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Diehard Twins fans breathed a collective sigh of relief big enough to inflate the Metrodome Friday when Major League Baseball's owners and players agreed on a four-year labor contract.

Now, those of us who follow the Twins' travails can relax and enjoy the team's cruise to the American League Central title without having to worry about a strike, which threatened to end the team's season without a single pitch from Roger Clemens or Barry Zito.

We're glad the players and owners came to their senses and reached an agreement. Both sides apparently understood the devastating effect a strike would have had on the game.

If ever there was any doubt about how fans would react a work stoppage it was erased on Thursday, the last day before the players' Aug. 30 strike deadline. On that day, fans around the country showed up inside and outside stadiums carrying banners and signs pronouncing their anger at the players and owners. They chanted. They stomped. They heckled. And, in Anaheim, they even threw foul balls back onto the field -- even when the home team hit them.

Both sides got the message.


"It came down to us playing baseball or having our reputations and life ripped by the fans," St. Louis Cardinals Player Representative Steve Kline told the Associated Press. "Baseball would have never been the same if we had walked out."

Kline is right. Major League Baseball would have had trouble drawing more fans than rugby or badminton if the playoffs and World Series would have been wiped out by a strike.

The agreement is encouraging because the players -- whose salaries had skyrocketed from an average of about $51,500 in 1976 to $2.38 million this year -- finally made substantive concessions that could help ensure the long-term viability of the game. And both sides agreed to a luxury tax that will be levied on teams with exorbitant payrolls to discourage billionaire owners from dominating the league year after year, resulting in higher ticket prices and stadium luxury box mania.

According to details of the agreement reported by the Associated Press, the amount of money transferred from the wealthy teams to the thrifty ones will increase from $169 million to $258 million. The luxury tax will kick in next year once a team exceeds a payroll of $117 million. The threshold increases gradually each year, to $137 million in 2006, the last year of the agreement.

In addition, both sides showed they understood the public relations nightmare created by the steroid scandal of the last few years by agreeing to a plan for testing.

These moves can't help but make Major League Baseball cleaner, more competitive, and more popular.

But where does this leave the Twins, who were on the verge of elimination earlier as a result of the owners' contraction threat earlier this year?

The agreement ensures that the owners can't eliminate teams until after the 2006 season. That means that in all likelihood the Twins will be around at least for another four seasons, and a lot longer than that if the team attracts a new owner and builds a new home.


Twins owner Carl Pohlad could still sell the team to someone who might move the team to another city. But given baseball's current financial problems, there aren't a lot of potential buyers or cities out there interested in paying the enormous price tag for moving a ballclub. And even if there were, the first team in line for such a move is the Montreal Expos, which continues to record woeful attendance numbers and is now owned by Major League Baseball.

So, don't worry Twins fans, the team is safe for now -- with or without a new ballpark.

Still, there is plenty of work to be done by Commissioner Bud Selig, baseball owners and the players if the game is to regain its stature as the national pastime.

Player pay is still way too high. (The $400,000 salary of the Twins' least-used player, catcher Tom Prince, last year was the same as that of the president of the United States.) It's high time owners start paying players less and investing that money in promotions, ballpark improvements, ticket discounts and other moves that will help attract and keep fans.

And the current contract is for only four years, which means that unless something drastic changes in the players' and owners' mindset, there will be another threat of a strike four years from now. Eventually, fans are going to get so sick of threatened work stoppages that even the most diehard fans are going give up on Major League Baseball.

But forget about that for now Twins fans, and dig up those Homer Hankies. The playoff race is on. Let's enjoy it.

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