Giamatti Inherits Many Problems as New Commissioner
He has served as commander in chief of the National League. He has slapped the wrist of a man who bumped an umpire. And Saturday, he ascended to a baseball job whose fringe benefits include free box-seat tickets to any game at any time.
Yet when you ask A. Bartlett Giamatti to choose the most lasting memory of his association with baseball as a fan, author and administrator, he chooses none of these high-profile moments. Instead, he ponders a moment, thumbing the salt-and-pepper goatee that sets him apart from, say, Sparky Anderson, before reluctantly reaching back four decades.
“That’s hard,” Giamatti said. “But I guess it would be my first memory of Fenway Park, about 1945 or ’46.”
Giamatti’s recall of the game and the circumstances of his attendance were remarkable. He ticked off a number of unrelated details, including the facts that his father and uncle had escorted him to the park that afternoon, that he was 7 or 8 years old at the time, that the Red Sox’ starting pitcher had been Boo Ferris and that he had been unable to close his mouth throughout the afternoon.
“I remember feeling as if I were gaping,” said Giamatti, who grew up a Red Sox fan in South Hadley, Mass. “I just remember sitting there and feeling, ‘I am overwhelmed by this. This is absolutely extraordinary.’ And it was. It was very much out of the ordinary from what I was accustomed to.”
The little boy with the slack jaw still attends games and still admits to rooting, though more discreetly, for the Red Sox. But, as of Saturday, when he officially became the seventh commissioner of major league baseball, Giamatti’s ties to the sport are certain to become a good bit closer. And infinitely more complicated.
As commissioner, he inherits from Peter V. Ueberroth, his predecessor, a lengthy list of problems, uncertainties and annoyances.
For instance, the investigation of the alleged gambling habits of Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose, which began on Ueberroth’s watch, figures to be completed soon. Depending on the findings, Giamatti could be called on to perform the unenviable task of hitting Rose with a one-year suspension (if he wagered on baseball games) or a lifetime ban (for placing bets on games involving the Reds).
And there are other matters:
Major league baseball’s record for hiring minority workers into front office positions, though improved over the last year, remains dubious. Giamatti will be held accountable for continued progress on that front.
The pressures on baseball to grant expansion franchises continues to mount. Giamatti is certain to be called upon either to minimize the political fallout from further delays or to oversee the addition of two teams.
And looming above all else is the possibility of a players strike that could knock out a good portion of the 1990 season. With the current labor agreement between players and owners due to expire in December, that possibility is considered ominously real by both sides.
Into this mine field walks a man who is a scholar of Renaissance literature, who served eight years as president of Yale University and who was hired into his first baseball job just three years ago.
Despite those credentials, which would seem to qualify him to direct the Library of Congress, but not baseball, Giamatti, who turns 51 Tuesday, was the resounding choice to take over the reins. When Ueberroth announced he would step down last fall, the owners so delighted in the opportunity to fill the job with Giamatti, the National League president, that they did not seriously consider other candidates.
Some of those baseball executives say that Giamatti fulfills the needs of baseball for a bright, able man who has cares about the sport and can help to repair strained relations between players and owners.
“We can’t keep having the off-season blood-letting that we’ve had every single year on contracts. The threats, charges, allegations. Who does that help?” said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, who is hopeful that Giamatti can work to lower the tensions.
“If anybody can do it, Bart will,” Kasten said. “He is a sincere person, he loves the game and he has an appreciation for its players - that’s a starting point.”
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who described himself as “a strong Giamatti supporter,” also praised the commissioner-elect’s talents for thinking through problems and arriving at reasonable solutions.
“Bart is a Renaissance man, a brilliant man,” Steinbrenner said. “He has great, sound reasoning powers. And that is what we need now.”
Despite the support of Kasten, Steinbrenner and other baseball executives, however, it is unclear what role Giamatti can play in the upcoming labor talks. As Yale president, he publicly lamented the 1981 players strike, which stretched from June until August, and even authored a piece about it for The New York Times. However, when his university became embroiled in a strike of clerical workers in 1984, Giamatti was unable to resolve the dispute quickly or without ill feeling. Before an agreement could be reached, the Yale workers had stayed off their jobs 10 weeks.
This time, Giamatti has said repeatedly that he will do his best to convince the baseball players and owners that they should commit themselves to reaching a settlement before the strike deadline. However, as commissioner, he is hired and paid by the owners. Despite the popular beliefs that he can command the parties to behave, the commissioner has virtually no authority to impose a labor agreement.
Asked recently what he would do to prevent a players’ strike, Giamatti shot back, “I’m not going to do anything if both sides are intent on having a strike.”
Then, speaking to a group of reporters, he added, “You guys love to promote the fiction that the commissioner can fix it all up, that the commissioner somehow has total suasion over everybody ...”
In fact, Giamatti said, he would welcome the opportunity to write an agreement fair to both the players and owners. “If both sides want to come to me and say, ‘Listen, we don’t want a strike. We want to present it to you, and you, in your wisdom, adjudicate’ -- wonderful,” he said. “Then I’ll perform that function beautifully and superbly, and everyone will be happy.”
Until that unlikely request is presented to him, however, Giamatti said he intends only to continue to talk about the senselessness of picket lines and a padlocked ballparks.
