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A decade ago, baseball took its last called strike on itself

NEW YORK -- Ten years ago, they packed up the bats and balls and went home for the winter, wiping out the World Series and alienating millions.

When Seattle's Randy Johnson struck out Oakland's Ernie Young at 9:45 p.m. on Aug. 11, 1994, baseball players walked off for what turned into the longest work stoppage in the history of major North American professional sports leagues, a 7 1/2-month marathon of acrimony that wandered through hotel meeting rooms, the federal courts, and even the White House.

It canceled the World Series for the first time in 90 years, cost players millions of dollars and management about $1 billion. Games didn't resume until the following April 25, 3 1/2 weeks after an injunction was issued restoring the rules of the expired labor contract.

Matt Williams's opportunity to break Roger Maris' home run record ended the night of the strike -- he had 43, and he never had another chance to approach the mark. For Bob Welch, Lloyd McClendon, and Kevin McReynolds and 16 others, the night of the strike marked the final games of their big league careers.

"It was tough. There was a lot of anger everywhere, particularly amongst our fans," baseball commissioner Bud Selig recalled last week. "It was the eighth work stoppage, so it had been building up for a long time. The sport came to a crashing halt."

Attendance plunged 20 percent the following year, from a record average of 31,612 in 1994 to 25,260. Only this season, when crowds are averaging 30,513, has attendance approached its pre-strike level.

Operating revenue was cut from $1.87 billion in 1993 to $1.2 billion in 1994 and didn't reach its former mark until 1997. The endless public bickering between the union and management became a huge turnoff, and instead sports fans tuned in to Michael Jordan and the NBA, NASCAR, and the new cable channels that created a seemingly endless supply of sports alternatives on television.

Competition for their market share has forced players and owners to cooperate.

"The product hasn't changed all that much in more than 100 years," union head Donald Fehr said. "People who went to the game in the late 19th century and early 20th century would have no problem following the game today. They'd be more comfortable in the seats, I think, and they'd be astonished by the choices on television."

When the sides finally agreed to a new labor contract -- it didn't happen until March 1997 -- it brought about revolutionary change in the sport's economics, ushering in revenue sharing among the 30 teams and a luxury tax designed to slow payroll growth of the high-revenue teams.

"It was an important agreement because it stabilized the industry and removed some of the ideological issues from the table, which allowed the next agreement to focus on the economics and led to a much more cooperative relationship between the players' association and the clubs," said Randy Levine, who negotiated the deal for baseball management, then became president of the New York Yankees.

In a sign that perhaps the sides have grown up, they agreed to a labor contract in 2002 without a work stoppage -- the first time that happened since 1970. Following five strikes and three lockouts, the sides struck a deal about 3 1/2 hours before the walkout was scheduled to start, one that included the first agreement for random drug testing.

Since then, baseball has boomed, with Selig citing that deal as igniting increased competition among the clubs.

Baseball's 2004 revenue is projected at between $4.1 billion and $4.2 billion by the commissioner's office.

The Yankees will become the first team to top $300 million.

Players and owners jointly sponsor international play in Japan, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, and they are working together trying to launch a World Cup for March 2006. When there are disputes, they seldom sink to public name-calling. Even the union's investigation of whether to file a grievance over possible management collusion in free agent negotiations has remained low-key.

"If we try to figure out things together as opposed to taking sides, it's more efficient," said Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, a member of the union's executive board. "I think the experience of 10 years ago showed both sides that the game is too important to too many people, and we need to find better ways to accomplish things. I think we've done that, to some extent."

Selig and Fehr say adapting to the quickly evolving changes in technology and broadcasting are the priorities for baseball's leadership. Baseball owners are set to give approval next week to the World Cup and an all-baseball TV network, which follows similar ventures established by the NFL and NBA.

Memories of the years of fighting have faded. Just 143 players currently on major league rosters played in 1994, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"The sport is riding a high now," Selig said. "I hope we've all learned our lesson."

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