IN HIS LATEST BOOK, "A FREE AND ORDERED SPACE," ANGELO BARTLETT GIAMATTI DECLARES: "BEING PRESIDENT OF A UNIVERSITY IS NO WAY FOR AN ADULT TO MAKE A LIVING." SIR, IS BEING COMMISSIONER OF BASEBALL, LIKEWISE, ANY WAY FOR A GROWN-UP TO SPEND HIS WAKING HOURS? "YES, AN ADULT SHOULD BE COMMISSIONER, BECAUSE IN ANY ADULT WILL ALWAYS LURK A CHILD, AND IF YOU DON'T TRY TO FIND AN ADULT FOR THE JOB, THE CHILD WILL SIMPLY TAKE OVER. YOU'VE GOT TO WATCH THAT."
So it was, this April Fools' Day, that the man who stood with God at the helm at Yale became the man who stands with the child in all our selves on behalf of baseball. Quo vadis? Giamatti, in his new book, quotes an apocryphal memo he supposedly wrote and released to "an absent and indifferent" university community upon assuming the presidency at Yale: "In order to repair what Milton called the ruin of our grand parents, I wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of University policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored."
Will you then, sir, he was asked last month, issue a similar proclamation on the occasion of your ascent to the summit of the National Pastime?
"No, I tell myself, don't press it. Don't overdo it. This is a special world, baseball, and it certainly has its snakes in the garden, but I'm not sure that it needs a memo as much as that other special world did."
April 16, 1989
Also, baseball isn't about memos, thank God. It's about lineups, and should the new commissioner issue any such papal bull as he did during his tenure at Yale, it ought to be in the form of a lineup card, to be posted in hearts and dugouts everywhere. It should read:
There would be no designated hitter.
Management is the capacity to handle multiple problems, neutralize various constituencies, motivate personnel.... Leadership, on the other hand, is an essentially moral act, not—as in most management—an essentially protective act. It is the assertion of a vision, not simply the exercise of a style.
From an address to school administrators, 1987
The commissioner has the responsibility for the integrity and for the steady, sustainable growth of the whole institution. Integrity is an important, historical term in baseball, and it not only means honesty, but coherence—authenticity. Game or business, industry or institution, however you define it, the commissioner must seek to ensure its authenticity. The ultimate purpose of playing the game of baseball is to bring pleasure to the American people.
How strange, taken as a group, baseball's stewards have been. In order, they've been: judge, politician, sportswriter, general, lawyer, businessman, scholar. There's room—and therefore hope—for us all. At least till now, baseball commissioners have stood divinely apart from the executives who have managed other sports, for though baseball was in distress when Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis assumed the newly created position in 1921, the game was already an American institution, holy, mature and beloved. Baseball commissioners, perforce, preside. Men in other sports supervise leagues; baseball commissioners are sceptered.
When David Stern, the acclaimed commissioner of the NBA, and Giamatti had lunch together the other day, Stern tweaked him thusly: "All right, Bart, baseball is America's pastime, but football is America's passion and basketball is America's game."
Giamatti, chuckling, replied, "I can live with that, David, as long as you understand that I have historical priority, and therefore I run the country."
Giamatti might have once been a professor of our language, which he calls "the best job I ever had." And the language of baseball may be the sweetest and most vivacious of American vernacular. Still, it's first the history, and then the voice, that binds Giamatti to the game.
This shouldn't be surprising. The more we melt in the pot, the more our diversity and heritage blur, the more baseball stands out as a cultural vein. "I've always charged Emerson with implanting this belief in Americans: that nothing happened before, and we're going to do it better anyhow," Giamatti says. "That Emersonian self-reliance gives you a wonderful strength and self-confidence, but it gives you a terrible know-nothingness at the same time. So baseball becomes the only native history that somehow seems O.K.—O.K. in a nation of romantics, which is most profoundly what we are."
He plays with his cigarette, moving it about the ashtray, tracing in the ashes. It's easy to see why that vice is so hard for Giamatti to put behind him; it is manifestly as much a manual fixation as it is an oral one. He speaks eloquently but applies inflection and animation just as effectively. There's certainly the M.C. and probably the actor within him; it's no coincidence that he met Toni, his wife of almost 30 years, at the Yale Drama School, where she was a student while he was an undergraduate playing a bit part in The Skin of Our Teeth, and that two of their three children (all grown now) are in the theater.
