It starts as a baseball story. Pete Rose, the fiery manager of the Cincinnati Reds, is fined and suspended for 30 days by A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of the National League. The charge: ``forcefully and deliberately shoving an umpire.'' Baseball as usual, some say. A tense ninth-inning situation. A volatile manager. A beery bunch of fans. Boys will be boys.
Not good enough excuses, countered Giamatti, who slammed Rose with the longest suspension in four decades of professional baseball. Giamatti's goal, he announced, is to prevent ``the degeneration of baseball into dangerous displays of public disorder.''
Three cheers for that. Baseball - both its players and its fans - need decorum. But this is a story about more than baseball. It's about violence and confrontation as a way of life - even, perhaps, about the courage to stand up against the breakdown of discipline and courtesy in America. But finally it's about an almost archetypal meeting between two extraordinary individuals who see the world in very different ways.
What Rose and Giamatti both share is a passionate fondness for baseball. Giamatti, even while filling his previous roles as scholar of comparative literature and president of Yale University, wrote about the game and drew metaphors from it. Rose, voted America's top male athlete as early as 1975, remains baseball's all-time hit leader (4,256), a record he attained as the Reds' third-baseman.
But there the similarities end. Rose, an entrepreneur in the restaurant business, is given to uncluttered, straightforward statements. Baseball, to him, is a game of hustle, stamina, and quick reactions - simple and direct, like his prose. Asked about team rules in a 1984 Monitor interview, he said that ``two are all you really need ... being on time ... plus playing hard on every play.''
So when he came boiling out of the dugout that Saturday night to confront umpire Dave Pallone about a late call, his whole life experience came with him. He was there in an instant. And he rebuked what he saw as a grievous wrong with every fiber of his being.
Giamatti, too, knows about rebukes. Yet he also knows what it is to probe beneath the surfaces of things. ``As I think back and look forward,'' Giamatti wrote on leaving Yale in 1986, ``I see how nothing is straightforward, nothing is unambiguous. Salvation does not come through simplicities, either of sentiment or system. The gray, grainy, complex nature of existence and the ragged edges of our lives as we lead them defy hunger for a neat, bordered existence and for spirits unsullied by doubt or despair.''
And this, from his controversial 1981 diatribe against ultra-right political fundamentalists: ``They have licensed a new meanness of spirit in our land, a resurgent bigotry that manifests itself in racist and discriminatory postures, in threats of political retaliation, in injunctions to censorship, in acts of violence.''
So when he leveled the official wrath of his position at Rose, Giamatti, too, was being true to himself. Life is a ragged thing, he seemed to be saying. You may long for the clear-cut wisdom of some omniscient super-umpire standing at the first base of the soul. But in fact the calls are made in the heat of the moment, in a swirl of dust and derision, and with the weight of winning or losing hanging in the balance.
And for that very reason - precisely because there are no human absolutes - there is no excuse for the bigotry that blindly insists on its own rightness. There must be no threat of violence or retaliation. Above all, there must be no invitation to a meanness of spirit - nothing that undermines the common decency that keeps crowds from turning into mobs.
So is Giamatti's view of life right and Rose's wrong? Not at all. Both start with a love of the game. True, they circle out through very different landscapes - the active and the contemplative, the sportsman and the scholar. But they end, I suspect, at the same place. What matters, after all, is not the game - nor how you play it. What matters is why you play it: to demonstrate order in an ambiguous world, immediacy in the face of uncertainty, and grace in the presence of pressure. For reminding us of that, Giamatti deserves our thanks.
A Monday column