Fehr's unyielding stance could result in sinking of players' union


March 12, 1995|By Buster Olney

If you happened to catch the videotape of the America's Cup boat breaking up in the waves last Sunday, then you have a full understanding of what the Major League Baseball Players Association could be facing in the next three weeks.

The union is in trouble, and unless an agreement is reached in the very near future, its members could start jumping ship to save themselves.

There are no major breaks in the foundation yet. But the cracks are there, manifested in the private, angry words of some players and agents, many of whom think union leader Donald Fehr has stubbornly refused to adjust to the changing circumstances of the negotiations.

"The best thing that could happen now is for Don to walk away," one agent said this week. "I don't know how that can be done gracefully, but a change needs to be made."

Those players who are unhappy won't speak publicly because they don't want to be excoriated, as Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra has been. Agents face the threat of de-certification if they come out against union leadership.

But there is a growing core of unrest, behind-the-scenes backbiting and second-guessing that has, in the past, belonged to the owners.

Among the primary complaints of unhappy players and agents:

* The owners stood fast and refused to collapse, as they have in the past, and union leadership failed to adjust. "As soon as they canceled the World Series, Don should've realized the situation had changed," an agent said. "At that point, he needed to re-think his strategy . . . and start compromising."

A player said, "They needed to figure out a way to get a deal done before spring training."

That could be difficult now, given the current mood of those involved in the negotiations. The Boston Globe today is reporting an incident that has contributed to the animosity between the owners and players. Owners Jerry McMorris and John Harrington are furious that contents of a conversation with union official Steve Fehr -- a conversation the owners considered to be off the record -- appeared in a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board.

* The union's terrible public relations. In February, Eugene Orza, Donald Fehr's top lieutenant, reportedly referred to mediator William J. Usery as "senile," which Orza has since denied in union meetings. Orza also stumbled over the can't-win issue of whether managers, coaches and trainers would remain eligible for benefits during the strike, and was quoted as saying he couldn't wait for replacement games to begin.

The union also compromised much of its support in Congress by its cavalier attitude when President Clinton was trying to end the strike.

"No matter what they do," said an agent, "they come off as outrageously arrogant."

* Fehr repeatedly has stated the owners have planned for years to break the union, that they've had no intention of making the deal. Why then, did the union leadership recommend that the players go on strike Aug. 12 of last year, rather than play out the season?

* The union leadership has, in the eyes of many agents, inexplicably allowed Steve Howe's return to the New York Yankees camp, where Howe is working out. Howe is a client of agent Dick Moss. Moss is the former employer of Steve Fehr, now a union official.

"Why would they do that for a guy who's been busted for drugs seven times?" one agent said. "How can they justify that? If this isn't a clear conflict of interest, I don't know what is."

Fehr's last best hope rests with the NLRB, which is expected to rule on the union's claim that the owners are guilty of unfair labor practices. If the NLRB rules against the owners and recommends an injunction, Fehr and the union will hold the high ground.

But if the NLRB doesn't give the union a favorable ruling and a recommendation for an injunction -- and the rumor floating around Palm Beach this week was that the NLRB wants to avoid a pivotal role in this mess -- the union will be dead in the water. Fehr won't have the immediate negotiating leverage he needs, and the owners have the option of sitting back and watching the union fall apart.

The owners seemed to understand this at their meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., last week.

"[The owners] are definitely strutting around here," said one executive involved in the meetings. "They think they've got the union on the run."

That echoed a sentiment from an agent: "What Don needs to do now is realize that a bad deal is better than no deal, because if he waits too long and some players start crossing over, the owners will have absolutely no reason to negotiate . . . and the union, as we know it, will be finished."

Another agent, considered a moderate, said he has informally polled his peers and found that at the very least 800 players stand solidly behind the union.

The way things are going, Fehr will need each of them.

Ulterior motive?

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