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.