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The Way It Was

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It was so sad and so unfair. For months upon months he had agonized over the messy Pete Rose case in which one of baseball's all-time heroes had morphed into one of its all-time villains. When it was finally over, he went to his vacation home on Martha's Vineyard to find momentary peace. Instead he found eternal peace.

A. Bartlett Giamatti - Renaissance scholar, lifetime baseball fan, unlikely commissioner of the sport he loved - died of a heart attack Sept. 1, 1989, at only 51. And after nearly two decades, there is still reason to regret the loss of his powerful and eloquent voice.

Often now identified primarily as the father of actor Paul ("Sideways") Giamatti, Bart was the happiest of commissioners until he was struck down unexpectedly by a combination of pressure, overwork, overweight and heavy smoking after serving for slightly less than a year.

You might have expected a man of his intellectual gifts to be a snob. Instead he was Everyman as Fan. It was easy to imagine he would have surrendered everything else in his life if perhaps through his own pact with the devil he could have experienced one day as a major league player.

Or one minute.

"[Baseball] breaks your heart," Giamatti famously wrote in the Yale alumni magazine 12 years before his death. "It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."

Of course, that is why he loved the game, literally onto death. It is why so many of us love the game beyond mere victories and defeats.

Like most other true fans, Giamatti felt betrayed when it became obvious that Rose, a blue-collar icon, had bet on games, thereby going from representing baseball's best to its worst. Yet the commissioner really had no choice but to insist on the agreement for a lifetime ban negotiated painstakingly with Rose and his lawyers.

"People will say I'm an idealist. I hope so," Giamatti said when announcing the ban Aug. 24, just eight days before his death. "The banishment ... is a sad end of a sorry episode. One of the game's greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts. There is absolutely no deal for reinstatement."

Fay Vincent, Giamatti's deputy and successor, described Bart's rationale simply a few months after his close friend's death: "No player, no executive, no owner, no commissioner, no umpire is bigger than the game." Giamatti was president of Yale when he resigned to become president of the National League in 1986, somewhat of an improbable baseball destination for a lifelong Red Sox fan. Less than two years later he was elected commissioner to succeed the largely ineffectual Peter Ueberroth just in time to deal with Rose and his escapades.

Death found Giamatti one day into his vacation. He collapsed in the middle of the afternoon at his home in Edgartown, Mass., and was pronounced dead a short time later at Martha's Vineyard Hospital after repeated efforts to revive him.

President George H.W. Bush, a former Yale first baseman, said Giamatti had "made a real contribution to the game, standing for the highest possible ethical standards." Nobody disagreed, apparently not even Rose, who "had the highest respect for the commissioner," according to an attorney for the former Cincinnati Reds star and manager.

The question remains, however, of how much Rose respected the game that made him rich and famous.

In Giamatti's case, there was no doubt at all.

"The biggest thing I've learned [as a baseball executive] is the enormous grip the game has on people," Giamatti once told The Washington Post. "It goes down deep. It really does bind together. ... I think I underestimated the depth of this historical enterprise. Baseball is an unalloyed good."

One of the most accurate descriptions of him was supplied after his death by former catcher and broadcaster Joe Garagiola: "One thing you can be sure of, you'll never hear anyone say, 'I knew someone [else] exactly like Bart Giamatti.'"

From baseball's standpoint, more's the pity.

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