It just seems bleak, now. But Buck Martinez and other people around baseball who have worked with Donald Fehr know that when negotiations get down to the short strokes, he becomes Mariano Rivera.
In short, he knows when to close.
So keep your copy of Enter Sandman handy. They will play NHL hockey again, just as they played a major-league baseball game Thursday night in this city that lives and breathes hockey – not even good hockey – just hours after Fehr stated the case for the NHL Players’ Association. Baseball, the one sport without a salary cap; where traditionally big-spending teams aren’t guaranteed a championship shot; where regional sports television has fuelled a boom in franchise value and whose online arm is recognized as a world-wide technological and revenue leader. Yes, baseball: the same sport that shut down for a player’s strike in 1994 when Fehr led the Major League Baseball Players Association.
The Fehr that Martinez saw on TV Thursday afternoon is not the same guy he saw close-up in the 1980s when Martinez was a member of the MLBPA players executive. Make no mistake: Fehr is the same casual, Kansas-raised graduate of Indiana University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law – no Ivy Leaguer, he – who was a protégé of the father of sports unions, former United Steelworkers negotiator Marvin Miller, and whose belief in the principles of due process and privacy was the reason he gave ground only grudgingly on steroid testing.
He will not care, as one of his friends said recently, “that when it’s all said and done it’s going to be important that it looks like Gary [NHL commissioner Bettman] has won, because that’s important to Gary.” But he is not the mess he once was on TV.
“Don was always very descriptive and informative in our meetings – and much more relaxed than he’d be when he got in front of the cameras,” Martinez said Thursday, chuckling. “We used to tell him: ‘You have lighten up on TV, man. You look like the grim reaper.’ I saw him today. He was pretty good, wasn’t he?
“Don’s become wiser, with his experience,” Martinez said. “Everything isn’t black and white for him, like it once was. I think he knows now that he can lose a few battles and still win the war, where before he thought he had to win any battle. Of course, for a while, he was winning all those battles.”
Martinez has seen Fehr home in on a deal when there’s no more room to move. He also remembers being part of a group of players who removed Fehr from a room during a bargaining session in 1981. “I was with him on the negotiating committee in ’81, when the owners were still coming in to the meetings along with the league presidents, Chub Feeney and Lee MacPhail. Those were a bunch of hard-ass, ‘f-you’ guys; it was always ‘we’re going to bust your ass,’ and everything else. Feeney said something to Don like: ‘We’ll talk to Marvin about this. You just kind of go sit in the corner in those [expletive deleted] chairs.’ We had to take him outside.
“I called Don a couple of days ago, and he told me early on that the biggest challenge was to unite the NHLPA,” Martinez said. “He said: ‘We have guys from countries that went to war against each other sitting in the same room.’
“With baseball, it was always ‘us’ against ‘them.’ We were getting screwed and we knew we were getting screwed, so everybody just sort of said: ‘Don, do what you want.’”
Baseball has come a long way since then. It is better. Collective bargaining in pro sports has come a long way since then, too. So has Fehr.
What hasn’t changed is that it’s easier to get a deal with a prepared, competent and unified opponent than with a dysfunctional opponent. There’s your hope.