“My stake is to maintain the integrity of the season,” he said. “That’s what the commissioner worries about because (he) ought to be worrying about a season that is meaningful and coherent, whose statistics make sense.”
Labor questions, though they seem to dominate all his public comments of late, were the furthest thing from Giamatti’s mind when he left Yale to become the NL president in 1986.
That career move, like his appointment to the commissioner’s post, was not planned, Giamatti said. Instead, he was happily ensconced on the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn., when he received a phone call from Los Angeles Dodgers president Peter O’Malley, wanting to discuss Giamatti’s interest in the league president’s job.
In placing the call, O’Malley has said he simply was following up on a broad hint dropped by Giamatti several years earlier concerning his interest in a top-level baseball post. “I remember clearly, reading in the paper, the day he became president of Yale,” O’Malley once recalled. “It’s a famous quote picked up by all the wires and sports pages. He said the only thing he ever dreamed about being president of was the American League.”
His colleagues in academia were stunned by Giamatti’s decision to abandon his university post for a baseball job - one Yale faculty member, in a note to the college president, asked, “Do you really think that you can be of service to a nation which desperately needs the best and most experienced minds by serving as president of the National League?”
Giamatti ignored the advice, accepted the baseball job and had a busy and highly publicized three-year term.
During his years as National League president, for instance, Giamatti gained a reputation for dealing severely with batters who were discovered using corked bats and pitchers found doctoring baseballs. When Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross was caught with sandpaper in his baseball glove, Giamatti suspended him for 10 days. The circumstances were repeated during the National League playoffs last season when an inspection of Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell’s glove turned up a foreign substance. Again, Giamatti suspended the player.
If there was any ambiguity concerning Giamatti’s insistence that the rules of the game be observed, his handling of an incident concerning Rose last season, laid them to rest. In the most publicized and controversial act of his term as National League president, Giamatti handed down a 30- day suspension for the Reds manager after he twice bumped umpire Dave Pallone during a heated argument last April.
In each case, Giamatti’s judgment was questioned by the offending player and by others who wondered whether a former English professor is best qualified to preside over affairs of the National League. But Giamatti has remained unperturbed. Had Ueberroth not decided to eschew a second term, the National League president said, he would have remained at his job through the end of his five-year contract, then would have stood by to see “if (the owners) wanted me to do it anymore.”
“In many ways, being National League president is a wonderful job. You are in touch with the game on the field in a much more realistic and intimate way,” said Giamatti, who counted daily supervision of umpires and frequent dealings with players and managers among the job’s appealing duties.
As commissioner, however, Giamatti’s job description has changed, and perhaps not all to his liking. He’ll attend fewer games and, except in rare cases, no longer will be fashioning penalties to fit the crimes of baseball players.
“So why would you give up one for the other?” Giamatti asked. “Well, that’s not absolutely clear to me. I suppose because if you really care about baseball and somebody asked you to be commissioner, you don’t ask them to rethink it, lest they will. Rather, you say, ‘OK. Sure.’ Because at least you have a capacity to try to shape things overall.”
Now that he formally has been installed as commissioner, Giamatti will continue to lobby aggressively for a variety of issues he holds dear. Perhaps most prominent among them are a package of controls, fine-tunes and changes that the commissioner refers to as “ambiance issues.”
Under this heading, Giamatti files all matters that directly affect the viewing of games at ballparks, either by distracting attention from the game itself or by creating potentially dangerous situations in the stands.
During his term as National League president, for instance, Giamatti took steps to try to curb alcohol consumption and the disturbances that inevitably result when too many fans have too much to drink. At his direction, National League clubs have developed alcohol policies that include attempting to restrict excessive drinking in parking lots before games and a training program to assist ushers and security guards in spotting drunks before they become nuisances.
Giamatti emphasized that he does not advocate a ban on ballpark beer. “I’ve never been interested in having someone think the best way to do this is to declare prohibition,” he said. “The point is to keep people from acting in an excessive or immoderate manner.”
Giamatti also has adopted a “less is more” attitude concerning the operation of stadium scoreboards, public-address systems and other electronic accoutrements that has turned many a modern ballpark into an open-air video arcade.
Last year, for instance, Giamatti issued to National League teams what he refers to as “very stringent” guidelines covering the use and misuse of electronic wizardry. Among other things, Giamatti’s policies established bans on the playing of loud music when hitters step into the batter’s box and on showing live TV pictures of the game on the stadium scoreboard -- a practice that strikes Giamatti both as redundant and just plain dumb.
“My view is that you go to the game to watch the game,” he said. “You don’t go to the game to watch the scoreboard watch the game.”
On this score, Giamatti’s influence has been felt even in the American League. And even in Baltimore.
“He has had some impact on us,” said Baltimore Orioles president Larry Lucchino, referring to Giamatti’s calls for electronic and alcoholic restraint. “We have tried to be more thoughtful about ambiance questions, in part, because of our own concerns but also because we have been listening to him address these sorts of issues.”
In particular, Lucchino said the Orioles have been more mindful of “turning down the volume level” of other activities at the ballpark, and of pushing the feeling that “baseball is the main event.”
These are words that Giamatti himself could have spoken. In the next few years, expect that he will. Often.