NEW YORK — They saved a season and ended a streak by choosing to play rather than picket.
With just hours to spare, baseball averted a strike Friday when negotiators pulled off a surprise by agreeing to a tentative labor contract.
Commissioner Bud Selig called the deal “historic,” the first time since 1970 that players and owners accepted a new collective bargaining agreement 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.
The deal that pulled baseball back from the brink penalizes big spending on player salaries and gives poorer teams a bigger share of the wealth.
In return, the union received a guarantee that baseball won’t eliminate teams through the 2006 season. And for the first time, players agreed to mandatory, random testing for steroids.
“It came down to us playing baseball or having our reputations and life ripped by the fans,” said Steve Kline, the St. Louis Cardinals’ player representative.
“Baseball would have never been the same if we had walked out.”
Perhaps that was why owners gained their most significant concessions since 1985 — maybe even since the start of free agency 26 years ago — with an agreement that runs until December 2006.
“It’s not important today to talk about winning and losing,” Selig said.
The commissioner and Fehr attended a morning bargaining session that wrapped up the deal, which averted the sport’s ninth work stoppage since 1972. The previous eight negotiations resulted in five strikes and three lockouts.
“I think a lot of people thought they’d never live long enough to see these two parties come together with a very meaningful deal and do it without one game of work stoppage,” Selig said.
Still, the pact has not been signed and parts weren’t even in writing. It was unclear when it would be ratified.
The agreement was reached about 3 1/2 hours before the first game Friday, the deadline players set two weeks ago for a strike. But for most of the morning they weren’t sure whether they’d be packing bags or playing ball.
“It was close. I was about to make my flight arrangements to go home,” Chicago Cubs outfielder Roosevelt Brown said as he arrived at Wrigley Field for that first game, against the Cardinals.
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.