February 14, 1995 in Sports

Fehr Turns Strike Into Death Watch

John Mcgrath Tacoma News Tribune
 

It was twilight in Pittsburgh, where baseball’s brightest stars and most hallowed household names had converged upon Three Rivers Stadium for the 65th All-Star Game.

A sense of electricity gripped the young night. The newly dedicated monument to Roberto Clemente glistened as tourists used the bronze statue for photo opportunities. Prop planes and choppers and a blimp hovered above the field; in the parking lot outside the ballpark, a dixieland band cooked alongside the tailgaters filling the hot and muggy air with the aroma of grilled sausage.

Now Three Rivers Stadium is nobody’s idea of what Bart Giamatti was wont to call a “green cathedral.” Much like the Seattle Kingdome, it essentially is a football stadium that keeps a calendar commitment to accommodate baseball. But this July evening found Three Rivers in a distinctly festive baseball mood.

And then the press box elevator opened at the private suite level, and Don Fehr walked in, looking as though the parochial school bell had just rung. He was wearing a white dress shirt open at the collar and a blue blazer and gray slacks; he was talking with another man about a faxmachine memo.

With a dixieland band cooking and the Roberto Clemente statue glistening and a blimp hovering in the sky, the centerpiece of Don Fehr’s pitiable little existence was a fax-machine memo.

Some things are destined to ruin the mood. A graphic description of, say, a skin rash will spoil the flavor of a romantic candlelight dinner. Well, Don Fehr walking into an elevator a few hours before an All-Star Game is the equivalent of a skin-rash discussion at dinner.

No sooner did the elevator compartment unload at ground level than Fehr was holding court for reporters on the field. He had to realize this night would be baseball’s last happy dance in the spotlight, but Fehr couldn’t help himself: Acting commissioner Bud Selig was in the house talking on behalf of the owners; no way the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association could be upstaged.

Six months later, I’ve finally figured out what I don’t like about Don Fehr. Beyond, I mean, his chilly eyes and soulless voice and desolate-as-soup-in-a bus-station-vending-machine disposition, there’s something I really don’t like about him, and now I know what is.

He’s a bad sport.

If Fehr were a basketball player, he’d be shaking his index finger over a defender who’d stumbled and fallen. If he were a football player, he’d be pumping his fist and wiggling his hips after a routine tackle.

Fehr, unfortunately, isn’t an athlete whose skills are doomed to wane with age. He is the driving force behind the baseball strike, and he will remain so until somebody - Bill Clinton? Lance Ito? Newt Gingrich? - has the guts and the influence to force His Arrogance off the nightly news.

Until then, baseball will endure a death slower and more monotonous than Ken Burns’ next nine innings. Because Fehr, see, doesn’t merely want to see the score settled. He wants to draw blood. He doesn’t merely want to shake hands. He wants to taunt and gloat.

To be fair, Fehr’s former counterpart, Richard Ravitch, was similarly driven by a win-at-all-costs philosophy. But when Ravitch’s rhetoric got too grating for even the owners, they replaced him with the less strident voice of Boston Red Sox CEO John Harrington.

The quiet, strong arms that removed Ravitch from the negotiations were reminiscent of those old Kremlin power struggles, when Leonid Brezhnev would go to bed as president on Monday and wake up gravely ill on Tuesday.

Someday during the 1995 baseball season, perhaps in the midst of a seventh-inning pitching change - when the Seattle Mariners summon the insurance agent who knows how to throw a curve ball to rescue the plumber who replaced the factory night-watchman - I actually might be compelled to wonder what’s happened to Richard Ravitch.

For now, though, I just hope he’s safely ensconced in a remote Siberian woods cabin that has room for two. A place where Ravitch and Fehr can draw their hard lines in a foot of fresh snow each morning and dare each other to cross it.

Hey, we can dream, can’t we?

Fehr, alas, won’t go gently into the obscurity he deserves. Every bad sport kicks and screams when he’s benched. He will kick and scream.

Besides, unlike the players he represents, unlike the owners he loathes, unlike the fans he disdains, Fehr has nothing to lose by refusing to compromise.

No World Series in 1994? No legitimate baseball in ‘95 or ‘96? That’s the cost of freedom, he will proclaim as he banks his checks.

Don Fehr has turned this sorry stalemate into a personal vendetta. For him, the objective isn’t a reasonably equitable distribution of a $2-billion pie. For him, the objective is to humiliate, to taunt and strut. And if the entire premise of big-league baseball is buried in the process, so be it.

The other day, Kansas City Royals great George Brett volunteered his own solution for settlement. “Put the two sides in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean and give them 3 hours worth of fuel, so they can’t make it across,” said Brett. “Tell them to compromise before they land. I guarantee you, this strike would be over in 2 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds.

Good idea, George, but I have a better one. Put Don Fehr back on the Three Rivers Stadium elevator, then run for the gates.

And don’t forget to lock them.


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