was headed to a first-ballot, slam-dunk election. But now, as with so many members of his constituency, steroids have reared their ugly headlines and caused his career to be re-evaluated in a new light.
Under Fehr’s watch — while the average salary was rising from $289,000 to $3.3 million — performance-enhancing drugs have become the scourge of baseball, undermining credibility, ruining careers, and putting MLB in its sad current state where every statistical upturn (or downturn) is viewed with suspicion.
Yes, it happened under commissioner Selig’s watch, too, and he warrants a hefty slice of the blame. Give a heapin’ helpin’ to those of us in the media who waited too long to ask the hard questions about those rippling muscles and staggering numbers. And, of course, reserve the largest measure of scorn for the players themselves, who ultimately made the decision to ingest and inject.
But Fehr, in viewing drug testing as largely a privacy issue, seemingly failed to grasp until too late that it was also a health issue, and a reputation issue. And that the rank-and-file were eager, if not desperate, for anti-steroids standards that would reduce their temptation to indulge in performance-enhancing drugs merely to keep up with everyone else.
By some accounts, it was the players themselves who rose up to demand that the union accept a strengthened Joint Drug Agreement in the 2002 Basic Agreement, which ushered in the testing era. The testing standards have been gradually improved — grudgingly, to be sure, usually in reaction to the latest scandal — to the point they are no longer derided by steroids experts.
The popular thing to do, as Fehr leaves office, is bash him over his head-in-the-sand steroids stance. And for the blunder of not destroying the 104 positive tests from 2003, as the union had the right to do, but inexplicably didn’t.
That failure has led, by a circuitous route, to damaging revelations about Alex Rodriguez’s and Sammy Sosa’s positive tests, with more bombshells certain to come. The existence of those results, in the hands of people who have shown no reluctance to leak them, ensures that baseball will not easily move past the steroids scandal. Not with a constant stream of new names.
But evaluating the career of a man who put in 25-plus years at his job is not quite so tidy as some have been making it: Declare Fehr a failure because of steroids, and close the book.
Fehr has a legacy of sweeping success in the labor arena that can’t be taken away from him. He was brilliant at his job of fighting for the rights of his constituency, and advancing their financial position to that of unimagined prosperity.
But he also has to live with the murky morass that the steroids era has become. His constituency has undeniably suffered because of it. To think that Fehr had the single-handed power to stop steroids is naïve, if not foolish. But I have to think he could have done more, and done it sooner.
Call it the asterisk in Donald Fehr’s stellar career.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org