While Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Sammy Sosa have recently shared the spotlight of The Steroid Era, the man who perhaps held the most influence over this dark period for the national pastime announced his upcoming retirement on Monday.
Though Donald Fehr never swung a bat or hurled a fastball toward home plate, he served as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association for nearly 26 years, holding far more power and influence on the game than Barry Bonds or Sosa rewriting the record books.
Make no mistake; Fehr did his job exceedingly well, leading the most powerful union in professional sports for nearly three decades. It was never his job to be an ambassador for baseball or to maintain the integrity of the sport. Fehr dedicated himself to gaining whatever he could for the union, regardless of the long-term effect on the game or even his own players.
Succeeding Marvin Miller, the greatest union leader in the history of professional sports, was not an easy task, but Fehr proved to be a shrewd negotiator and furthered the progress made by Miller in the 1970s.
He will be remembered for leading the players in the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series for the first time in 90 years, but Fehr still celebrates the collective bargaining agreement signed in 1995 that gave virtually nothing to the owners who were seeking a salary cap and radical change.
It should also be noted that the union leader helped to negotiate CBA deals in 2002 and 2006, bringing 16 years of uninterrupted baseball by the time the current agreement expires in 2011.
But The Steroid Era will be the overwhelming umbrella under which Fehr will be remembered. Baseball’s gargantuan problem with performance enhancing drugs started with its leadership: commissioner Bud Selig, the owners, and union leader Fehr.
Despite numerous whispers and rumblings about steroid use in baseball, Fehr dragged his feet on drug testing for years, citing how it would be a violation of players’ privacy. The fact that this put honest players in an impossible predicament meant little to Fehr if it protected some of the major stars of the game.
Even after the late Ken Caminiti dropped the bombshell of how rampant steroid use was in 2002, the union only agreed to trial testing—which players would even know about ahead of time—in spring training of 2003 to determine if there was a problem before a formal testing policy would be implemented. Even after the trial testing provided 104 names that failed drug tests, the new policy was little more than a band-aid for a problem that required major surgery. It took Jose Canseco, BALCO, and Congressional hearings for the current, stiffer policy to finally be established.
In Fehr’s defense, the owners weren’t exactly howling at the moon to institute tougher penalties either, but the blame must be shared by all. The owners and union both closed their eyes to a problem that continues to blacken the integrity of the game as another name is leaked or another disgraced star becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame.
How ironic it is that the same privacy cited by Fehr while fighting against drug testing for years was subsequently violated with his union’s failure to destroy the list of 104 players failing confidential tests in 2003—the very list that contained the names of Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa.
Fehr chose to protect his tainted stars at the expense of the players facing the dilemma of being at a competitive disadvantage or joining others who were cheating. As a result, we witness an era in which any and all players performing at a high level are questioned about their training methods.
While Fehr was simply doing what he thought was best for the players he represented, he failed to view the long-term effects on the game of baseball and his own players who are now placed under scrutiny—whether justified or not.
Fehr’s retirement is another step in the long healing process, as one of the figureheads for The Steroid Era rides off into the sunset, leaving behind a mess that will not be cleaned up anytime soon.