NEW YORK -- With little time to spare, baseball negotiators who talked through the night reached a tentative agreement on a labor contract that averted a strike threatened for Friday.
Commissioner Bud Selig called the four-year deal "historic," the first time players and owners had reached an agreement in collective bargaining without a work stoppage.
"All streaks come to an end, and this was one that was overdue to come to an end," union head Donald Fehr said at a news conference with Selig.
Owners gained their most significant concessions in 26 years with a luxury tax and new revenue-sharing plan, but they also agreed not to eliminate teams through the 2006 season, a management official said on condition of anonymity. Owners attempted to fold the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins after last season.
Selig and Fehr attended a morning bargaining session that wrapped up the agreement, which averted the sport's ninth work stoppage since 1972.
The deal had not been signed but was was expected to be ratified by both sides in about a week.
"We can now turn our complete attention to the field," Selig said.
The agreement was reached about 3 1/2 hours before Friday's first game, between St. Louis and Chicago at Wrigley Field. The players had set Friday as the strike deadline on Aug. 16.
"It came down to us playing baseball or having our reputations and life ripped by the fans," said Steve Kline, the Cardinals' player representative.
"Baseball would have never been the same if we had walked out."
Fan Tony Pencek was sitting in a bar across the street from Wrigley when he heard the news. He immediately ran over to the ballpark and bought a ticket for the game.
"America needs this. Especially with Sept. 11 coming up," he said. "You need to get peoples' minds off of it. And for something good to happen is great."
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 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.
With the deal, owners gained concessions from one of the most powerful unions 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.
"It's not important today to talk about winning and losing," Selig said.
"The important thing to me is that I think there were a lot of people who never believed they'd live long enough to see these two parties come together and make a very meaningful deal and do it without one game of work stoppage."
Since the last strike in 1994-95, 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, 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.