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Fehr's tenure has had ups, downs

Fehr's tenure has had ups, downs

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The ground outside the Rye Brook, N.Y., resort was covered with a December snow. Inside, intense bargaining between owners and players to end baseball's devastating strike dragged on past midnight.

There was no movement by the players on management's demand for a salary cap, so in the wee hours of that 1994 morning what was union chief Don Fehr to do?

Donald Fehr

Play the piano.

He lived just a nine-iron shot from the resort's grounds, but before leaving, he sat down at the piano in the lobby and played a few melodies. Even members from the owners' bargaining unit, in this bitter battle that would not end until three months later, enjoyed the moment.

For whatever reason, that was the first vignette of Fehr, who'll turn 61 on July 18, that came to mind Monday when I learned he's retiring. It was a side of him most people don't see.

After nearly 24 years at the helm as executive director, Fehr told the Major League Players Association it's time for him to move on. He said he'll step down no later than March 31, 2010.

In several conversations I've had with him over the last few months he's hinted about retiring, but Monday's announcement was unexpected.

"Basically, there came a point in time when I had to consider if I thought it made sense for me and the organization to stay around another two to three years and negotiate the next agreement," he told me Monday night. "The conclusion I finally came to was it probably didn't make a lot of sense. After that, the decision was easy."

The current contract with management, which has provided baseball with 16 years of labor peace, expires December 2011.

I've spent hundreds of hours reporting Fehr's regime -- contentious labor negotiations, including a brief strike in 1985, a 32-day lockout in 1990 and the 1994-95 strike that caused cancellation of the '94 World Series and delayed the opening of the '95 season. That strike lasted 7 1/2 months.

Most recently, it's been steroids.

We've had tremendous disagreements, verbal battles that left me numb. Once, maybe 20 years ago, he wrote a letter to my editor demanding that I not be permitted to cover the union. I was totally opposed to the union's stance that players should not be tested for illegal drugs, i.e. cocaine.

But through it all I have enormous respect for Fehr, even though I'll never agree with some of his strong philosophies. He's one of the most intelligent, articulate men I've ever known.

I mentioned our differences to him Monday and that through it all we've had mutual respect.

"I think so, too," he said.

I can best describe the relationship between the union and owners throughout the years as one in which neither side trusted the other.

No matter what the issue, grievance or debate, the union would not give an inch. I believe in the last few years the working relationship has been outstanding. Selig and Rob Manfred, MLB's chief labor lawyer, deserve most of the credit, but Fehr, too, has mellowed, realizing that it's in everyone's best interest to work together as baseball prospers.

There will be two sides to Fehr's legacy.

First, for much of his tenure he arguably was the most powerful person in baseball. He was unrelenting in making gains for the players. The average salary rose from $369,000 to nearly $3 million during his tenure.

But above that he was able to create solidarity among his constituents. Even during the most stressful moments, when players were losing tremendous sums of money during work stoppages, he kept them together.

There was efficient continuity within union leadership.

Until Bud Selig became firmly entrenched as Commissioner, ownership lacked that. A good example was during the 1994-95 strike. The owners had three different chief negotiators, beginning with Dick Ravitch, followed by Chuck O'Connor and finally Randy Levine, who consummated the ultimate deal.

In March 1995, when the National Labor Relations Board, at Fehr's request, obtained an injunction to restore the work rules, the two sides went before U. S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor in New York.

I remember reporting that proceeding, which essentially ended the strike, on how ill-prepared management's legal team was. If memory serves Sotomayor, who has been nominated by President Obama for the Supreme Court, dressed down one of management's attorneys.

Fehr was at his best when he battled the owners over collusion involving the 1985-87 offseasons, when free agents were not signed or given reasonable offers. An arbitrator ruled the owners were guilty, and it cost MLB $280 million.

The second side of Don Fehr's legacy involves steroids.

He had enormous opposition to drug testing and anti-doping policies.

He reluctantly agreed to reopen the current Collective Bargaining Agreement twice (2004-2005), but had there not been tremendous pressure from Congress and many of his players, who insisted on a level playing field, I doubt the union would have ever approved the much tougher current program.

There will always be that shadow over him that he and the union did not act fast enough to rid baseball of performance-enhancing drugs.

Once, during a conversation in Spring Training, I talked about year-round mandatory random drug testing.

Fehr talked about civil liberties and said "how would you like to be sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner when somebody knocks on your door and tells you you're being tested. That's an invasion of privacy."

Fehr would not budge, however, on eliminating the designated hitter, and led the union in a strong stand when MLB tried to contract (eliminate) two teams.

This spring, several owners, many of whom are new to the game, have openly discussed the need for a salary cap.

In these stressful economic times, their arguments make sense.

But the first thing I thought of was there's no way that'll ever get past Don Fehr.

Opposing a cap -- and making certain it didn't happen -- is a huge part of his legacy. Right or wrong.

So where does he go from here?

"I'll be around here beginning to take it easy for a few months and then I will gaze from afar," he told me.

He sounded at peace with himself.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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