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CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) _ President Bush praised baseball owners and players Friday for averting a strike, saying the national pastime is important to the country, especially on the eve of the Sept. 11 anniversary.

``The president is pleased that the American people and baseball fans everywhere will be able to continue to participate in our national pastime,'' said Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman.

Negotiators talked through the night and reached a tentative agreement on a new contract, about 3 1/2 hours before Friday's first game, between St. Louis and Chicago at Wrigley Field. The players had set Friday as the strike deadline on Aug. 16.

Baseball ``does help to bring Americans together,'' McClellan said. ``It's an important sport in the American lifestyle and the American way of life. This is a time of unity on a number of fronts,'' he said, referring to the war on terrorism.

The White House stayed out of negotiations, urging owners and players to reach agreement on their own.

Bush made his fortune as managing partner of the Texas Rangers and still follows the game closely. Earlier this month, he said he would be furious if the players and owners could not save the season.

``The president made his feelings known, but even more importantly, baseball fans all across the country made their feelings known,'' McClellan said.