x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A Fehr legacy for the players' union

While Donald Fehr's legacy will never match that of Marvin Miller, who helped usher in free agency in the mid-1970s, it is difficult to overstate his impact on the game and its players.

For most baseball fans, the announcement that Donald Fehr, the executive director of the Players' Association, would be soon retiring was likely met with one of two responses: "Good riddance'' or a shrug of indifference. Indeed, most fans probably view Fehr with some contempt, blaming him for everything from work stoppages to soaring ticket prices - and everything in-between.

If Fehr was a villain to most fans, it never seemed to bother him. He didn't apologise for representing his constituents and advocating for their best interest, a job he did, almost without exception, exceedingly well. While Fehr's legacy will never match that of Marvin Miller, who helped usher in free agency in the mid-1970s, it is difficult to overstate his impact on the game and its players. When Fehr took over the PA in 1984, the players' average salary was US$329,000 (Dh1.2m); this season, that figure has increased to $3.3million.

Similarly, the major league minimum also increased by 10 times in that time span, from $40,000 to $400,000. The increase, Fehr argued, was only appropriate given the enormous economic strides the game made in that quarter century. In 2008, Major League Baseball enjoyed revenues of approximately $6.5billion, so it was only fitting that the sport's labour force partake in that economic prosperity. And while a number of work stoppages took place on his watch, including one which began in 1994 and went into 1995, forcing the cancellation of the 1995 World Series, Fehr would offer few regrets about the union's tough stance.

It should be noted, too, that since that last strike, baseball has enjoyed 13 years of labour peace, a longer period of tranquillity than the NHL or NBA. And with talk of a pending lockout next year for the NFL, baseball could soon find itself as the sport with the longest period of uninterrupted labour harmony among the four major American sports. Imagine. Not that Fehr's track record is spotless. For too long, he resisted any suggestion that steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs had become prevalent in the game. And he relentlessly fought testing of the players, even as many of them complained they were being unfairly tarnished by those who elected to cheat.

For Fehr, the matter was one of civil liberties and despite the clamour, he resisted calls for testing, arguing that it was an unnecessary invasion of privacy. With the benefit of hindsight, Fehr's constituents would have been better off if the scourge of steroids had been removed earlier, before reputations were tarnished and health was compromised. Eventually, when the membership signalled it was time to implement some sort of testing programme to rid the game of PEDs and protect the innocent, Fehr acquiesced.

He was never consumed by his public perception, and, worse, to some, never professed his love for the game. Fehr was anything but a romantic when it came to baseball. Let others prattle on about history and nostalgia and warm fuzzy memories of childhood - Fehr had more tangible interests. It could be argued that, over the last 30 or so years, the Major League Baseball Players' Association was the most successful union in America - not just among the major sports, but among all unions. Great gains were made and when it came time to battle in the legal arena, the union routinely drubbed the owners.

Michael Weiner, one of Fehr's assistants in the Players' Association, is the long-rumoured choice to be appointed as his successor. Weiner is respected within the industry and well-liked on both sides of the labour divide. If he wants to be as good in the post as Fehr was, however, he had better get accustomed to being a villain. It goes with the territory. smcadam@thenational.ae