It is difficult to believe that the author of this philosophical meditation subtitled “Americans and Their Games” is the same Bart Giamatti who served as Commissioner of Major League Baseball from last April until his death in September. Of course, baseball knew it was hiring the president of Yale University to run its affairs, but it’s hard to imagine Giamatti explaining to Pete Rose, when the Cincinnati Reds manager was barred from the sport for life for gambling offences: “Pete, buddy, I’m sorry, but when the rules designed to sustain the convention that lawful skill (or skill lawfully applied) can win the day, that the game is a meritocracy, are weak or not enforced, then the quest for a covert edge will always threaten to shatter the whole enterprise.”
Peppered with Greek phrases and alluding to a variety of scholars from Aristotle on who have philosophized on the idea of leisure, “Take Time for Paradise” argues--unoriginally--that organized sport constitutes a sort of religious ritual. Giamatti opposes those who maintain that the industrial revolution knocked down the gods to whose greater glory we used to perform athletic achievements. We do not seek immortality by setting records, he says; it is the communal experience that is paramount. “Sports,” he writes, “represent a shared vision of how we continue, as individual, team or community, to experience a happiness or absence of care so intense, so rare, and so fleeting that we associate their experience with experience otherwise described as religious.” The longing for this garden of Eden, he suggests, draws us to the ballparks.
In the end, the tract seems to be a philosophical justification for the sentimentality Giamatti clearly feels for American sports. His lyricism reaches its height in a chapter on baseball, to which he gives the highfalutin title “Baseball as Narrative.” But perhaps the author’s intention is best expressed in the title of the book, which must be read as an exhortation to participate in sports. The clearest statement seems to be a passage closing the chapter on “Community,” in which he raises a banner “for the spectator, the average fan whose presence is crucial to the public presentation of sports: Public places require constant care--they require cleanliness, reasonable order, coherence, and accessibility; they require attention to parking lots, rest rooms, alcohol management and reasonable audiovideo policies on giant scoreboards . . . so that the happy camaraderie of competition we so value can continue to flourish. . . .” It seems an unnecessarily fancy way to justify ballpark admission prices.