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LABOR WATCH: 2 DAYS TO THE PLAYERS' STRIKE DATE

Reputations Are Riding on Outcome

August 28, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig arrives in New York today to join labor talks that have turned so desperate, boxed in by Friday's strike deadline, that the players union actually requested his presence.

But is Selig riding to the rescue, or riding in with a monkey wrench?

As a baseball season sits in the balance, with some teams already revising travel plans in anticipation of a walkout Friday, it has become clear that this latest impasse is about more than revenue sharing and payroll taxes and player give-backs.

This is about Selig, small-market owner and major league commissioner, digging in and striking a blow for the little guys, his long-standing kin, along with the big guys, who have grown desperate trying to break out of a 30-year slump at the negotiating table.

This is about Donald Fehr, the head of the Players Assn., who learned his chops at the side of Marvin Miller, the Babe Ruth of sports union leaders, and knows his mentor is still out there on the sideline, watching and waiting to see what Fehr does with the back end of a 30-year winning streak.

This is about legacy and reputation and how the sports and business writers of the future will look back on this sparring session between longtime adversaries late in the summer of 2002.

This is about history.

Or, in the view of former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, possibly too much of it.

Vincent, who preceded Selig and was forced out in 1992 after an owners uprising spearheaded by Selig, said he believes there will be a strike after Friday's deadline passes "because I don't think these two guys can really make a deal.

"It's very hard for them. They have a lot of history. People see this as Selig's big negotiation--he controlled the negotiations for 25 years, he ran the [Player Relations Committee] for a long time and never had any success whatsoever. I think it's going to be very hard, in his eyes, to fail again."

Fehr, on the other hand, is heading a team that has never known anything but success. Baseball has had eight work stoppages since 1972, but after each of them, the players returned to the field without having made a single major concession. The baseball players union is riding one of the greatest dynasties in the history of professional sports--and Fehr has been entrusted with preserving it and nurturing it, even if the landscape is almost unrecognizable from Miller's heyday in the 1970s.

"I think this time it's much more complicated," Vincent said. "Baseball is really sick, so for the first time, I think Fehr is going to make really significant concessions. That might be perceived by some as a loss--and I think that's the problem here. It's viewed in terms of wins and losses and not in terms of a partnership.

"It's hard to imagine Selig and Fehr sitting down and saying, 'We have to trust each other, we have to work together, we've got to build this for baseball. The two of us have to do something discontinuous and very smart.'

"This isn't going to happen. There's too much history and they don't trust each other."

Selig and Fehr go back 25 years, to 1977, when Miller hired Fehr as general counsel for the Players Assn. and Selig was an eager overachiever within the ranks of baseball ownership. Once considered a hero in Milwaukee for airlifting the Brewers out of Seattle to replace the already-departed Braves, Selig enjoyed that buzz, but found it fleeting. He wanted more, so he threw himself into good-for-the-game projects that included heading the Player Relations Committee, which meant many long hours staring across a table at Fehr, who replaced Miller as executive director of the union in 1983.

The climb continued into the early 1990s, when Selig, believing Vincent as commissioner was too conciliatory to the players, lobbied his fellow owners for a no-confidence vote and finally got it in September 1992, leading to Vincent's resignation. Selig replaced Vincent as "acting commissioner," an interim gig that lasted nearly six years--including the 232-day strike of 1994-95--until he was elected "permanent commissioner" in 1998.

From there, the reputations of Selig and Fehr went their separate ways. While Fehr could count his successes as tangibly as his constituents counted their millions, Selig flailed about as if he had a public-relations death wish: announcing his plans to eliminate several teams within days of the most exciting World Series in years, being mocked by Gov. Jesse Ventura in front of Congress, getting booed at home in Milwaukee after calling off a tied All-Star game when both teams ran out of pitchers in the 11th inning.

Heading into these latest negotiations, Fehr versus Selig was billed in the media as a marquee mismatch: the class valedictorian against the class clown. If Selig had grown tired of hearing it, this, at last, was his chance to do something about it.

Selig knows he will make his legacy with these negotiations. And legacy, in Miller's estimation, is a major concern of Selig's.

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