In fact, though Giamatti is just the sort of fellow—scholar, poet, essayist and all that—who should be leaning back in his chair and musing most of the time, he really doesn't seem to be much of a muser. He seems to muse only when he messes around with his cigarette. "You see," he muses, "I keep trying to remind people that there are lots of ways to love baseball. I may have come to it through a love of history. Others come to it through a love of statistics, or the smell of a glove, or just for something that their grandfather recited to them when they were very young. I keep saying: There are many routes to the game. There are many routes to the kingdom of baseball."
At the heart of Giamatti's love and his creed is the visceral belief that baseball is a symbol, an active totem, of America, and that—by god!—it is the best of America. He will fight to maintain that vision. It is revealing that the only substantive criticism that Giamatti suffered as National League president these past two years was that, according to some of baseball's cognoscenti, he meted out cruel and inequitable punishment for infractions of the rules. Especially objectionable to these critics were the 30-day suspension given to Reds manager Pete Rose for his truculence in disputing a call at home in Cincinnati and the 10 days pitcher Kevin Gross of the Phillies got for doctoring a baseball. Meanwhile, what appeared to be more abusive behavior escaped with lesser penalties.
Says Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, one of the more persistent voices in the relatively small anti-Giamatti chorus, "In that job [National League president] all you have to do is throw out first balls and handle suspensions. It isn't so much to ask that he get that right. Now we've got somebody in there—Bill White—who knows the game."
But Giamatti doesn't see himself as, shall we say, a local magistrate. Violations in the game are one thing; violations against the game are quite another. Rose's actions that night last April, however unintentional, nearly touched off a riot—and Rose is a leader and, ergo, more responsible: Leadership is essentially a moral act. Likewise, it mattered terribly to Giamatti that Gross's actions were consciously planned, a moral choice. Much of his 10-page decision denying Gross's appeal discoursed on the subject of premeditation.
Those who would gauge Giamatti—and certainly those who might find themselves in his docket—should understand that one notion, above all others, directs his thought these days: The notion that this country, this people and this game of baseball are deteriorating in matters of courtesy and consideration. Hardly an essay in A Free and Ordered Space fails to make some reference to civility—particularly the increasing lack thereof. "Civility has to do with decency and mutual respect and, finally, with a free and ordered common life—or civilization," Giamatti writes. Whatever crises may inflict themselves upon baseball during Giamatti's five-year term—disputes and scandals, outrages, even the Great Strike of 1990, which seems to be accepted by prominent members of both sides as a fait accompli—it seems fair to say that when his time as commissioner is up he will look back and measure his tenure by how much more (or less) civil a baseball stadium, a baseball crowd, a baseball game has become.
What concerns Giamatti most particularly are two interrelated trends that he thinks threaten spectator entertainment. The first is a derivative of the new arrogance of the individual, a grubby American quality that Giamatti raised the alarum about when he addressed the incoming freshman class at Yale in 1982. Examining that selfish drift in terms of baseball, Giamatti perceives a decline in people's need (even in their inclination) to congregate. "I take very seriously the public taking of public pleasure, and that sense of shared community that goes with it," he says. "Whenever that is threatened or eroded, then I can see that ultimately the whole institution will wither, die."
Spectator sports are vulnerable to start with. Despite the publicity they receive, the fact is that they account for only $5.4 billion of the $21.4 billion spent on sports entertainment in this country. "The individual, who is sacred under our laws, is now narcissistic," Giamatti says. "The threat to this country, and to baseball, is to privatize everything. For me in the last 15 years, the most frightening image of the privatization of leisure is that solitary, androgynous jogger—symbolic of that $16 billion related to sport that hasn't anything to do with public pleasure in public places.
"If this antisocial impulse, this kind of twilight-of-the-'60s narcissism, continues and is fed by those who have every right to feed it with designer shoes and boats and recreational vehicles and stuff, or if it is fed all the more by that thing over there [he points derisively to a television set across the room], which allows you to tailor your visual leisure to yourself, then, whether you stage indoor or outdoor sports or concerts or lectures or whatever, you had better make the most strenuous effort to keep alive the principle of going out, as opposed to staying in—in groups, as opposed to alone. Because all of the cultural, legal and financial incentives are moving in the other direction."
Moreover, those who would buck the flow and go to the stadiums are being repulsed by uncivil crowd behavior—much of it inflicted by young and disaffected white males, the same sorts who have already driven older men, women and families away from soccer games in England and on the Continent. Giamatti has, of course, thought about this, too. "I think this game embodies certain standards of behavior," he says, "and the fellow sitting in Section 37 is part of the game, too. He's not alone there, of course. He's part of a happy, loud, boisterous, lovely crowd, and they're all screaming, arguing. Fine. I'm not looking for a..."
