Unfazed by labels of `grinch'

SUN JOURNAL

Labor: With a strike looming, baseball players' union head Donald Fehr is all business even if that means being unpopular with owners and fans.

August 28, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Every time baseball engages in a labor dispute, somebody trots out this line: Major League Baseball has nothing to fear but Fehr himself.

That would be Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Donald Fehr, who - if he really cared - could note that the correct pronunciation of his surname is just as close to "fair" as "fear." But he doesn't care.

Fehr has been cast as the villain in every baseball labor dispute since he assumed the leadership role in the strongest, richest union in professional sports in 1983. He has no time for the touchy-feely public relations work necessary to alter the perception that he is the grinch that is always trying to steal baseball. If you ask him about his image, he will likely use one of his favorite sayings, which he applies to just about everything:

"It is what it is."

He can be icy and superior. He can also be charming and witty, though he almost never allows that side of him to reach the public eye. What he is, day in and day out, is an unflinching defender of the hard-earned gains that his constituency has achieved since the union movement took hold in baseball in the 1970s.

"There are times when his demeanor and personality put people off," says Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who was on the union executive board that appointed Fehr executive director, "but I don't think he really cares. He has a job to do, and he does it."

No one disputes that Fehr has done that well. He learned the collective-bargaining business working as a staff lawyer under baseball labor pioneer Marvin Miller, whose long shadow might explain Fehr's seeming reluctance to be viewed as the guy who is always giving back to the owners.

Miller instituted the system of salary arbitration and free agency - allowing players with six or more years' experience in the major leagues to accept an offer from any team - that is responsible for the salary increases, leading to a 10-year $252 million contract for Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers. It was his work, augmented by a staff of bright, eager young lawyers that included Fehr, that created a series of contractual precedents, which owners have been trying to overturn ever since.

Solid support

Fehr, who grew up in suburban Kansas City, Mo., ascended to the highest position in the union after federal arbitrator Kenneth E. Moffett failed to adequately fill Miller's shoes.

His credibility with the rank and file of the union is rock solid, and his ability to maintain unity among a racially, economically and internationally diverse group of players - many of whom will turn their backs on millions of dollars if the union goes on strike Friday - borders on amazing.

"He's obviously an incredibly intelligent person," says Orioles infielder David Segui, "but he doesn't have the most charismatic personality. He's not the ideal publicity frontman. For that, he gets judged as kind of stiff and stubborn and unrelenting."

He is indeed unrelenting, as a series of ownership bargaining chiefs can attest. Fehr has pushed back several attempts by owners to significantly alter the economic structure of the industry, most notably during the disastrous 232-day work stoppage of 1994-1995.

The owners attempted to impose a limit on teams' total payroll that year, arguing the industry could no longer sustain an average player salary of $1.2 million. Eight years later, management is battling for a luxury tax on high-payroll teams to slow the growth of salaries, which have risen to an average of almost $2.4 million.

Fehr, 54, will not apologize for the salary spiral, saying the players have the right to make whatever they get in a free market, though baseball's idea of a free market includes a minimum salary that soon will rise to $300,000 and a binding salary arbitration system, which may be more responsible than free agency for the meteoric increase in player salaries.

He tends to view the collective bargaining relationship between the players and owners in its entirety, sometimes lecturing the owners during bargaining sessions on the history of baseball labor. Critics say he has turned the union labor philosophy into a religion that trumps any pragmatic view of the economics of the industry.

Fehr counters that the players have made many concessions during the past two decades that run counter to the union philosophy, including a temporary luxury tax that was instituted during the last labor agreement.

"The players association has had philosophical differences with the clubs with respect to most of the core economic issues for the past 36 years," he said last week. "We have made concessions and we haven't liked a lot of those things, but we did it because there was a way to do it that the players could live with."

Each time the collective bargaining agreement has come up for renegotiation during the past two decades, the owners have amplified their claims of financial hardship to support demands for greater restraints on player salaries.

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