Playing hardball, calling strikes

August 14, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- There is one thing that you should know about Donald Fehr and Richard Ravitch. No matter the salary, and it would be quite substantial, you do not want to trade places with either of them right now.

Fehr is the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Ravitch is the chief negotiator for the 28 owners who make up the entity known as Major League Baseball. But you already know that.

They have become two of the most recognizable personalities on the planet, and that is a mixed blessing when there are millions of people out there who think of them as the grinches who stole baseball.

"I was in a restaurant the other night with my wife and her daughter," Ravitch said recently, "and a man walked up to us and said, 'There better not be a strike, or else.' I don't know what he meant by 'or else,' but that wasn't much fun."

There is a strike, of course. The players walked out after Thursday's games in an attempt to persuade the owners to abandon the salary cap proposal that has kept baseball's labor dispute in gridlock for months.

Ravitch is the architect of that proposal and the revenue-sharing plan that goes with it. Fehr is the architect of the work stoppage, which means he isn't very popular with the populace, either. But just who are these two men who have spirited away the national pastime and put it in mothballs for what could be the rest of the summer and beyond?

Fehr, the Kansas City lawyer who was swept up by the whirlwind of baseball free agency and deposited in the union hot seat, is going about the business of jousting with management in much the same way he did in 1985 and 1990. Ravitch, a former New York mayoral candidate who was called upon to devise a new economic system for baseball, is taking the approach that made him successful in several other corporate and government roles.

It is not supposed to be personal, but the labor conflict has been tied so closely to its two main combatants that it is perceived as a relatively simple difference of opinion that is complicated by a tremendous battle of egos.

Though there probably is a personality conflict at work, it is not the reason Fehr and Ravitch are at loggerheads over the way players should be paid during the next decade.

Fehr, 46, cut his teeth during the baseball labor revolution of the 1970s, learning at the knee of MLBPA founder Marvin Miller and carrying on with the fight once he became executive director in 1983. The players have made huge gains in the 19 years since Fehr assisted in the ground-breaking Andy Messersmith/Dave McNally free agency case, so he is understandably reluctant to give anything back.

His negotiating style is rooted in the unpleasant history of baseball's labor relationship, a history of which Ravitch has only superficial knowledge.

"I think there was a maturing process during the mid-to-late 1980s, during the drug-testing wars and the early collusion days," said Fehr's brother, Steve, also a lawyer who has worked for the union.

"It was worse than any of this. He was subject to a lot of criticism on the drug-testing issue, though I think he was proven to be right that it wasn't necessary to test everyone. Then, in May of 1987, when [Tim] Raines and [Bob] Boone had to come crawling back to their old teams because of collusion, that was the modern-day nadir of the Players Association. As bad as this is, it wasn't anything compared to that. Having gone through that seems to have molded him."

Ravitch, 61, brings a lot of corporate experience to the table, but he must know by now that the players union is unlike any union he has had to contend with. He was hired in 1990 to put baseball back on a strong financial footing, but he encountered a %J disparate group of 28 owners that was constantly at war with a well-organized and highly unified players association.

Ravitch is clearly more volatile than Fehr -- prone to explosive proclamations that leave him red-faced and frustrated -- but he has tried to steer away from personal rhetoric that might further inflame an incendiary situation.

It is obvious that he has no illusions about going down in history as the man who made the world safe for baseball again. This is just another challenge, perhaps the biggest in a professional career that has also put him in charge of New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, a construction company and a number of New York City commissions.

"I'm not in this for a pat on the back," Ravitch said. "I have been retained by ownership to do something about the economics of the game. I've spent a lot of years as a lawyer and businessman trying to solve problems like this, and I would like to do that for this business."

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