"No, no, I said that once, and all the ministers came down on me. You have to be careful. I'm not a prohibitionist, so I see in many columns that I'm therefore not only the toady of the owners but a wholly owned subsidiary of the beer companies.
"No, I'm only looking for someone to enjoy the game to the fullest and to respect the right of those on either side of him. I seek a community of enjoyment. I am not going to sit passively by, just because somebody thinks I'm a scold, and watch as women and children and other men decide that going out to the park is simply not worth the candle.
"When they stay home, then baseball is the loser—and not just the loser of revenue. Baseball is the loser of their public support, of their faith and of their belief that this is an enduring American institution."
It appears most likely that no commissioner since Landis (and possibly not even he) has come to the office more concerned than Giamatti with baseball in all its parts—its spirit and its relevance to the republic.
Because no single formal religion can embrace a people who hold so many faiths, including no particular formal faith at all, sports and politics are the civil surrogates...for [an America] ever in quest for a covenant.
Address to incoming Yale freshmen, 1984
Commissioner is a calling in a structure that has a secular religious quality. You're given extraordinary powers a/id faith, but you should only use them when it's really warranted.
Little Bart Giamatti got his first baseball glove in Rome in 1947, a gift from a visiting American, and it isn't hard to imagine how the little paesano soon arrived on democracy's shores, clutching the fielder's mitt to his breast. Or how, four decades later, that plucky immigrant lad would rise to become the commander of America's national pastime.
But truth is often blander than fiction, and it wasn't quite that way. The reason little Bart was in Rome was that his father, Valentine Giamatti, distinguished professor of Italian language and literature at Mount Holyoke College, was abroad on sabbatical. Professor Giamatti negotiated for the glove with a U.S. Army sergeant in the occupation force and gave it to his son. The elder Giamatti, a native of New Haven, was himself a Yale man and had married a daughter of Bartlett Walton. In many respects, in his own ethnic league, Bartlett Giamatti recalls Harry Golden's remark about Barry Goldwater in 1964: "Wouldn't you know—at last we get a Jew to run for president, and he turns out to be Episcopalian."
Young Bart talked as much about Dante as about Johnny Pesky at the family dinner table and then went to Andover and Yale. He was pledged to Scroll & Key, one of Old Eli's most secret societies; he graduated magna cum laude in 1960 and remained in New Haven to receive his doctorate, in '64. Except for a brief interlude on the faculty at Princeton, he would abide in the bosom of Yale from '56 until he resigned as the school's president in June of '86 to return to teaching, only to have the National League beckon him.
His selection in 1978 as the 19th president of America's third-oldest college was an unexpected—some would even say, whimsical—choice. Indeed, when his name, which he pronounces Ja-MOD-ee, first bubbled up for consideration, the irreverent Giamatti himself tossed off the wisecrack: "All I ever wanted to be president of was the American League." Among offhand remarks in the world of sports, perhaps only Muhammad Ali's "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong" was to carry more lasting consequence. With Giamatti's quip, baseball executives discovered the scholar-fan, and in the years that followed they remained charmed by the bearded college president who seemed to pose in his Red Sox cap more often than anyone save Jean Yawkey.
While Giamatti says that his official arrival in baseball was greeted by no less than "radical skepticism," his appointment at Yale may have been a more puzzling, even exotic, choice. However much he was an insider in New Haven, Giamatti was called to lead a university that had been fiscally wounded by a recession brought on by an OPEC embargo and was hemorrhaging endowment funds, running a large deficit and facing cutbacks both substantive and symbolic. Beyond that, on the horizon was the threat of a strike by clerical workers. Whatever the 40-year-old president's evident merits, he had no experience in either finance or labor negotiations.
Any analysis of Giamatti's presidency at Yale must begin by stating that he didn't govern as was generally predicted, which should give caution to those now issuing scouting reports on the new commissioner. He's credited with picking subordinates who complemented him, especially those who possessed more of a business background—just as his first major decision as commissioner-elect was to hire baseball's first deputy commissioner, Fay Vincent, a good friend and a lawyer (Yale Law School), who has been running Columbia Pictures for the last decade. At the same time, Giamatti astonished Yale associates with the grasp he displayed of numbers, and the proof of that is in the pudding: During his eight-year tenure, endowment and alumni giving both doubled.
