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MY TURN AT BAT

The Steroid Mess
By John Poff

It's Don Fehr's fault.

End of story.

I've never been too big on placing individual blame. I am from the Dostoyevsky school of personal responsibility: Everybody is responsible for everything.

This is different.

Let me explain. I've been teaching middle school for twelve years in a poor rural district in northern Michigan. We have maybe fifty to sixty students in a typical class. Every year, in class elections, the so-called "preps" win. They could probably best be defined as good students who participate in sports and other school activities and who rarely get in trouble at school. They are also supposed to be "stuck-up" (I'm surprised teenagers still use that term), but, as I said, we're a poor area and there just aren't a whole lot of ways for our kids to show off. In fact, I read their journals and it seems to me the preps come in for a whole lot more abuse than they dish out.

At any rate, one year the preps were a pretty weak group and the non-preps were pretty darn charismatic and several of them decided to run for class office. They won, the self-identified non-preps, that is. The results were announced over the intercom and one of the victorious candidates (a really nice kid, I might add) said in obvious stunned surprise: "We beat the popular people!" As I pointed out to him the next day, the fact of the matter was they were the popular people and now would actually have to govern. In this case, of course, it didn't really mean much—organizing a few school dances, teacher-appreciation day, and so on, but I don't think they really enjoyed their newfound power; none of them ran for office in high school. They did, however, handle it credibly enough, which is more than I can I say for the Major League Baseball Players Association.

My point is the Players Association is that group of non-preps. They defeated the owners, in terms of holding real power in baseball, nearly thirty years ago, and they haven't learned as much from it as a group of eighth graders did in good old Mio, Michigan.

I was on what's called a major league forty-man roster for four years in the late '70s and early '80s. Although I only played a couple of months in the big leagues, this meant I signed major league contracts, went to four major league spring trainings, and so forth. These were the crucial years in establishing free agency for players, which was the defining conflict between the major league owners and the Players Association. The Association was headed by Marvin Miller. (His assistant at the time was Don Fehr.) Let me clear about this: Marvin kicked the owners' asses, every time. He handed them their hats. He humiliated these rich, spoiled children of wealth and privilege and they hated him for it. I should probably be embarrassed to admit this, but the first time I heard Bob Marley sing, "If you are the big tree, we have a small ax," I thought of Marvin Miller and what he did to the owners.

All of that happened thirty years ago. Free agency gave major league ballplayers virtually unlimited earning power. It seems clear to me with that wealth should have come some sense of a broader role for the union, one that involved a feeling of responsibility and concern for the overall health of the game. Fehr, who has led the union since Miller's retirement twenty-five years ago, should have forged this position—but he didn't.

Frankly, I've been surprised by baseball's ongoing popularity over the last few decades. I don't think kids play for fun as much as they used to, and I expected that fact to show up in reduced attendance and interest over the years. It hasn't. I also thought the last work stoppage (in 1994), canceling a World Series, would have a negative long-term impact; it didn't. But the one group that should really not take this for granted, it seems to me, is the Players Association. What else do they have to worry about? Alex Rodriguez signed a contract described in terms of a fraction of a billion dollars, and the minimum salary now is ten times what a schoolteacher makes. How rich do you have to get from playing ball?

The success of the Players Association has always been marked by strong leadership at the top and complete unity on the part of the players. With some issues, the players themselves led the way in terms of framing the union's position. That wasn't going to happen with steroids, for a couple of reasons. One is that, as you may have noticed, players have a certain level of denial about their own use of steroids. The other is that players are not going to become the driving force in banning a substance that has made some of them millions of dollars. That's where Fehr should have stepped in.

This steroid mess may not kill baseball, but it's one of the few things that could. And Don Fehr is the only guy who could have prevented it.

—EFQ

JOHN POFF, a frequent contributor to EFQ, played professional baseball for eight years. He lives in northern Michigan where he has been a schoolteacher for more than a decade.

© 2008 John Poff

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