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A Scholar Plumbs the Meaning of Sports

WHEN Bart Giamatti died suddenly on Sept. 1, he had been commissioner of major league baseball for exactly four months. Prior to that, he had been president of the National League. His roots, however, were Ivy League. Before his entry into the management world of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti was president of Yale University and an Italian Renaissance scholar. An odd path, one might say, for a commissioner of major league baseball to have followed.

Odd, but felicitous, for Giamatti's affection for the liberal arts enabled him to watch and reflect on organized sports in ways few have done before.

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To say that ``Take Time for Paradise'' is about ``Americans and Their Games'' (as the subtitle does) is like saying that Augustine's ``Confessions'' is about a young man's adventures in growing up.

A slim volume, ``Take Time for Paradise'' is the work of a scholar who was also a true fan, especially of baseball. Giamatti reflects on the deeper meaning of sports in the United States in ways that the average sports fan may find perplexing. The reader with both the intellectual sophistication and the interest in playing Giamatti's mind games, however, will revel in doing so.

``It has long been my conviction,'' Giamatti begins, ``that we can learn far more about the conditions, and values, of a society by contemplating how it chooses to play, to use its free time, to take its leisure, than by examining how it goes about its work.''

Sports, Giamatti says, are ``a subset of leisure,'' and in order to understand the appeal sports have for Americans, ``one must first understand the nature of leisure as that concept developed since the Greeks, especially Aristotle.''

Sports are not, as some scholars insist, ``a form of immortality (and meaning) in a world that no longer believes in God,'' but rather ``a shared moment of leisure ... 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...''

Giamatti is no Pollyanna, of course. He recognizes the dark underside: ``At its worst, sport is the pointless, if widely enjoyed, detritus of an industrial society - a kind of nontoxic pollutant, junk food for the spirit, without nourishment, without history, without serious purpose.''

Giamatti declares, however, that sports, at their best, aspire ``to the condition of paradise.'' By this he means that ``through play in all its forms, including through professional sports in late twentieth-century America, we hope to achieve a state that our larger Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian culture has always known was lost. Where it exists we do not know, although we always have envisioned it ... as removed, an enclosed, green place.''

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Like a baseball park, for example.

There is an unbreakable alliance, Giamatti observes, between sports and the city. ``When people choose to settle, like the stars, not wander like the moon, they create cities as sites and symbols of their choice to stop and of their agreement not to separate.'' This alliance exists because both sport and city are ``deeply conventional,'' and a convention is ``a social pattern we have chosen to prefer over whatever the raw world simply offers.'' We all agree that red and green mean stop and go, and three strikes mean you're out.

Fine and pleasant as the rest of the book is, however, it is in his final chapter that Giamatti abandons the frequent qualifying phrase the scholar cherishes and waxes eloquent about his great love, baseball. The reader may be excused, in fact, for ignoring the rest of the book to read this one chapter alone.

What if, Giamatti writes, baseball is a form of writing? ``Is that not why so many writers love baseball?'' Why is it called home plate and not fourth base? Regardless, the journey away from home base, Odysseus-like, is full of dangers, the trip around and back equally hazardous (no sea monsters, but there is the shortstop), and one may or may not become a hero.

``A `home run' is the definitive kill, the overcoming of obstacle at one stroke, the gratification instantaneous in knowing one has earned a risk-free journey out, around, and back - a journey to be taken at a leisurely pace (but not too leisurely) so as to savor the freedom, the magical invulnerability, from denial or delay.''

Freedom, Giamatti proclaims, is what sports are all about: ``If we have known freedom, then we love it; if we love freedom, then we fear ... its loss. And then we cherish sport. As our forebears did, and we remind ourselves through sport of what, here on earth, is our noblest hope. Through sport we re-create our daily portion of freedom, in public.''

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