The apparent contradictions of an ungainly man, who finds it difficult just to walk, presiding over an enterprise, a pastime, that offers such displays of godlike physical grace. "Yes, I've thought of that," Francis T. Vincent Jr. says, savoring the irony. "And maybe that's some of the reason they seem to like me."

He's in a little white golf cart and he's moving on the rim of the infield. His yellow cane is propped between his legs. One shoelace is untied. The contest is about 90 minutes off and early evening New England light, a painter's light, is splashing across the playing surface of Fenway Park. Somewhere inside, concessionaires are boiling thousands of Fenway Franks, wrapping soggy tasty buns in little wedges of tinfoil for the night's vending onslaught.

But down here, on the edge of this napkin of immaculate clipped green, Beantown autograph hounds are leaning in for a signature. They're handing over ticket stubs, game programs, new balls, their grade school catchers' mitts. The commissioner of baseball -- such a lovely and sonorous title -- is signing them all, whatever they got, is signing in his small, neat hand his Irish American and almost girlish-sounding name, "Fay Vincent."

All the while he keeps up the steady patter, the expert pepper.

"Hiya, commish."

"Hi yourself."

"So whaddaya think of Fenway, Fay?"

"What do I think? I think Fenway's one of the cathedrals of the game."

"You been to Chicago yet, Mr. Commissioner?"

"I'll be there at the All-Star Game on the 10th."

"Fay, who makes the rules?

"Depends on the rules."

"How 'bout that Canseco's 23 million?"

"He did okay, wouldn't you'd say?"

"So you gonna punish ol' Steinbrenner and make him sell his Yankees, Mr. Vincent?"

"You're not trying to rush our investigation, are you? You want me to be fair in this thing."

(Mystified little kid loudly at the rail to his baseball mom:) "Mommy, who is this man?"

(Mom in a stage-whisper answer, her pan as dead as dishwater:) "Herbie, that's the guy who never has to sit behind a pole."

He's been in the job 10 months, and he hasn't sat behind a pole yet -- nor will he in tonight's 61st All-Star Game at Wrigley Field. It wouldn't be wholly accurate to call him giddy over his good fortune, but on the other hand he says, "The wonderful thing is I finally got it lined up this time, avocation and vocation."

If initially the eighth czar in the game's history was perceived by some to be a drab business type following the late lamented Renaissance scholar, what Fay Vincent has been steadily proving ever since is that first impressions are often wrong, and sometimes the No. 2 guy turns out to be the biggest surprise of all.

"It's more visible than I ever would have imagined, it's more fun than I ever would have imagined," he says, sounding like somebody in Booth Tarkington. That would be one level of truth about him, the seeming boyish Booth Tarkington guilelessness. There are other levels.

The circumstance by which Fay Vincent became commissioner of baseball was the sudden death last Sept. 1 of his great good friend, A. Bartlett Giamatti. Vincent was Bart Giamatti's deputy, a post that Giamatti had specially created for Vincent, who'd come into baseball after a career in law and the corporate world. But relatively few outside those spheres knew him. Baseball certainly hadn't heard of him. In retrospect it almost seems as if Fay Vincent was Bart Giamatti's great secret, one he was going to empower much sooner than anybody dreamed.

If Vincent was a great secret, Bart Giamatti was a celebrity in America, a bearish little orator who subscribed to Variety and wore a Vandyke and had degrees in comparative literature and possessed the soul of a natural hambone. He brought both intellectuality and fandom to the office. He'd once been president of Yale, not a bad preparation for the complexities of the $1.1 billion business that is modern baseball. But Bart Giamatti died at 51 of a coronary after just five months in the job. The loss to baseball seemed huge. Fate had its own designs. A best friend got in.

And thus far the marks on Vincent are high.

"In my view he's got everything you'd want in a baseball commissioner, but more importantly I think he's got everything you'd want in a human being," says Larry Lucchino, president of the Baltimore Orioles.

"What you see with Fay is what you get -- and isn't that the ultimate compliment?" says Bud Selig, president of the Milwaukee Brewers.

"Nothing I've ever seen suggests this is a guy who has to go out and impress other people," says Donald M. Fehr, executive director of the players' union, and as such a man not naturally disposed to saying nice things about commissioners. Commissioners, after all, come into the job from the owners' side of things. Some commissioners have been perceived as little more than the stooges of greedy owners.

