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Reputations Are Riding on Outcome

LABOR WATCH: 2 DAYS TO THE PLAYERS' STRIKE DATE

August 28, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Oh, I think so," Miller said. "This type of man, definitely ... I think that between the two, there's no doubt in my mind that Bud Selig is the more neurotic one about this. Don is far more of a realist than Bud has ever shown."

Baseball writer and historian Leonard Koppett says a victory, or a public perception of a victory, is important "emotionally and psychologically" for the owners in general and Selig in particular.

"Look, he's a human being," Koppett said of Selig. "I'm certain he would rather be admired than castigated. There's no question about that.

"In my judgment, much of the criticism made of him is unfair. He makes a bad public impression, that's true. But that's neither here nor there. The fact is, he isn't making decisions that determine what's going to happen. He's reflecting the decisions of his side, which is what he's supposed to do. The commissioner is the employee of the owners.

"Quite honorably, he's supposed to be putting forth and expressing to the public what the 'owners' position' is, or should be. So to make a monster of him is wrong. And even more so to make a monster out of Fehr, who is even more scrupulous about doing what his constituency wants done. His constituency obviously has a lot more confidence in him than the owners as a group have in Selig.

"Selig is an inappropriate commissioner because he's a club owner himself. That tarnishes his position. But [the owners] did that with their eyes open."

If Selig is driven by the underdog fantasy of rallying a perennial loser to an unlikely victory, Fehr has been charged with the role of bullpen closer. Handed a big lead, he has been told to protect it at all costs, even if the ballpark dimensions are nowhere near as friendly as they were when Miller had the ball.

Of the two assignments, Fehr's could be the most difficult.

"I think Don does feel some pressure to uphold the Miller standard," broadcaster Bob Costas said. "I think part of that pressure is because Don by and large believes the same things--and also because Miller never had to concede anything. Now it's apparent that Fehr is going to have to concede something in this case.

"The enlightened view of that isn't that Fehr would have failed if he has to concede something. It's only stubborn ideologues who would view it that way. He could certainly be a statesman if he steps forward with a plan that wouldn't be just fair to the players but would help improve the game.

"I think the Players Assn. people are generally smarter than the owners. They could probably come up with a better plan. If the measure of success and the measure of enlightened leadership is never giving anything back, then [Fehr] is going to lose. But if the measure is striking a fair deal under the circumstances, he's got a good chance to do that."

Costas said he doesn't believe Fehr "cares about his place in history from a personal standpoint. He's not a guy who thrives on the spotlight, I think. Ideologically, however, he believes that the players' positions, as they were set forth in the '60s, '70s and '80s, are unassailable. And to concede on any of them isn't just a practical business decision, it's an abdication of principle.

"And that makes it very difficult to make a business deal."

Miller says he talks "once or twice a week" with Fehr. Now 85 and nearing the end of his second decade of retirement, Miller still has an active role as sounding board and advisor for Fehr. And, on occasion, he will publicly criticize Fehr for making what he considered an unnecessary concession to the owners.

How does he assess Fehr's performance during this negotiation?

"From the outside, it looks like he has done his best to negotiate, to give some ground, even though I don't think he believes that there's any merit whatsoever to the owner issues," Miller said. "Nevertheless, he's giving them more than the benefit of the doubt, he's moved along and made some concessions and we'll see."

Last weekend seemed to crystallize the Selig-Fehr stalemate, when both sides spoke as if an agreement was imminent, only to wind up scheduling dueling conference calls with the media after the union proposed gradually phasing in increased revenue sharing over the next four years.

With no less than a minor victory in hand, Selig pushed for more and wound up with nothing.

Having made enough concessions for what appeared to be a reasonable agreement, Fehr succumbed to either second thoughts or second-guessing and beat a hasty retreat.

"[Selig] said before this started he wanted his blue-ribbon committee report to be implemented," Vincent said. "Well, there's not a chance in the world that's going to happen. But I think at least before the pullback--that is, before the union said they wanted to phase in the revenue-sharing over four, five years--up until then, I thought Bud had a deal that was pretty attractive.

"I said it was about 30% of what he hoped to get, but 30% that nobody else has had. It was a significant set of concessions, I thought. Now it's changed. And it changes every day."

So there they stand as the strike deadline approaches, Selig and Fehr, polarized by philosophies and constituencies.

And, quite possibly, paralyzed by legacy and history.

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