Also, the admissions office had the wisdom to accept the application of Ronald Maurice Darling for the Class of '82.
Giamatti did sustain some criticism for getting too wrapped up in detail and for being unable to either emotionally or physically detach himself from the job. "He even felt he had to respond to all the mail," says Georges May, a professor of French who served as Giamatti's provost for two years, "and that in itself is suicidal."
One day, for example, a letter came in from a seventh-grader, Kempton Dunn of New Canaan, Conn., who wanted to know why Yale's president thought it was important to study the dead language of Latin. Giamatti took pains to write a lengthy reply, which concluded: "We study Latin because without it we cannot know our history and our heritage. And without that knowledge, we cannot know ourselves. Nosce teipsum [know thyself], brave Dunn."
Nonetheless, the assessment that the wry academic turned out to be more the technocrat, even a micromanager somewhat in the Jimmy Carter mold, still makes Giamatti bristle. (He is a more obvious bristler than a muser.) "I'm only a poet or a dreamer according to those—journalists especially—who think that if you taught English you must therefore be a poet or a dreamer," he says, bristling. "These positions—president and commissioner—are both management jobs, and if I must breathe down necks to accomplish goals, so be it."
By all accounts Giamatti has exhibited two noble qualities of the leader: forthrightness and accessibility. Bill Brainard, provost in Giamatti's last five years at Yale, says, "Bart is utterly consistent, and he never deals with any person in an ad hominem way." Even at the height of the clerical workers' strike, one that was both painful and rancorous, and which ran for 10 weeks in the fall of 1984. Giamatti would leave his office and purposely steer a course home that took him directly through the picket lines. As much as possible, as the two sides hardened and as he, the president, was pilloried for his stand, Giamatti would still talk to those workers who opposed him. He would be civil.
Even those who have disputed some of his edicts as president of the National League have been impressed by his willingness to visit the branch offices, meet with the principals and discuss the issues. Peter Gammons of this magazine was in Pittsburgh one September evening in 1987 when Giamatti happened to show up, flying out strictly to palaver with the managers in town, the home team's Jim Leyland and the visiting Cardinals' Whitey Herzog, on the subject of corked bats. Both generally approved of what Giamatti had to say, but what impressed Gammons was that, while neither manager is given to gushing, both were delighted that the league president had made the effort not only to seek them out but also to hear them out.
But civility has its limits. The strike at Yale was wounding to Giamatti. "Bart should not have involved himself as much as he did," May says. "He should have stayed more above the fray. But there is something in Bart that simply refuses to turn away from any responsibility."
Giamatti has a predilection, as Terry Holcombe, a Yale vice-president, says, "to take something on just for the sake of it, as long as he believes it's important, when others would run away from it." A cross section of examples:
1) Who in His Right Mind Could Come Out Against Polish Solidarity? When the Yale Glee Club was scheduled to sing the Solidarity anthem on the Voice of America in 1982, Giamatti raised the hackles of William Buckley and many other conservatives, Yalie and otherwise, when he refused the glee club permission to sing, on the principle that the club had no business getting political, whichever side it might take.
2) Memo to Neal Pilsen of CBS Sports. Dear Neal, You may have just negotiated a billion-dollar deal with Peter Ueberroth for baseball rights, but be advised that Giamatti has called television "all-seeing, all-falsifying."
2a) Also to Mr. Pilsen, Damning with Faint Praise Department. "At least baseball has been less deformed by television than other sports." (Giamatti, speaking on Feb. 28.)
3) The Yale Band Will Now Spell Out NCAA While Playing Your Cheatin' Heart. While president of Yale, an NCAA institution since 1915, Giamatti called college sports "a circus," and added later, "If you market your institution by way of television football half-times, then you will get the kind of seamy problems you get in sports."
4) Why Go out of Your Way to Provoke Jerry Falwell? In 1981, Giamatti chose to lambaste "a self-proclaimed 'Moral Majority,' " which features "a resurgent bigotry" that has "licensed a new meanness of spirit in our land." His comments elicited so enraged a response that another Yale man, then Vice-President George Bush, prevailed on Giamatti to invite Falwell to his office, where they met behind closed doors and left with signed copies of each other's latest books, if no other shared wisdom.
5) People Who Are Even Thinking About Building Glass Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones. In 1981, Giamatti wrote an essay for The New York Times calling to account the insensitive, bumbling men responsible for an ongoing national strike. "There is no general sympathy for either of your sides. Nor will there be," he wrote, after labeling the strike "an example of deny-side economics...the triumph of greed over the spirit of the garden."
