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Baseball Needs to Catch Its Breath. INTERVIEW: BASEBALL COMMISSIONER

By Larry EldridgeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 1989


NEW baseball commissioner A.Bartlett Giamatti faces the usual array of pressing issues as the 1989 season gets under way today - labor-management relations, expansion, drugs, TV, equal opportunity, etc. An added topic this year is the investigation of Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose, reportedly for gambling activities. But what the game really needs first of all, Mr. Giamatti says, is a chance to catch its breath after nearly two decades of economic and social upheaval.

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``Baseball has undergone and absorbed a whole set of dislocations,'' the distinguished educator-turned-sports administrator noted during a wide-ranging interview in his Park Avenue office. Among other things he cited free agency (``an economic dislocation which it has learned to handle''), equal opportunity (``an issue that should have been better attended to''), and the many technological advances of recent years.

``The game has been struggling to accommodate all these dislocations, to come to a sense of balance, a stable and sustainable equilibrium,'' he added.

Giamatti, a scholar in the field of Renaissance literature and former president of Yale University, might seem an unusual choice as a baseball official. He has been a lifelong fan, however, and has also written a number of articles on the game.

It was no great surprise, therefore, when he accepted the post of president of the National League three years ago. And it seemed equally natural when he was elevated to the commissioner's job this year after the decision of Peter Ueberroth not to seek another term.

Asked about his agenda as he begins his five-year term as commissioner, Giamatti declined to single out any one problem.

``You can't put priority numbers on things like economic stability, drugs, or equal opportunity,'' he said. ``Obviously, there are many pressing social concerns.''

One pressing issue is the specter of another players' strike in 1990 like the one that disrupted the 1981 season. Both sides are reportedly taking a hard line again, and building strike funds in anticipation of the worst. The public has an erroneous idea of the commissioner's power in this situation, Giamatti said.

``Let us not promote the fiction that the commissioner has the power to stop a strike,'' he said. ``American law gives the parties the right to negotiate. The commissioner's role is to bridge the gap. ... He doesn't sit at the table. I shouldn't, and I won't. In the end, the scene will play itself out, however the two sides want it to.''

What about equal opportunity, a high-visibility issue from the integration of the game in 1947 to the recent selection of Bill White to succeed Giamatti as National League president?

``While I think baseball has reawakened to its promise, it has a long way to go before it fulfills it,'' the commissioner said. ``I want us to get to the point where a conversation like this is unnecessary because the instinct for equal opportunity is total. `WE need a situation where any individual will feel he is going to be considered if he wants to be and has the qualifications. That's the theory - not quotas, not goals or timetables, but basically voluntary plans. I'm not going to sit here now and say `do this,' or `do that.' But you must - must - expunge any vestige of racism.''

On drug use, including alcohol, Giamatti emphasized that the players must accept their position as role models.