A. Bartlett Giamatti was the president of Yale when I was a student there in the late 1970s. I had lunch with him once and the conversation was unfortunately about comparative literature and the poetry of Spenser, one of his many academic specialties. I was bitching about my experience in English 101, a prerequisite for English majors at Yale which ran both the fall and spring terms of my freshman year and was without a doubt the most frustrating class I’ve ever taken — sort of an evil bootcamp designed to weed out the wimps from what was arguably the best English literature department in the US. I made a wisecrack about a student who wrote a dreary paper about reptile symbols in The Faerie Queen and he shook his hand in the universal gesture of beating off (or so I interpreted it) and went back to asking the rest of the table about how they felt about college life in general. I wanted to tell him I found it highly strange that I had to spend time in the Yale language lab with a set of headphone on my stoned head, listening to someone read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a sing-song voice like a parody of a Scandanavian when I was in school to read the King’s English goddammit, and not pick through some mongrel predecessor that opened my education with these familiar words:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
We didn’t talk about baseball. I had no idea he was into baseball. I didn’t watch the game in college. I never once went out to the ancient Yale ballfield where George Bush and Ron Darling had pitched (Ron was a contemporary and also a renowned Cotuit Kettleers). I barely passed English 101 and quickly shifted to American History after a disastrous freshman year.
Giamatti, a Bostonian, was a life-long Red Sox fan. He declared once that his life’s ambition was to become president of the American League. In 1986 his wish was almost granted and he became president of the National League, graduating to the top job of Commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1989– a job he held less than six months — long enough for him to banish Pete Rose — before dying at 51 of a heart attack on Martha’s Vineyard (he smoked).
Of course his son, the actor Paul Giamatti, was a Yalie.
So back to yesterday, March 31, Opening Day. The reigning World Champion Red Sox opened the season down in Baltimore’s Camden Yards and lost to the Birds 2 to 1 in a nice game under sunny skies while up here Massachusetts endured another day of “wintry mix” and “thunder snow.” Watching the last two innings, I thought about Giamatti’s finest contribution to baseball, his written love letter to it: The Green Fields of the Mind, the oft-quoted poetic elegy to the national pastime.
“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”