Fehr’s Game

The new York Times

July 6, 2009

By Doug Glanville

One day in 2001, I stepped into the elevator of a Dallas hotel to share a ride with two brothers. The conversation was light despite what we were here for — an annual meeting of player representatives throughout major league baseball to sift through innuendos about the drug culture in the game and try to find an accurate picture. When the elevator stopped, the brothers slid out in unison, still exchanging pleasantries with me, an end to a long day of debate and discussion.

Just before the doors closed, one brother jumped back in, having realized he’d gotten off on the wrong floor. As he re-entered the elevator, beyond him I saw the other brother dart past; he had apparently been heading the wrong way down the corridor.

“Doesn’t give you much confidence in the hands you’re in,” said Don Fehr, safely back in the elevator.

Don and his younger brother Steve, a lawyer for the union, have been mainstays of the Major League Baseball Players Association for decades. When Don steps down sometime between now and March 2010 after more than 25 years as the union’s executive director, he will close a chapter on one of the most productive tenures of any union chief.

During those years, players’ salaries were raised tenfold, reaching an average this year of over $3 million. But Don’s most important impact was in the area of employment rights — particularly his successes with defined benefits pension plans, which will provide generations of players support after the end of their careers. After the 1994-95 strike, Don forged ahead by challenging owners in the courts after their questionable approach during collective bargaining. This opened a door that gave all workers a voice against employers who attempt to change wage systems without good-faith negotiations.

Don also helped to usher in free agency. Until his tenure, the game’s monopolistic practices gave teams the right to own players permanently, but he understood the power of the collective and emphasized to the players the importance of working as one. This approach grew considerably more challenging over time, as more stars came of age in an environment where it was easy to believe they’d be better served as individuals.

Don was in a can’t-win situation when it came to the drug policy, and I watched him painstakingly weigh the players’ various opinions about how to deal with it most effectively. He had to fight for privacy rights of his constituents, but by doing that he had to deal with questions about what he was hiding. At times it has seemed nearly impossible to achieve the clean, no-tolerance game everyone wants and expects without instituting Draconian measures and rolling back decades of gains the players have made.

I had the opportunity to see Don in action first-hand. For more than eight years, I was a union representative for the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers — trying to keep dozens of players and staff on the same page — as well as a member of the union’s executive subcommittee. I worked directly with Don.

For Don, the players were always priority number one: help them understand the issues, first and foremost; worry about interviews and press conferences later. It drove him crazy when players learned about union policy changes or the state of current negotiations from the media and not from the baseball family. He wanted this to be a grassroots movement, and his always-dependable jeans-and-sport-coat attire reminded us that it wasn’t about the glitz and glamour. All are welcome, be yourself and keep whatever is said in the room.

In 2002, when the collective bargaining agreement was nearing its expiration, things got heated. My Philadelphia teammate Todd Pratt concluded that the superstars’ issues were getting all the attention, and he stated publicly that the union did not care about the little guys. I was the team rep, so I encouraged Todd to talk to Don directly. After Todd vented at a spring training players association meeting with all the key personnel from the union staff in attendance, Don could have listed a thousand items that countered Todd’s point — such as how they fought for all players in grievance hearings or how they defended the rights of players who crossed the picket line as replacements or how the pension Todd will enjoy in his coming years is a benefit for players from one day of major league service to decades of service — but instead Don simply apologized for not hearing him sooner.

I saw how Don and his staff refused to draw salaries whenever there was a work stoppage, be it by strike or lockout. These moments made him more than just the voice of the players, but one of the players.

Working with Don and his team was a tremendous learning experience. I learned the value of preserving the legacy of those players who came before me who had so much less in the way of freedom and opportunity. Don dispelled the illusion that bigger paychecks and TV ratings means you are free. He may not have gotten that message across to everyone, but it was certainly understood in-house.

The present protects the past for the future.

I had lunch one day with Gary Sheffield and Don in Florida. This was almost 10 years ago. Even then, Don talked about how he was worried that he was losing the connection with the players. After all, he said, his kids “were now older than most of the players I represent.” But Gary seemed to connect with Don at that lunch, maybe seeing in him a vulnerable side like his own, a sense that he is not sure he is understood by others. But Don always took that pulse: Did he still resonate? Was it time for a fresh face to lead the MLBPA into a new era? I guess it was time.

After Don announced his retirement, Marvin Miller, the union leader who preceded him, observed that Don has always had a unique set of challenges. He had to gain consensus with a group of players who now had a lot more to lose economically in the event of a strike, some of whom were industries unto themselves. In Marvin’s time, all the players knew what it was like to play without a union. They understood how it felt being “owned” by a team and having no medical or retirement benefits. When Don took over, few if any players could remember such conditions. Don helped them understand and appreciate how they came to have such advantages, what exactly was at stake, and how this was a movement that would benefit future generations, not only themselves. To accomplish this while keeping everyone on the same page was, according to Miller, “one of Don’s greatest strengths.”

It is easy to make Don Fehr a target representing everything that frustrates us. Anyone perceived as the guy who fought for the rights of millionaires — especially millionaires who get to play baseball for a living — will never get a warm welcome. Yet our entire nation across the economic spectrum has been the beneficiary of his work and the work of the organization he headed for many decades, most often for the better.

So despite Don’s joke on that elevator, the players have been in very good hands, as has any employee who now has a voice in the collective bargaining process. He was more than just a leader of top athletes — he advanced the ball for employments rights for everyone through the power of unity over generations of workers. We have followed much of his work without even knowing it . . . even if following him into an elevator is a bad idea.

New York Times 07/06/2009


Motivational Speaker

Click here to learn more about having Doug speak at your next event!




The Daddy Games

Check out Doug's blog, The Daddy Games.  Click here to read more.