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.