The dispute in question was between the owners and players of major league baseball, with commissioner Bowie Kuhn presiding over the forces of darkness and avariciousness.
But if Giamatti didn't occasionally go out of his way to pick a fight, he probably wouldn't have chosen baseball over the classroom.
Besides, the job affords Giamatti, at least in some measure, the chance to do what he loves most. Says Holcombe, "In whatever job Bart has, a lot of what he does is teach." Men like Herzog and Leyland must understand that, in many respects, Giamatti sees them first as pedagogical colleagues; he has always emphasized the point that coaches are just teachers with a different sort of classroom. So, while being commissioner means giving up the rapture of the campus—trading it for things like flying, which Giamatti is not very fond of, or for those glass elevators in hotels, which he dislikes even more than airplanes—what he gains in the bargain is a bully lectern.
Of course, some of his Yale critics bridled at his facility for artful expression. (One alumnus's Renaissance man is another's dilettante.) The same grumbles can already be heard in Jockstrap America, which has had nothing to prepare it for an articulate public figure, let alone an eloquent public figure, let alone an eloquent sports executive. Giamatti speaks of libraries as fondly as most men speak of women or baseball, and that can be terribly disconcerting.
He will offer no predictions for himself beyond his contracted term of five years. "I am a perfect case of how the unexamined life is worth living," he says. "I never did have a big plan. I just wanted to be a professor of English—at Yale, I hoped—and when I accomplished that it was almost immediately taken away from me." He sighs, drawing among the ashes with his cigarette.
"There is something in Bart that doesn't allow him to be happy," May says.
But Giamatti knows where best to search for his joy. In December, when things were quiet, his Manhattan office turned away all inquiries, saying that he was traveling. In fact, Giamatti was holed up only a few blocks away, in the Yale Club, researching and writing about baseball and America for a series of lectures that he would deliver a few weeks later at the University of Michigan. One of the advantages of being commissioner of baseball instead of president of Yale, he has discovered, is that students are now much more inclined to listen to you.
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there were others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough amongst us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown up or that up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
Yale Alumni Magazine And Journal, 1971
People come to games for stable artifice. The initial impulse is to delineate a world whose rules have no meaning anywhere else, but where every act is significant. Look! [His arms sweep over the books upon his desk.] Baseball has the largest library of law and lore and custom and ritual, and therefore, in a nation that fundamentally believes it is a nation under law, well, baseball is America's most privileged version of the level field.
Giamatti's endearing reflections on baseball invariably feature several themes, among them:
•The Law of the Game. "There is an inviolability of its rules, heightened by the taboo: Thou shalt not touch."
•The Color Green. "The color of hope. It always had that connotation in The Divine Comedy. [Oh, what the hell, let's show off just a little.] After all, I once wrote a book entitled The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic, and at one time I probably knew as much about the enclosed green space as anybody did." Giamatti takes pleasure in pointing out the fact that the word paradise derives from the Persian word for "park." and he obviously doesn't think it's just a coincidence that what is generally recognized as the site of baseball's true first game was in Hoboken, N.J., at a public clearing known locally as the Elysian Fields.
•The Blurriness, Unique in Sports to Baseball, of the Offense and the Defense. Can we really say that the pitcher is on the defense when he hurls a hard ball 95 mph? "Baseball doesn't have sides because it isn't militaristic."
•The Geometry of the Game. "It's constantly working against action, containing it and releasing it. There's a tremendous counterpoint between energy and order. Nothing is more orderly and geometrically precise than baseball."
•The Balance of the Individual and the Group. "It's very much an individual sport you play as a team matter."
•Home. Always home. Even Giamatti laughs at how often he has made this point—the first public occasion was apparently on Oct. 18, 1978, in an essay in The Hartford Courant shortly after he left teaching to accept the Yale presidency: "Baseball is about going home and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. It tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again but that you cannot stay. The journey must always start once more, the bat an oar over the shoulder, until there is an end to all the journeying."
Usually, whatever the themes he chooses, Giamatti then takes them outside the game and connects baseball to America. Baseball reflects America, and vice versa. Ours is a nation of laws, for example, accommodating, says Giamatti, "the to-and-fro between the community and the individual that the whole Constitution is supposed to be about." Like baseball, America is composed of a people who prefer "to change sides rather than take them," symbolized by the pastoral green we idealize, even as we pave it over—that shifting nation of immigrants, ever selecting a home, even as we keep leaving and going further away "from the great green garden." Run home. Home run.
