Last week, the media and the blogosphere dedicated a lot of time to marking the twenty year anniversary of Pete Rose agreeing to a lifetime ban from baseball in the face of overwhelming evidence that he gambled on the game and gambled on his own team. ESPN showed an Outside the Lines piece that actually managed to humanize the insufferable Joe Morgan, who was literally moved to tears over his frustration with the arrogance and stubbornness his friend and former teammate has carried himself with in these last two decades.
This post isn't intended to wade into the quagmire that is the Rose debate. Rather, it's to point out that yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of former Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, the other principal character in the Greek tragedy that is the Rose banishment. The anniversary of the death of Rose's baseball career passed with much fanfare. The anniversary of the death of Giamatti passed with nary a whisper.
Baseball lends itself to stories and fables and legends and hyperbole. That's the way it's always worked, particularly with the media. As such, the legend goes that the toll of the Dowd Report and the Rose ban killed Giamatti just eight days after the suspension was announced. The truth of the matter is Giamatti was overweight, smoked heavily, and suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. I'm sure the stress of the summer of 1989 weighed heavily upon Giamatti, but it certainly wasn't the only cause of his tragic and untimely death.
Last night, as I drove past the sign for the Giamatti Little League Center on my way to my hockey game, I thought about what might have been had Giamatti not died less than a year into his tenure as Commissioner. Several others have had similar thoughts of late. Rose and his camp insist that Giamatti would have granted Rose reinstatement over time. Fay Vincent, who served as Giamatti's Deputy Commissioner and played a major role in the Rose investigation, insists that never would have happened.
In February, following the Alex Rodriguez steroid admission, Yale Magazine ran a piece from Giamatti friend and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. It implied that Giamatti was planning to tackle drug testing head on after the Rose situation was settled, and suggested that perhaps the PED scandal of the last twenty years could have been avoided had Giamatti been successful. And maybe Giamatti would have made an impact. He had the backing of the owners. He had taken a hard line against a union before in his days as Yale President. He had gained a reputation as a disciplinarian in his time as National League President, handing down heavy suspensions to Rose for an ump bump and Dodgers reliever (and former Yankee) Jay Howell for applying pine tar to a ball during the NLCS. But we'll never know if Giamatti would have taken on drug testing nor how successful he would have been.
As for me, I wonder how other things would have played out had Giamatti lived to serve a full term. Would Fay Vincent still have been named his successor? If so, would he have been as overmatched in that role had he been able to spend more than just a few months working in Major League Baseball first? Would the owners still have forced him out? Could the Bud Selig era have been avoided? How about the 1994 strike? The Wild Card and divisional realignment? Would the ridiculous All-Star Game/homefield advantage policy still be in place? Would baseball have expanded twice more? Would contraction have even been discussed? Would the Nationals still be in Montreal? Would the Giants or White Sox have moved to St. Petersburg after all? Would revenue sharing have been put in place sooner? Would it not have been put in place at all?
Recent Yankee history might have been much different as well. In February 1990, Fay Vincent handed George Steinbrenner a lifetime ban for his hiring of gambler Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield and his foundation. The ban was lifted three years later, after Vincent had been forced out of office and Steinbrenner friend Bud Selig was the acting Commissioner. Would Giamatti have handed down the same sentence? If so would he have reinstated Steinbrenner at any point?
It's all useless conjecture, but it's also intriguing to wonder what might have been. While Rose, Vincent, and Thornburgh all knew Giamatti to some extent, none of them can truly know what he would have done had he served longer as Commissioner, and neither do I. What we do know is that Bart Giamatti died too soon, and it was baseball's loss. It's unfortunate that the baseball media didn't see fit to remember that yesterday.