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Throughout the ballroom at Miami's Doral Resort and Country Club, foreheads begin to wrinkle. Appetites fade. Not a single face is creased with the hint of a smile. It can mean only one thing: Donald Fehr, against both his wishes and his better judgment, is giving a welcoming address to a room full of people he has no desire to meet.
The occasion is the first Major League Baseball Players Association-Comic Relief fund-raising dinner, the proceeds from which benefit pediatric health care for low-income and homeless children around the country. Charity, like politics, makes strange bedfellows, and none could be stranger than Fehr and Comic Relief. His words to this Feb. 5 assemblage are brief and serious, his delivery unsmiling. We've seen this look before—on ESPN, in the newspapers. We've seen it when Fehr's announcing a players' strike. When he's discussing a lockout. When he's filing a lawsuit on behalf of his millionaire constituency. Was Tom Landry ever this unrelentingly serious? Was Cyrus Vance? Was Moses?
Duty done, Fehr exits the stage without an attempt at a quip.
Actor-comedian Robert Wuhl (Bull Durham, Batman) is the next speaker. The room is dead. There is nowhere to go but up. "I don't know how you can follow Donald Fehr as far as comedy goes," says Wuhl as Fehr makes his way back to his seat, "but you folks better laugh or, I swear, I'll bring him back."
The 44-year-old Fehr, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), never asked for any of this. For Fehr—a private man, reclusive when possible, even antisocial—the ultimate fantasy is to sit on a beach by himself and read without interruption. "The more you're around me, the more you'll find that 99 percent of the time I talk about things other than sports," he says.
The simple act of pouring cream into coffee elicits a brief lecture from Fehr on the physics of deterministic chaos. And should you be wondering, the book on his bedside table is a philosophical investigation of mathematics entitled Pi in the Sky. Because of his 55- to 70-hour workweeks, Fehr figures he has time for only 150 books a year, not half the number he would like to bury his face in annually. Books about physics. Books about history. Biographies (not of athletes, of course).
Speeches? Jokes? What Fehr disdainfully calls "meet-and-greet" social functions? He would sooner be stretched on a rack. "What's critical is to know your constituency," Fehr says. "Not whether you get along well in a party socially, which I can't. Yesterday I called to get an airplane ticket, and the reservationist asked me if I was that Don Fehr. Next thing I know, he's asking where to stay during spring training. All I wanted was a ticket. I hate being recognized."
Yet recognized he is, as the head of the most visible and, arguably, most accomplished labor union in the country. Fehr was drafted to the role of executive director of the MLBPA in 1983 when he was 35. He has served his constituency with distinction. At the expense of baseball's ownership, Fehr has garnered favorable judgments from arbitrators on such issues as mandatory drug testing and the owners' collusion against free agents. (He is in the process of distributing some $300 million in collusion awards from three separate cases, involving the 1985, '86 and '87 seasons.) Since 1981, when the Topps trading-card monopoly was overturned in court, Fehr has negotiated agreements with baseball-card companies that have resulted in a licensing bonanza for the MLBPA, with revenues soaring from $2 million a year in '81 to $70 million in '92. Under Fehr's leadership baseball players continue to enjoy a liberal free-agency system and an average salary that topped $1 million last year.
All of which makes Fehr justifiably proud, if not exactly giddy with mirth. The work is rewarding. It's the office of executive director that Fehr hates. "I don't do any work anymore," he says. "I go to meetings, talk on the telephone and conduct interviews. That's the nature of being an executive in America. You have to rely on other people to do something you used to do yourself."
While such a statement does not leave the listener rolling in the aisle, it is an excellent example of Fehrian humor: dry, acerbic, a touch cynical. He likes, for instance, to tell the story about a reporter who misunderstood a discussion of whether Fehr has a photographic memory. (He doesn't.) "It came out that I had a 'photogenic' mind," Fehr says. "People in the office started running around taking pictures of my ears."