Don Fehr's drug-testing gamble

The Players Association head agreed to random drug testing because he knows it's a phony issue for the owners. Plus: George Allen, and more baseball memories.

By Allen Barra
Published August 9, 2002 11:59PM (EDT)

OK, so what really happened at the baseball labor negotiations Wednesday? Why did the Players Association suddenly seem to cave on the issue of steroids and random drug testing? And does this indicate a faltering on the side of the union, or perhaps a thaw in the negotiations?

The answer is none of the above. The answer is that the union's executive director, Don Fehr, finally did a sensational jiujitsu move on the owners and reversed the momentum of the talks. The simple fact is that the owners don't really care that much about the issue of steroids. They have never made it the focal point of any discussion, and only brought it into the current debate when they thought it could be used to distract the players and score public relations points with the public. The owners' attitude toward "recreational" drugs, which can hurt a player's performance and therefore devalue him as property, and steroids, which, arguably, can increase the players' value as gate attractions, has always been hypocritical. They have always paid lip service to the elimination of steroids without ever making a serious proposal. The players, for their part, have always mistrusted the owners' intentions on this issue, and rightfully so, ever since then commissioner Peter Ueberroth attempted to violate a carefully worked out agreement and make himself the "Drug Czar" of baseball in 1982.

So what happened the other day is that Fehr finally cut his losses on this issue, and decided that the union had little to lose in agreeing to random testing compared to the beating it was taking in the press. Never mind that most of those commenting on the situation had little knowledge of the history of drug testing in sports. Many held up the example of Olympic athletes as a model; few noticed that the IOC has a blatant double standard in this regard, never having asked for testing on pro athletes such as NHL hockey players and NBA basketball players. One thing that Fehr must have realized was that the union in the long run probably had little to fear from the possibility of harassment when it came to random testing, since no Major League owner is anxious to make his own superstar look bad in public. In other words, I very much doubt if any influential owner is going to lose his big stars by virtue of a drug suspension before the playoffs start.

More to the point, what Fehr did was to simply defuse drugs as an issue in the negotiations. Now we're back to what the issue has been all along: the luxury tax on spending proposed by the owners, designed to hold down the players' salaries. Stay tuned.

How soon they forget

Where were all the tributes that should have been written last week for the great George Allen? Allen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last week, many years too late; at any rate, too late to enjoy the honor while alive. All of the stories focused on Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who is rightly considered a Hall of Famer even though he never won the Super Bowl. It was generously pointed out by nearly everyone that Kelly's teams were considerably outmanned in at least three of those Super Bowl appearances and shouldn't have been expected to win. OK, I'm fine with that. Why then didn't sports columnists everywhere give George Allen a break?

Just about the only praise you ever heard on the subject of George Allen was "Good coach, never won the big game." The only chance Allen got to win the big game was against the Miami Dolphins in the 1973 Super Bowl. Unfortunately for Allen and his Washington Redskins, he picked the only unbeaten team in NFL history to play against. But if the measure of a football coach is coaching and not running a corporation the way, say, Don Shula did at Miami for many years, then George Allen was one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. As a defensive coach for George Hallas' Chicago Bears in 1963, Allen guided the team with the worst offense in the league to the championship, becoming in the process the only defensive coach to hold a Vince Lombardi team to a touchdown or less -- and he did it twice. He was the Bill Walsh of defensive coaches -- the most innovative defense man in modern NFL history, Buddy Ryan notwithstanding. He essentially invented zone defense and was the first to use the nickel-back.

As a head coach he led two sensational turnarounds, virtually reversing the six-year records of both the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins after he took them over. He wound up with the second best won-lost percentage (behind Vince Lombardi) of any coach in the NFL with at least 10 years service. "Couldn't win the big game?" Given the kind of resources that Don Shula, Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells were handed, he'd have kicked their butts.

10) Watching Lou Gehrig deliver his "I Consider Myself the Luckiest Man" at Yankee Stadium. Now that I think of it, I probably saw this one on film.

9) Watching Willie McCovey's amazing 514-foot home run off Ron Reed in 1969 at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. I had a perfect view from the third base side. I'd never seen a ball take off and rise like that. I swear, it looked like it had another 100 feet left in it when it landed in the upper deck.

8) Watching an unknown Italian infielder solve the problem, once and for all, of pitchers who play knock-down, in a semipro game outside of Rome, 1983. The guy had been decked twice by the pitcher; the third time up, he swung and missed at an outside pitch and released the bat, which went whirring around and around and just missed taking out the pitcher's kneecaps. When both benches erupted he turned to the umpire and pleaded something about being so nervous from being knocked down in the previous at bats that he couldn't grip the bat properly. He got thrown out of the game, but I'll bet that pitcher thought twice about throwing at him again.

7) Seeing my daughter, Maggie, age 10, run around the bases at the conclusion of a Brooklyn Cyclones game at Coney Island last year. If you're in New York and you're watching TV, you might come across Spike Lee's commercial for the Cyclones. Look for a little red-haired girl -- that's Maggie.

6) The look of utter desolation on Jose Cruz's face at the end of the 1980 playoffs between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies. He just sat there, hands on his knees, staring at the dugout steps, long after everyone else had left the field and the dugout. This was the most total picture of despair I have ever seen in baseball.

5) Tug McGraw telling New York fans that they can "Take this championship and shove it" after the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series in 1980.

4) Dodging a sharp foul ball from Reggie Jackson at Rickwood Field in Birmingham. My friend Robert Studin didn't flinch and went home with the ball.

3) Hearing my mother's voice, long-distance, sometime in 1981, saying, "Remember that 1961 Mickey Mantle card of yours that I accidentally threw away? Well, I found one at a yard sale ..."

2) The goose bumps I got at my first game in Yankee Stadium on hearing the crescendo that built up when the announcer Bob Sheppard said, "And now, batting in the No. 3 spot for the San Francisco Giants, No. 24, Willie ... MAYS!" It was an exhibition against the Yankees, the first game Mays had played in New York since the Giants left in 1958. Mantle hit a home run that day, and Mays won the game with a two-run single.

1) Seeing my name in Roger Angell's last end-of-the-year poem in the New Yorker in 1998. The couplet ran, "Ah, there, Nomar Garciaparra, Karen Allen, Allen Barra."

Who is Karen Allen?

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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