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June 24, 2009
On the Beat
Don Fehr is a hard person to like. In my dealings with him over the years, I've found him to be aloof, condescending, and downright cold. At the same time, he is brilliant, dogged, and extremely loyal. And if I were ever a member of a labor union or trade association, I would want him representing me at the bargaining table.
On Monday Fehr announced that he is stepping down as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association after 27 years on the job. The 61-year-old plans to leave by no later than next March, and will likely be replaced by Michael Weiner, the third-highest ranking official in the MLBPA as its general counsel. The blue jeans-wearing Weiner's ascension is pending the approval of the MLBPA's executive board, and it is expected to be a rubber stamp since he is Fehr's choice as successor. "I had an extraordinary opportunity, and I hope I was a credit to the organization, and I hope the players believe they were better off for my having been here than not," said Fehr. "To the extent that we've had success over this period of time, and I think we have, the responsibility rests primarily with the membership."
Both Fehr's supporters and his detractors, however, know that is not entirely true. Fehr has always been in control of the MLBPA, and he had a way of keeping dissident players in line, including never holding any private votes to determine such matters as whether or not to strike. His preference for a show-of-hands vote ensured the constituency would do what he wanted by way of peer pressure.
It's not that Fehr's methods didn't work. The average annual player salary was $289,000 when Fehr replaced Marvin Miller, the MLBPA's original executive director and the man who gained many basic rights for the players. It is now at $2.9 million.
Fehr also fought the owners through two lockouts and the 242-day players' strike that wiped out the 1994 postseason and nearly saw the 1995 season begin with replacement players. In the end, the MLBPA won each time, refusing to cede to the owners' demands for such concessions as a salary cap or the elimination of the salary arbitration system. "The one thing about Don, is that he never backed down on his principles," said former major league shortstop Jay Bell, who was part of the MLBPA executive board during the strike. "The strike was a very difficult thing to go through, but he fought for what we all believed in. He never gave in to the pressure of just making a deal because he knew it wouldn't have been good for the players or baseball in general."
Depending on who is doing the interpreting, Fehr is most often blamed for what has become known as baseball's steroids era, which hit its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mark McGwire broke the single-season home-run record in 1998 when he hit 70, surpassing the 37-year-old mark held by Roger Maris, and McGwire did it while being chased by Sammy Sosa, who finished with 66. Three years later, Barry Bonds belted 73 home runs and finished his career in 2007 with an all-time record 762. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds have all been implicated as having used performance-enhancing drugs.
Fehr's critics say that he fought the owners for too long over drug testing, before finally giving in on the matter during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement in 2002. "I was comfortable with the decisions we made at the times we made them," Fehr said. "We were often criticized because we seemed to pay attention to the privacy and other kinds of issues which runs through this kind of a matter, and I'm confident that taking those things into account was the right thing to do. Other people can say what they want to say. I didn't represent any other constituency except the players."
Indians general manager Mark Shapiro has always maintained that his relationship with manager Eric Wedge is more like a business partnership. However, there is a growing sense that the partnership is on the verge of being dissolved, and it might not be Shapiro's decision.
Indians president Paul Dolan made it clear to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes that he is unhappy about his team's 30-42 record and last-place standing in the American League Central. He did not give a vote of confidence to Wedge, and he made it seem as if Shapiro's job may also jeopardy. "The fact that some people think they're a package deal doesn't mean they're a package deal," Dolan said. "They're a general manager and manager, just like they have on any other club."
Dolan and his father Larry, the principal owner of the Indians, plan to meet with Shapiro in the near future. The discussions could become quite interesting. "We are concerned about the direction of the team, but we are not going to make any rash decisions," said Dolan. "Periodically, we sit down and talk about the state of the team. Mark makes suggestions that we either accept or reject."
The Indians were swept by the Cubs over the weekend, and there was some thought that Wedge was probably going to be fired after Tuesday night's game against the Pirates at PNC Park if his team had failed to hold a 5-0 lead in the ninth inning. The Pirates rallied with four runs before Cleveland closer Kerry Wood got Adam LaRoche to fly out with the bases loaded to end the game.
Dolan declined to evaluate Wedge's performance. "In terms of individual performance, I won't comment on that," said Dolan. "We have a process we go through. It hasn't begun. It starts with meeting with Mark."
While Wedge is keeping a positive attitude, the strain of losing and of having his job security questioned is showing. Wedge looked weary while meeting with reporters before Tuesday night's game, and even more so after the Indians escaped with the victory. "It's been one of those seasons," Wedge said. "Not a lot has gone right."
The Pirates' approach to building an offense became quite apparent earlier this month when they traded center fielder Nate McLouth, their home-run leader both last season and this year, to the Braves, and then called up speedy leadoff-hitting prospect Andrew McCutchen from Triple-A Indianapolis to replace him.
The Pirates are going to the small-ball approach. There are a number of reasons why it is attractive, none more than the fact that power hitters cost a lot of money, and that's something the penny-pinching Pirates don't like to deal with. While general manager Neal Huntington is a sabermetrics guy at heart, and a believer that power and patience is what makes an offense tick, he is being forced to sing a different tune because of the makeup of his roster. The Pirates have just two players who have ever hit as many as 20 home runs in a major league season; first baseman Adam LaRoche and four-corner bench player Eric Hinske. "Sometimes we can get caught up in home runs," said Huntington. "We love power, don't get me wrong, but not at the expense of athleticism. We love power, but we believe in the bat over power. We believe in the base hit over power."
The Pirates, following the example of the Rays last season, have concentrated on improving their team defense. That was a large part of the reason why they traded McLouth and are playing light-hitting Nyjer Morgan in the traditional power spot of left field. "We've got to find balanced players, especially with the big center and left fields at PNC Park," Huntington said. "Most teams can just throw a guy in left field and live with it. We need our left fielder to be athletic. Run production is important, but so is run prevention. We want to have a balance."
When spring training began, Tigers manager Jim Leyland promised that the fact he was in the last year of his contract would not become a distraction. He lived up to his word, and now it definitely won't be a distraction; the Tigers signed him to a two-year, $8 million extension last weekend that keeps him under contract through 2011.
There was a growing sense that this would be Leyland's last season, as his once close relationship with president/general manager Dave Dombrowski had shown signs of deteriorating last year when a team who many felt would win the World Series finished at 74-88. Owner Mike Ilitch, however, has been a staunch supporter of Leyland, and he rewarded his club's skipper with the Tigers now leading the AL Central. "I've always maintained that if Jim has that burning fire, he's as good as any manager in the game," said Dombrowski. "We've had some ups and we've had some downs as a ballclub, but we come to play every day."
Leyland had conceded that an extension would not come during the season, and he said that he was surprised when Dombrowski dropped by his office. The deal was consummated in less than 15 minutes. "I was totally shocked, because I haven't talked about this," Leyland said. "In spring training some people asked me some questions about it. I said I won't talk, and I didn't, but I can't help what people write."
Scouts' views of various major league players:
Three series to watch this weekend, with probable starting pitchers (all times Eastern):