Missing baseball's Belanger

October 19, 1998|By Donald M. Fehr

AFTER a long bout witth cancer, former Oriole Mark Belanger died Oct. 6. I need not describe Mark's ability to play the game; we all know of the amazing skill, grace and finesse with which he played. But as much as Mark was a credit to the game on the field, his contributions off the field to his fellow players likely will not be matched.

He was a central figure in the Major League Baseball Players Association for more than a quarter of a century. Mark's combination of knowledge, determination, spirit and experience was without equal.

He made a point of frequently reminding me that our job was to educate and represent the players. He always told me to appeal to the players' better instincts. I have tried to follow that advice.

A player's player

Mark had been in the big leagues for a decade when I first met him in the summer of 1977, when I became general counsel under Marvin Miller, then executive director of the players' association.

Mark was one of the most involved and interested players, and he took pains to make sure that I understood how the players felt. Early in his career, Mark had been elected the Orioles' alternate player representative, and he attended the 1972 executive board meeting at which the first baseball players' strike was called.

Later, he became the Orioles' player representative and was elected by the executive board to the Major League Baseball Players Benefit Plan board, a position that he held until his death.

I grew very close to Mark during the 1980-81 negotiations, including the 50-day strike, when he was a member of our jTC negotiating committee. Mark was determined that the players not knuckle under to the owners' demand to dismantle free agency, even though he knew his career was nearly over and that he would not benefit from any agreement that was reached.

What mattered to him was doing what was best for all the players. Mark played just one more year.

Mr. Miller also retired at the end of the 1982 season.

In an unprecedented move, the executive board directed that Mark be offered a position on the staff, which he accepted in April 1983. His mandate was simple and direct: Make sure that those who follow Mr. Miller keep things in order. In essence, he was to be the eyes and ears of the players. No higher accolade could have been given to him; no greater trust could he have enjoyed.

The players' trust was well-placed. For the next 15 years, Mark participated in every significant activity of the association. He was a central figure in the negotiations of 1985, 1990 and 1994-95.

On the job

He assisted in planning for players' individual contract negotiations and salary arbitrations. He was responsible for putting together our initial computer programs to cross-match player service, statistics and salaries.

He was always on the phone or visiting players, answering questions and seeing what issues were surfacing. In addition, he carried a very large administrative load. He believed fiercely that players were entitled to and must receive the very best representation possible.

The baseball players association has been influenced far more by Mark Belanger than by any other player. For more than 25 years, he was front and center, doing what had to be done. He asked for and expected the very best from himself and others.

Mark's death leaves a hole that will be difficult to fill. All players -- former, current and future -- are in his debt.

Donald M. Fehr is executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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