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Baseball Before the Fall

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The recent induction of Rickey Henderson into the National Baseball Hall of Fame coincided with rumors that Commissioner Bud Selig might be considering reinstating Pete Rose, who was banished 20 years ago by then-Commissioner Bart Giamatti for betting on baseball.

Giamatti had compared baseball to an epic poem, and that season marked baseball's fall from grace when Rose, a charismatic rogue like Satan in "Paradise Lost," rebelled against the game's Yahweh, only to be exiled forever.

Sometimes, it seems that Rose took the game with him to purgatory, if not hell. Though baseball has set attendance records in recent years, the two decades since 1989 have brought us the steroid era, a cancelled World Series, a tied All-Star Game, a dearth of African-American players and spiraling salaries that have made a mockery of the sport, which was once known for its working-class appeal.

That is not to say that there weren't scandals in baseball before 1989, such as the 1919 Black Sox or even collusion and rampant cocaine use in the 1980s. And lest we forget, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the bash brothers on the A's 1989 championship squad, took performance-enhancing drugs in their careers.

Still, 1989 remains sublime, if tragic. Giamatti, whose tenure as commissioner ended on September 1 of that year when he suffered a fatal heart attack, just days after banning Rose, was the rarest of baseball officials, a true Renaissance Man. The former Yale president was as comfortable in the ivory tower as he was in a dugout, and his eloquence and love for the game couldn't help but inspire fans and reporters alike.

The A's proved worthy of Giamatti by dominating the postseason as few other ballclubs have. Leading the way was Henderson, as fleet and wily as Odysseus, who stole eight bases in eight attempts, a record for a postseason series, as the A's trounced the Toronto Blue Jays 4 games to 1 in the AL playoffs.

The A's then romped past the San Francisco Giants 4 games to none in what came to be known as the Earthquake Series.

But that sobriquet wasn't fair to the A's. It masked the historic nature of the club's dominance. The A's equaled the 1932 Yankees by having the greatest run differential in a World Series (though the 2007 Boston Red Sox later eclipsed that record by one run).

On defense, the A's made only one error in the series. And their top two starters, Dave Stewart and Mike Moore, and Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley shut down the Giants.

But nothing demonstrated the A's invincibility more than the fact that for one of the first times ever in a World Series, the winning team never trailed. That was a testament to the brilliance of Henderson, who got on base in the first inning of nearly every game, so it seemed, including a leadoff home run, one of his specialties, in game 4. The A's scored in the first inning in three of the games, and in the second inning in the fourth, while Henderson hit .474 in the series and stole three bases.

Stewart, who was named MVP of the World Series, and Henderson had known each other since they were kids. Both had been raised in Oakland. The image of two African-American baseball players starring in a World Series for their hometown team, a ballclub whose starting lineup was roughly half black, and pitching in at earthquake relief efforts, grows fainter every year.

The 1989 season also had a personal highlight for me. On August 4, as a young waterfront planner for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, I gave the keynote address at Pier 11 for the opening of the Baseball Ferry, a mode of transportation I had conceptualized the year before. The ferry took fans from Pier 11, East 34th Street and Glen Cove, Long Island, to the World's Fair Marina for New York Mets games.

I had also written and spoken of the possibility of a ferry to Yankee Stadium, but at the time the state's Department of Transportation had invested millions of dollars in the Oak Point Link, a proposed full-freight access line that would cut a swath across the Harlem River slips by Yankee Stadium. Some years later, others would start the Yankee Clipper.

The Baseball Ferry had grown out of my boyhood memory of leaving Yankee games in the 7th inning to beat traffic home to Connecticut on the Major Deegan Expressway.

As I studied the riparian terrain in the five boroughs, I recalled that both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium were located right by water bodies. It occurred to me that we could have a ferry to the ballparks, but it wouldn't be any ordinary ferry; it would be the Baseball Ferry, a vessel that would bring a taste of the ballpark to the sea, with hot dogs and Crackerjack on board and an accordionist playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

With the support of my supervisor, Ann L. Buttenwieser, and then-Parks Commissioner, Henry Stern, I was able to transmute this idea into a reality.

Twenty years later, I live in Los Angeles, where the possibility of a Baseball Ferry on the concrete shell of the L.A. River seems remote. But then I think of Rickey Henderson and Bart Giamatti, and I realize that baseball is about memory and imagination and the dreams we once had, dreams that will never die.