Baseball is altogether authentic. Baseball is, if you will, yore. "Baseball is one of the few American institutions to have survived since the Civil War," Giamatti says. "It represents our antiquity. It was 1846 when Mr. Cartwright ferried his pals across the river to the Elysian Fields, and as the crow flies in this country, that's a fair amount back. Why, Mr. Jefferson himself had only been dead for 20 years. Baseball is an American institution, and, as the trustee of it, I will be respectful of its certain fundamental values."
Still, while Giamatti likes to neatly circumscribe himself as "middle-aged, middle-class and middle-of-the-road," it was the Reverend Mr. Falwell who took great and devilish delight in assessing the erstwhile president of liberal Yale thusly: "Some people might accuse Mr. Giamatti of being a conservative." Much of the modern baseball experience—especially the peripheral, Veeckian divertissements that have become commonplace—seems to offend Giamatti, much as Falwell and his fundamentalists are offended whenever anybody monkeys around with their ritual pieties. Giamatti declared recently that those in baseball who would explode scoreboards and parade mascots appear to have no confidence in the pure game and are like "theatrical companies who only want to do Shakespeare in motorcycle boots and leather jackets."
Certainly, Giamatti has always been a perfect match for baseball. The first man in the game to officially interview him was Bud Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, then at the helm of the search committee that would eventually tap Peter Ueberroth for the commissioner's job. Selig and Giamatti had dinner in New York. "It was one of the nicest evenings of my life," Selig says. After eating, the two men stepped outside into the summer air and walked the streets of Manhattan, strolling along for an hour or more, Selig recalls fondly, "just talking about baseball—not just Ted Williams, you understand, but about Bobby Doerr and Al Zarilla. I appreciated immediately what a wonderful intuitive grasp he had of the game."
Even now, the baseball establishment's only real reservation about Giamatti is that he's too much the fan. But the new commissioner is perhaps viewed more dubiously by some journalists and other chroniclers. It was they—and their long lineage—who saw to it that baseball became the most literate game, and it is supposed to be the duty of these troubadours to sing of the Doerrs and Zarillas. In this ancient folk opera, commissioners will always be craven interlopers, ordained by Philistine owners. And now the actual commissioner is a lifelong martyr to the numinous Bosox cause and a bard himself, who holds most precious among the honors bestowed upon him an award not only for a sports story, but for an ode to the sainted Tom Seaver. Inevitably, whenever Giamatti is referred to as a former professor or as a scholar or as a refugee from academia, stuff like that, criticism of his baseball leadership skills is certain to follow. "Yes, yes," he whines facetiously, "Dante is back out at the ballpark today."
Like a deskbound commander, he wishes somewhere in his heart that he had been brevetted on the battlefield. "But I can't help it if I couldn't hit a major league fastball," Giamatti admits humbly (thereby cleverly obscuring the greater truth—he also couldn't hit a junior high school fastball). No, it was the chance for a great love, requited, that brought him to baseball. Indeed, Giamatti was just six weeks from returning to teaching when the call to run the National League came in 1986. He already had, not necessarily in order of importance, tenure, a course to teach and a guaranteed parking place. One could even say he was home.
Yet he leapt at the chance in baseball, and when, two years later, the opportunity for promotion came, there was no pause. "If you love the game, and somebody says to you, 'We've elected you commissioner,' you don't stand around with your finger in your mouth," he says, "you don't scruple, dimple and dance—and you don't give them the time to rethink the proposition. You just say, 'Terrific. Thank you very much.' "
So he did. And with that, he moved that much further from the best job he ever had. It's revealing, no doubt, that when Giamatti talks about the experience of becoming president of Yale, he calls it "being uprooted." In point of fact, he still lives in New Haven where, as a young professor, he listened to Red Sox games, sucked on bottles of Knickerbocker beer and the next morning drove off in his old yellow VW bug to Sterling Library, there to delve joyously into purgatory and allegory.
But then, like one of the great knights of The Faerie Queene, he was uprooted from the faculty, sent off to the presidency and the commissionership. On his 40th birthday, he was on a plane, going somewhere to raise money for Yale; on his 50th, a year ago, he was watching a ball game with Reds owner Marge Schott in Cincinnati. Now, just days after his 51st birthday, he is presiding over the National Pastime. Nosce teipsum, brave Giamatti. In the effort to get back home again, he has reached second base, with a good lead. His beard is white now, but it's April again, the parks smell like paradise, and his world is green.