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NOW WOULD BE THE PERFECT TIME FOR LABOR PEACE

I had a co-worker remark to me this past week that she has been stunned by what she has been hearing from baseball players since the terrorist attacks -- eloquent, heartfelt, well-reasoned comments on their societal importance (or lack of same) in the midst of such a crisis. She didn't think the me-first (and me-second and me-third) ballplayers had it in them.

Indeed, baseball has comported itself exceedingly well since Sept. 11, from the joint $10 million contribution to relief efforts by the owners and union, to the stately clinching celebration by the Mariners on Wednesday, to the visits of the cleanup front in New York by members of both the Mets and Yankees.

Players seem to instinctively grasp that sports no longer seem as important in the wake of the horrible news, that the real heroes these days are not athletes, but rescue workers and firefighters. They also accept that to the extent people are comforted and diverted by sports, they have the obligation to perform to the utmost extent of their ability, because the results still matter to people -- and to them.

It's called perspective, an over-used term that inevitably tends to dissipate with the passage of time. But the baseball industry has a unique opportunity in the coming weeks to show that all this talk isn't just lip service. They've talked the talk, and even walked the walk. Now they can run the perspective marathon.

Baseball's labor agreement expires Nov. 1. Both sides have been girding themselves for the usually ugly skirmish, each still firmly entrenched in the unyielding positions that have led to eight work stoppages in eight previous negotiations.

In fact, despite talk of improved relationships between union and management, the assumption had been growing that stoppage No. 9 was probably unavoidable.

Now it's unthinkable.

Can you imagine, in this time of war preparation and national heartbreak, the outrage that would greet a labor war in baseball? Even without this tragic backdrop, baseball was on tenuous ground if it closed up shop again.

The last work stoppage, which wiped out the World Series in 1994, did huge damage to the sport's popularity, damage which was at least partially undone by Cal Ripken's surpassing of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak in 1996 and the home-run chase of 1998.

To stop the game again would have been risking total disenfranchisement of the fan base -- and that was before the attacks of Sept. 11, which removed any vestige of patience the public might have had for internecine squabbling by obscenely paid athletes and the corporate giants that pay them.

"I don't think fans have ever wanted to see billionaires arguing with millionaires," said Seattle Mariners reliever Norm Charlton. "I don't think fans deserve to see millionaires arguing with billionaires."

Many baseball analysts believe that the two sides will agree to table negotiations for at least a year, extending the existing contract until the mood of the country changes, at which point they can resume hostility.

But what a tremendous boost for the sport it would be if the two sides, illuminated by this new flash of perspective, realize how petty and repugnant their dispute looks in the real world.

Florida Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd said a work stoppage "would crush us, and they (owners) know that."

Rick Helling of the Texas Rangers is the American League player representative and a member of the union's negotiating committee.

"Only time will tell exactly how much, but there's no doubt in my mind the negotiations will be affected," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Flag unfurling costs Klesko

Talk about an injury for the times.

Ryan Klesko, the Padres' All-Star first baseman, is probably out for the season in what might be the first flag-waving ailment in baseball history.

On Monday, Klesko joined the rest of the Padres, as well as Dodgers players, in unfurling a huge American flag in pregame ceremonies at Dodger Stadium.

Klesko and Padres manager Bruce Bochy both stumbled as they backpedaled across the outfield grass toward home plate.

Klesko had injured his back on Sept. 11 while moving an object in his garage, and the flag-furling fall aggravated it. He underwent an MRI that revealed irritation near a disk in his lower back, and he'll be out two weeks.

"We were taken by surprise because we were told we were going to walk (the flag) back and they said, 'Go!' and some people started sprinting," Bochy told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Ryan almost went down."

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