After a round of all night negotiations, baseball players and owners reached a tentative agreement on a labor contract that averted a walkout threatened for later Friday.
"There is no strike," said Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine, the National League player representative.
Commissioner Bud Selig and union head Donald Fehr attended a morning bargaining session that wrapped up the agreement. It was the first time in nine rounds of labor talks since 1972 that baseball avoided a work stoppage. No agreement had been signed, but the sides planned to announce the new pact at a 1 p.m. news conference.
As part of a settlement, owners agreed not to eliminate teams through the 2006 season, a management official said on condition he not be identified. Owners attempted to fold the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins after last season.
The deal was reached with little time to spare, about three hours before Friday's first game, between St. Louis and Chicago at Wrigley Field. As the hours dwindled, lawyers had shuttled between the commissioner's office and union headquarters, crunching numbers and exchanging revised proposals.
"It was close. I was about to make my flight arrangements to go home," Cubs outfielder Roosevelt Brown said as he arrived at the ballpark.
Two lawyers from each side bargained until 2 a.m. before the sides broke for caucuses. Players gave owners a proposal during a 20 minute meeting that began at 4 a.m., and owners responded with a counteroffer at about 6:30 a.m. The union returned with a response at 9:15 a.m.
The final meeting, which completed talks that began in January, lasted almost three hours. As soon as it ended, teams started heading to ballparks.
"The reason we set a strike date was to get something done, and we did," said John McDonald, the Cleveland Indians' player representative.
McDonald got the word from Tony Bernazard, a special assistant to the players' union.
"He said, 'We're playing tonight'," McDonald said. "That's all I wanted to hear. That's all any baseball player wanted to hear. Everyone should be thrilled."
With the deal, owners gained their most significant concessions in 26 years from a union that became one of the most powerful in the nation. The players' association has lifted the average salary of its members from $51,501 in 1976, the last year before free agency, to $2.38 million this season.
As part of the agreement, high revenue teams will have to share a far larger percentage of their locally generated money, and a luxury tax will be levied on high payroll teams to discourage spending.
The amount of money transferred from the wealthy teams to the poorer ones will rise from $169 million to $258 million, using 2001 revenue figures for analysis. The threshold for the luxury tax will start at about $117 million in 2003, rising to about $137 million in 2006.
For the first time, players agreed to undergo mandatory testing for steroids, which will start next year on a survey basis. The minimum salary will rise next year from $200,000 to $300,000.
Since the last strike in 1994 - 1995, a 232 day stoppage that forced cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904, the New York Yankees have won four world championships. For that very reason, Commissioner Bud Selig and many team owners said they needed changes to restore competitive balance.
The mid-market teams figure to be the biggest winners in the deal, receiving much more of their competitors' money. The biggest losers are the Yankees, who generate the most money in baseball. The Yankees and other high revenue teams will have to pay tens of millions of dollars to subsidize other franchises, and they may have to raise ticket prices to cover the increased revenue sharing.
"It's going to affect a lot of teams with high payrolls, there's no question about that," Yankees pitcher Steve Karsay said.
A walkout threatened the final 31 days and 438 games of the regular season, and fans were angry at players and owners for their repeated quarrels over a business that generates $3.5 billion annually.
Fans tossed about a half dozen foul balls back onto the field during Anaheim's 6 - 1 win over Tampa Bay, the last game played Thursday night. Many of the 18,820 fans chanted "Don't Strike, Don't Strike" during the seventh inning stretch, and when the game ended, some of them threw debris on the field.