Maybe the best way to explain Donald Fehr is that he was very good, maybe even too good, at his job. It's just that he could not or would not grasp what his job could have and should have been.

If the union chief's sole responsibility was to pump up player salaries, then the brilliant and quick-witted Fehr was a smashing success. Clearly, that is how he evaluated himself. The fact that his own income was tied directly to the average player's salary may have had something to do with his point of view.

But if the head of the union had some accountability for the long-term health and well-being of both the players and the game that enriched them all, then Fehr's tenure can only be considered a wretched failure.

This seeming paradox can best be explained with a single name: Alex Rodriguez.

Thanks to Fehr's domination over three commissioners and the owners they represented, Rodriguez was able to command two contracts worth $525 million from the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees.

This is Fehr's triumph, the highest paid player in baseball history.

And this is the singular failure that outweighs it: Not only was Rodriguez able to earn those big dollars while pumping himself up with illegal steroids, he has never been suspended for a minute even though he has tested positive and admitted cheating.

On Fehr's watch, the majority of which coincided with the reign of commissioner Bud Selig, baseball grew its revenues while bankrupting itself ethically and morally. Ultimately, that was the calculation that will define Fehr's career: Salaries rose with the home run totals and radar-gun readings, so let the players do whatever it took to jack up those numbers.

Never mind the integrity of the sport.

Never mind the defacing of the record books.

Never mind the long-term impact on the health of the players.

Never mind the unknown toll paid by young athletes who emulated the big-leaguers by jamming needles full of illegal drugs into their own fragile bodies.

Selig has taken a lot of criticism for presiding over the steroid era, and he deserves most of it. It is the commissioner, after all, who is charged with protecting the game. From Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the Black Sox to Bart Giamatti and Pete Rose, commissioners have had to cope with difficult situations. The sad reality is that most of them have not been up to the task.

Selig bought into the long-held misconception that steroids weren't a major problem in baseball because they wouldn't be of much help in a sport that relied on hand/eye coordination and agility rather than brute strength. Indeed, weight training was long viewed as a detriment to baseball players.

When the bodies changed dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s, clearly the thinking had changed. We know steroids were wildly effective in baseball because virtually every record-breaking performer of the last decade-plus has been linked to using some or other form. Even now, we have to wonder whether the game is cleaner or the cheaters have simply moved on to human-growth hormone and other substances.

Fehr fought drug testing until Congress all but forced him to capitulate. As a direct result, an entire generation of baseball stars has been permanently, irrevocably stained.

Last week's New York Times report, which named Sammy Sosa as another of the positives from the 2003 "survey" testing," was met with a shrug. Sosa averaged 61 homers per season over a four-year period. It would have been a surprise if he'd somehow been proven never to have used peformance enhancers.

The mishandling of those 2003 test results represent a huge mistake by the union, which was responsible for destroying them. Because that didn't happen immediately, and because federal investigators obtained subpoenas for the data, the reputations of another 100 players are just an unnamed source from ruination.

That oversight alone should have been enough for Fehr and Gene Orza, his top lieutenant, to step down. If they got a free pass from players making too much money to care about niceties like the integrity of their sport, this was malfeasance with a direct negative impact on the rank and file.

Although Fehr announced he is retiring - and could serve until next spring training - it is fair to wonder if he is feeling pressure to step down. The suspicion, depressing though it may seem, is that the players judge Fehr only by the number of zeros on their paychecks.

Well, the rest of us don't. Long after everyone forgets how much money A-Rod and Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds made, they will remember that the greatest players of this era were cheaters. Baseball's enormous mess is the legacy Fehr and Selig will share forever.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.