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Looking Back at Bart Giamatti, Pete Rose and the Baseball Ferry

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The late Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti once wrote of baseball that "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. 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."

Baseball did indeed break my heart in 1989, the year that Giamatti, a Renaissance scholar and former president of Yale, died of a heart attack just days after banning Pete Rose from the national pastime.

As a baseball fan, I have never recovered from that season, one that was tragic yet sublime, as I wrote in a piece five years ago.

That year I lost and gained everything.

I lost Rose, who had been one of my two favorite players when I was a boy (the other was Reggie Jackson).

And I lost Giamatti, who had inspired me not only with his love for baseball but also with his love for language. His wife, Toni, had been my adviser and 7th grade English teacher. She also taught me in 12th grade when I took a course in the bildungsroman. She, of all my teachers, was the one who told my class that I should be a writer.

In 1989, in the midst of losing the game's greatest commissioner and blue-collar player, I watched my favorite team from childhood, the Oakland A's, win the World Series in commanding fashion, sweeping the San Francisco Giants.

In addition, my favorite player of the 1980s, Rickey Henderson, had a stretch of brilliance during that postseason that few players have ever matched. He stole eight bases in eight attempts in the playoffs against the Toronto Blue Jays, including four in one game. He homered twice on October 7, my birthday.

And in the World Series, Henderson got the A's off to a lead in every game. The A's never trailed at any point in those four games, a record that had been accomplished only once or twice before in World Series history.

Finally, I made a small contribution to the national pastime that year by implementing the Baseball Ferry, a ferry that took fans from various locations in New York--Pier 11, East 34th Street and Glen Cove, Long Island--to the World's Fair Marina for New York Mets games.

I had come up with the idea of the ferry in 1988 when I was a young waterfront planner for the New York City Parks Department. I made site visits to the Yankee and Shea Stadium waterfronts and wrote a detailed eight-page proposal, one of the longest papers I had written at the time, for a ferry to take fans to those ballparks.

But it would not be any ordinary ferry. I argued that it should bring a taste of the ballpark to the sea. In my memorandum, I wrote that the ferry should have an accordionist playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," that there should be Crackerjack and hot dogs onboard, and perhaps even a batting or pitching cage on deck.

With the support of my supervisor, Ann Buttenwieser, and then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, I was able to shepherd the ferry through the permitting process.

On August 4, 1989, I gave the keynote address at the ferry opening (see the accompanying video of Buttenwieser, Stern and me giving speeches). In my speech, I paid homage to Bart Giamatti, who had referred to baseball as "an epic poem." Baseball, he had pointed out, was one long journey, one long attempt to get home.

In my speech, I alluded to Homer's The Odyssey, and I mentioned that the maiden voyage of the Baseball Ferry would include a descent into the underworld as we would have to brave the whirlpool of Hell Gate at the convergence of the East and Harlem rivers.

I also hailed Giamatti for his sage warning that "without fans, who enjoy being at the ballpark, live, the whole enterprise does not exist."

As I stated in my speech, the Baseball Ferry would "improve the quality of the experience of baseball fans en route to the ballpark."

At the ferry christening, we did indeed have an accordionist who played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," and we had hot dogs and Crackerjack onboard. The boat, a catamaran run by S.K. Paul, a ferry operator based in Long Island, could not accommodate a batting or pitching cage, but it did provide a scenic route to the ballpark, which was much better than being stuck in traffic, paying toll fare, or battling for a seat on the subway.

A few weeks later, Giamatti banned Rose permanently from the game. Then about a week after that, the commissioner died while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard.

I have never quite recovered the love that I once had for the game, not after that tumultuous season, which was also disrupted by an earthquake in the middle of the World Series.

Since then, the game has been severely damaged by steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, which were being used by some players even in 1989. Records that I once cherished have been broken and tainted.

And the Baseball Ferry spawned The Yankee Clipper, which has sailed to Yankee Stadium, where great ones like Derek Jeter, who is retiring this season, still play.

But for me the game has never been the same.

I lost Bart Giamatti and Pete Rose.

As Giamatti said, "it breaks your heart."

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