SI Vault
Tom Verducci
September 09, 2002
Baseball's last-minute labor deal was made possible by Donald Fehr's willingness to break with the past
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 09, 2002

Everything To Fehr

Baseball's last-minute labor deal was made possible by Donald Fehr's willingness to break with the past

View CoverRead All Articles

Amid all sorts of predictions before the Aug. 30 strike date, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre nailed it when he said there would be no walkout because the people involved in these negotiations had seen the wreckage caused by the 1994-95 strike, a stoppage that wiped out more games and covered more days than the previous seven shutdowns combined. Torre, reading both sides correctly, sensed that "the need to be right doesn't take precedence over the importance of the game." No one deserves more credit for taking that high road than Donald Fehr, the union's executive director.

"You know this was not the deal Fehr wanted to make," says one American League general manager. "No way." The settlement is, after all, "essentially what the [owners'] Blue Ribbon committee recommended" two years ago, says Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks. The owners got the structure of the deal they wanted, if not the exact numbers (see "Keeping Score," page 78). In a gripping moment of live TV on Friday morning, Marvin Miller, Fehr's iconic predecessor, first scolded ESPN in the manner of an angry journalism professor for passing along a rumor about three teams refusing to strike. Then he criticized the union not just for this deal but also for the one Fehr made in 1995, which included a luxury tax. In Miller's view that's when the players bit into the poison apple.

Fehr deserved better. This is not 1972, when Miller's background with the steel-workers' union enabled him to gain basic rights for the players. But the economic landscape is now so favorable to the players that Fehr realized he had ground to give.

With this deal Fehr moved totally out of the long shadow of the undefeated, unyielding Miller. Owners long suspected that Fehr felt pressure to preserve Miller's ideology and shared what Torre called "the need to be right." That theory, if ever true, holds absolutely no validity today.

"We never wanted to strike and made that clear to Don," one veteran star player said. "If it were left to him, he would have taken us out. But this time I think the players spoke up more than ever. And he listened to us."

Consider steroid testing. Fehr has adamantly opposed any kind of random testing, believing it is un-American to test without cause. The players, wanting to clear their reputations, pushed for testing. Fehr heard them.

Consider the luxury tax. Fehr said as recently as July that "the players are not enamored with a luxury tax. A luxury tax is something which effectively and intentionally penalizes someone for hiring someone." But Fehr gave in on a tax, including one in the pivotal fourth year of the agreement, to get a deal done. His leverage was diminished because he knew that his players did not want to strike over that issue.

This is no longer Miller's union, and it hasn't been for a long time. The players are, on the whole, a sated bunch living a privileged life that has blunted their inclination to fight. Was this the best deal for the union? Of course not. Was it the best deal for baseball? Yes. And Fehr deserves enormous credit for making it happen.