This past week baseball survived, and perhaps even prospered from, one of the most potentially damaging crises in its history.
Thursday evening, when baseball returned from its two-day thunderstorm strike, a third of a million people came to 13 ballparks. Friday night, more than 300,000 fans laid their money down.
That's more than 25,000 per game -- higher even than the prestrike attendance average, which was ahead of baseball's all-time record pace.
Call it a huge collective sigh of relief. Not merely that the game had avoided a long strike, like the 50-day disaster in 1981, but that the backbone of several destructive baseball trends had, perhaps, been broken at last.
Players and owners finally could forget the nightmare of perhaps $200 million in lost pay and revenues. Fans finally could let out their collective breath. Their game, a sport almost drunk with the disorienting wine of change in recent years, finally might be able to walk right again.
Throughout the 1980s, the sport's public undoubtedly has felt profoundly ambivalent about baseball. Fans have loved almost everything on the field and loathed nearly all of the developments off it.
Never has the sport's grip on the public mind been stronger. Or more precarious. As attendance and revenue records were shattered, so were any illusions about the sport's claim to moral high ground. Glamor and greed, artistry and addiction, the best and the worst in ourselves, all seemed to stare at us out of the baseball mirror.
After a hard day of reality, who wanted to go to the park and be force-fed the same diet? Even if we never were naive enough to think ballplayers were better than the rest of us, we at least wanted to concentrate, while the game lasted, on a man's virtues more than his vulgarities.
That vital balance has been endangered of late. Which of us, in our own mind, has not felt the strain between attraction and repulsion?
If 1985 had been remembered as the season when baseball lost a World Series because of a strike, could we have found a darker moment since the Black Sox scandal of 1919?
If the Pittsburgh drug probe, plus the antics of rich drug addicts and spoiled prima donnas, had been our lasting memory of this season, who's to say that Americans might not have spent the winter going through some subliminal souring on the game.
If new Commissioner Peter Ueberroth had fallen on his face this week, if his leadership had ended up looking like a bluff, if his idealistic talk had left only the taste of self-serving PR, what authority would he have had left for the remainder of his five-year term?
The long knives stuck in Bowie Kuhn might have come out again. If Ueberroth had failed badly, then quit or been deposed in the aftermath, who in the world could baseball have sweet-talked into accepting such a disastrous job?
Even the old "national pastime," with its long history of dumb luck, has no assurance of happy endings. What if baseball had suffered even a one-month strike, then returned to find that the public had forgotten about pennant-race foolishness in favor of football? How much red ink would baseball have wept then? Would endangered teams in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the San Francisco Bay area have survived?
Suppose even a milder scenario: a strike had ended with owners getting no concessions from the union. Could we have viewed baseball's future with the optimism that even now begins to trickle back into the game?
After an undefeated decade, the union finally picked the perfect time to accept a tie. The owners' negotiator, Lee MacPhail, who may be a bit naive in accepting his millionaire employers' evaluation of their fiscal plight, has spent recent days apologizing for not getting more.
He got plenty.
The brakes haven't been slammed onto the game's runaway salaries, but they've been pumped a couple of times.
Changing arbitration eligibility from two to three years will have both a tangible and a ripple effect on pay.
Perhaps just as important is the clause in the new basic agreement that instructs future arbitrators to compare a player's wage demands to the pay of men with comparable years of experience as well as similar statistics. That's going to slash hundreds of thousands of dollars off both contract demands and awards. What Mike Schmidt makes, after a decade as a star, won't bear as heavily on what an arbitrator gives a 23-year-old phenom.
If owners now can get their heads together on some rudimentary revenue sharing, the game's financial health should be excellent by the next labor negotiations in 1990.
Now that the game's books are ajar (they're hardly "open"), it's apparent that baseball's half-dozen most wealthy teams need to send a couple of million bucks a year in the direction of the half-dozen poorest.
One of the charming legacies of this year's labor battle has been "The Noll Report" -- a study done for the union by Stanford economics professor Roger Noll on the owners' claims of impending financial disaster.
Of course, the players picked a professor whose slant on such enigmatic matters was similar to their own. Nonetheless, it's a capitalist comedy to learn how ball clubs launder their profits and concoct paper losses.
Anyone who works for a living will get high blood pressure reading about the "amortization of intangibles." On 42nd Street, they call it Three Card Monte.
It's surprising how quickly a black sky can start to clear. A week ago, gloom was the proper mood. Now, what reasonable hope isn't possible?
Old and indigent former players who never were covered under the pension plan (and who relied on charity from events such as the Old-Timers Classic in RFK Stadium) almost will have to be included now, otherwise the association may find itself so overfunded that it won't be tax exempt. It will be fitting if a union with so little history of generosity should finally find charity in its heart to keep a tax break.
Now we can focus once again on all the positive trends in baseball.
Who doesn't love the competitive balance of the 1980s, with new underdog champions each season? We may tire of this dizzying kaleidoscope eventually, but not yet. Give us more Toronto Blue Jays and St. Louis Cardinals -- emerging swift, hungry and gifted.
When has baseball had a better stylistic blend of power hitters, high-average hitters, speedsters, great fielders, classic starting pitchers and superstar relievers?
This season a half-dozen players are at 35-plus homer and 120-RBI paces. Four men have a shot at hitting .350. Rookie Vince Coleman is on a 120-steal pace. Dwight Gooden has a 25-plus win season, with a 1.60 ERA and nearly 300 strikeouts, in his sights. Perhaps the three greatest relief pitchers in history -- Dan Quisenberry, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter -- all are active.
When have a dozen more brilliant young stars appeared just as a dozen old legends were polishing their plaques for Cooperstown. Gooden comes as Tom Seaver goes in 300-win style. Wade Boggs shows us what Rod Carew might have been with more patience, more punch.
Pete Rose, probably the greatest leadoff man in history, is about to break Ty Cobb's almost unimaginable 4,191-hit record just at the moment when Rickey Henderson shows us what Rose might have been if he'd had more power, more walks and afterburners. Great as Rose is, he never saw the day he could touch the year Henderson's having.
Reggie Jackson may be approaching 525 home runs, but how many will Dale Murphy hit? With his glove and arm, Murphy easily should eclipse Jackson's standards. Schmidt, perhaps the most powerful third baseman ever, has 443 home runs already and has transformed himself into an acrobatic first baseman. But what will 6-foot-4, 200-pound Cal Ripken, on a 200-runs-produced pace this season, do before he's done? And as a shortstop. This week, Eddie Murray may sign the richest contract ever. Who would say, with confidence, that he won't end up as the fourth 600-homer man?
Such nice and familiar questions are left once more for our summer and fall digestion. We can leave exasperating debates over salary caps and accounting methods behind us and watch Ozzie Smith pirouette behind second base or admire Pedro Guerrero as he carries the Dodgers into first place on his back with a month of home runs.
For the last 10 years, the baseball pot has been heated continually until, just a few days ago, it seemed to have reached a rolling and dangerous boil.
When we turn off the fire on a stove, that foaming boil seems to subside in a second. That's just how quickly all baseball's hot water seems to have come under control this week.
And none too soon.