- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

And so our great national crisis has been averted. After nonstop negotiations throughout the night, Bud Selig and Donald Fehr stood side-by-side at the podium yesterday afternoon and informed us that the games were still on.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. The owners, knowing they had made great strides in their effort to change baseball's economics. The players, knowing they wouldn't be subjected to the immense public scrutiny that surely would have come from a strike over a few million dollars. And the fans, knowing that there would indeed be a game to watch on television last night and more importantly, in October.

But what really happened yesterday in that posh Park Avenue negotiating room? Will the new collective bargaining agreement actually alter baseball's lopsided economic structure?

Or was this merely a quick fix, a way to avoid the public relations nightmare and fan backlash that would have accompanied a work stoppage (whether it lasted one day or 100 days)?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between, and moreover, we probably won't really know what impact it has until the new deal expires at the end of the 2006 season.

This much is certain: No one involved was going to let the players walk at 3:20 p.m. yesterday. The owners had far too much to lose (both monetarily and figuratively) to allow the union to strike over what ultimately proved to be a disparity in numbers. The players stood to lose even more had they declared an impasse in negotiations and walked away less than two weeks before the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. And Selig's already fragile legacy as baseball commissioner would have been destroyed by any type of work stoppage.

Oh, the management and labor lawyers did their best to make it seem possible and perhaps even likely at times. But the fact remains that these negotiations were not and should not have been a difficult undertaking.

The union knew it was going to have to agree to a luxury tax and increased revenue sharing. The owners knew they were going to get a good portion of what they wanted but not everything.

Unfortunately for the fans, it took a serious threat of a strike, right down to the final hours, to get these two lifelong nemeses to sign the dotted line.

Selig and Fehr, the owners and the players, can spend all the time they want patting themselves on the back for "saving" the season just before baseball imploded on itself. But fans should know better than to think yesterday's agreement was a historic, last-minute compromise. Rather, it was a dramatic, made-for-TV event that could have and should have been resolved months ago.

Now, about that new agreement and the effect it will have in both the immediate and long-term future

Yes, it should make a difference, and you should see some signs of that right away. Most of the handful of teams that are teetering around the $117million luxury tax threshold will find ways to trim payroll before next spring. The Yankees (and perhaps the Red Sox), however, are not about to institute a fire sale just to make sure they are under the tax limit.

George Steinbrenner has shown over the years that he wants to win and he's willing to spend as much as it takes to make that happen. The Boss may think twice when going after a top-name free agent, but you can be assured he will pay the tax if it means another shot at a World Series title.

The small-market clubs, meanwhile, are about to have millions of dollars dumped in their laps. How much that translates into more wins, though, depends on what their owners do with their newfound handouts.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the new deal is the lack of a minimum payroll requirement. Large-market owners have long accused their small-market counterparts of skimping on salaries even when they have the funds to pay players top dollar.

The new deal does not require the Royals, Tigers, Brewers and Devil Rays to turn their pieces of the revenue sharing pie into payroll, but with everyone now watching them closely, the pressure will be on.

But the biggest news to come out of yesterday's events (at least as far as local baseball fans are concerned) might well have been the owners' surprising promise to shelve all contraction plans for the next four years.

That means the Montreal Expos will continue to exist in one form or another through 2006, and given their futile state north of the border, there is every reason to believe they will be playing at RFK Stadium within two years (possibly sooner).

And by the time that sparkling new ballpark opens in the District or Northern Virginia, right around the time this new collecti ve bargaining agreement is expiring, we'll know for sure whether all the haggling and bickering of the last month was worth it.

For the sake of all those who spent a sleepless night Thursday wondering if there would be baseball when they woke up Friday, let's hope it was worth it.

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