FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -When Major League Baseball Players Association chief Donald Fehr showed up at Fort Lauderdale Stadium to meet with the Orioles on the first day of his annual tour of major league spring training camps, he was met with many of the same questions from the players he has been getting from the media.
The predictable subjects du jour: the moribund free-agent market and the latest chapter in baseball's long-running steroid scandal.
"Basically, as you might expect, we spent some time talking about the economy," Fehr said. "People are interested in what is happening and what has happened with the free-agent market and salaries. We spent some time, obviously, going over what happened with the disclosures last week involving the 2003 [steroid] testing program. And then [I] answered questions and talked about the pension plan and internal staff matters. All of that kind of stuff."
He didn't publicly accuse the owners of colluding to restrict the free-agent market this year, but it isn't hard to read between the lines and sense there is suspicion about the number of players who have settled for below-market contracts or are still trying to find work 10 days into training camp.
"We can't talk about internal discussions, but essentially, every year since the middle 1980s we've looked at the market closely. When you have a market like this one - that seemed to take very long to develop and had fits and starts with significant numbers of players that have yet to sign or haven't - obviously you look at it a lot more closely. When we're finished with that, if there's anything to say, we'll say it. I don't want to make a public comment about it because people would try to draw inferences one way or the other. I'm not ready to have that happen."
The union proved collusion in the mid-1980s and won $280 million in damages that was later distributed to the players who were disadvantaged by the infamous "free-agent freeze-out" that - for instance - prompted marquee outfielder Andre Dawson to offer to sign a blank contract and allow the Chicago Cubs to fill in the salary before the 1987 season. There have been other instances in which there was suspicion the owners were acting in concert in violation of the sport's collective bargaining agreement, but it has been a while since the free-agent market has gone this cold.
Fehr also addressed concerns about the breach of confidentiality that led to the Sports Illustrated report that Alex Rodriguez was one of 104 players who tested positive during supposedly anonymous steroid survey testing in 2003.
Though there have been a few calls - even one from high-profile pitcher and former Oriole Curt Schilling - to make all of the 104 names on that list public to remove suspicion from everybody else, the union has argued before an appellate court in California that the names should remain undisclosed because the testing was done with the collectively bargained promise of confidentiality. The testing materials and results were supposed to be destroyed, but the samples and the names of the players who tested positive were seized by federal investigators before that could happen.
"I don't want to say there's a lot of concerns from the members, but we want to address those concerns, and we explained what happened so far as we can tell," Fehr said. "We obviously don't know how it was breached. We don't know who did it. ... The agreement was to keep this information confidential. ... In addition to that, there are various confidentiality orders that are in effect, and we would hope and expect that those would be adhered to."
There is not, however, any gag order on the players, as evidenced by the recent comments of Schilling and Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who said recently the penalty for a first positive steroid test should be increased from 50 games to an entire season. The union is advising players to be careful what they say about the steroid issue - and distributed a memo to that effect - but Fehr said there is no gag order.
"We sent out a memo to players explaining what happened," he said. "We suggested ... that there may be questions and they should be truthful and careful when they respond."
What's most frustrating about the furor over the Rodriguez revelations, Fehr said, is the media are treating his alleged positive test and an accusation that union chief operating officer Gene Orza tipped off Rodriguez about a coming drug test as if they just happened instead of placing them in their proper context. The survey testing was completed nearly six years ago, and the steroid landscape is drastically different now. Since then, Major League Baseball and the union have instituted one of the toughest steroid policies in professional sports and have upgraded it to the point where it appears to be an effective deterrent to steroid abuse in baseball.
"Basically, the situation is this: We've had a lot of press frenzy lately, and I think that's the appropriate word for it," Fehr said. "A lot of it seems to me to have been designed to sensationalize for that purpose. But what was most interesting to me about it is that whatever happened happened a very long time ago. And on this supposed tipping incident, it's one unidentified player at one time 4 1/2 years ago. Nobody even puts in the story that whatever the truth was then, it operates entirely differently now. There hasn't been a hint that I'm aware of that it's operating improperly now.
"We have independent administrators doing things and all the rest of it. And you would think that people would at least have the perspective to include in the coverage that this is very old news and doesn't reflect the current state of affairs . ... It was in that context that I said, 'We have a good program. I think it's working well.' And the incident of use is drastically reduced to a literal handful. I think that the programs ... are continuing to do their job."