Some Fay Vincent bio and stats, not particularly the kind you'd get on the back of a Topps bubble gum card:

He's 52 and wears plain suits and plain watches and plain ties and even plainer shoes -- never mind that he's worth somewhere in excess of $20 million.

He loves Cuban cigars.

He carries a small Swiss Army knife.

He's against the designated hitter rule.

He's been reading a biography of Coleridge and another of George Marshall. Just finished a book on Wordsworth.

He has a moonish face and a receding hairline and thick ankles and a triple chin. And yet, for such inelegance, there is the strangest elegance about him.

He was once president of Columbia Pictures. Under his leadership the studio produced "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Tootsie." But also, it should be noted, "Ishtar."

"I never read a script," he says. You also wouldn't have found him hanging out at Spago. His office was in New York and movies were never the passion, they were the business. He was a CEO. "Running a movie company is very much an exercise in risk management," he says, something bracing in his voice.

When Coca-Cola bought out Columbia, Vincent went along. He held several key executive posts at Coke but never the top job, and eventually he saw the writing on the wall. He was taken out of the entertainment division and put into Coke International. "I couldn't get motivated about selling Sprite in Thailand," he says, though there is probably a little more to it than that. But anyway, baseball and Bart Giamatti's offer came along at just the right moment.

He used to play for the Putnam Avenue Grammar School nine. This was back in Hamden, Conn., in the late '40s. Putnam's uniforms were gray flannel and the commish can see them yet, because somewhere in their hearts, no matter what heights they've gone to, these are all just small-town boys in baggy woolen uniforms dreaming of the bigs.

"You see, we learn failure from baseball as kids," he says. "It's one of our earliest significant failures. We know by 14 it's over. But that's all right, it's a failure we can live with. That's why we come back to the game. That's why our devotion is so lifelong. You don't feel betrayed by yourself when you fail in baseball."

His Greenwich phone number is listed in the book. Doesn't believe in unpublished numbers.

He can say things such as, "Well, I don't know the answer to that. Sorry."

And yet ... during the Pete Rose investigation, which wracked baseball for months, Vincent -- who was overseeing the case for Giamatti -- asked Rose flatly if he'd ever bet on baseball. Rose said no, he wasn't that stupid. Vincent said that was a very significant answer. It was ground-zero for the investigation, he said. It was an on-the-record denial, and if it was a lie, he said, that was going to be a very important fact.

Hardball. Today the disgraced Pete Rose is locked on the outside of a game he'd give anything to get back into. (Under baseball's rules, he can apply for reinstatement next month.)

Asked at a Boston sports editors' convention what expectations he had for the outcome of the investigation of George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees, the commissioner responded immediately: "My expectations are well under control."

The Steinbrenner case seems just one more larger or smaller black eye for the game. It is a murky case and at issue are the bad-boy owner's antagonistic relationship with former Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield, and the exact nature of a $40,000 payment Steinbrenner made to admitted gambler Howard Spira in January. (According to a spokesman for the commissioner, the results of the investigation will probably not be announced for at least two more weeks.) Vincent himself took charge of the recent hearings; last Thursday's went 7 1/2 hours.

This is Vincent's third crisis in less than a year on the job. The other two crises -- seemingly more difficult than this one -- were the San Francisco earthquake during the World Series, and the bitter 32-day owners' lockout this past spring. Of the quake, the game's commissioner seemed to get things in focus awfully fast. The series, he said in a much-quoted remark, was "our modest little sporting event," and what was that next to the needs of a devastated community?

He practiced high-powered law in New York and Washington and also worked briefly at the Securities and Exchange Commission. In the '70s, when he lived in Washington, he was just another weekend fan eating hot dogs at Memorial Stadium in Birdland. He'd take his twin sons with him, which is probably one reason the boys have turned into passionate fans themselves. Last summer, one of the Vincent twins and a pal drove across America, hitting every major league ballpark and some minor ones too. Then they came home and wrote up a report for Dad. It's an unfair world but somebody's got to do these jobs.

In the mid-'50s, he fell off an icy ledge in a crazy prank in his first semester at college and crushed several vertebrae and almost paralyzed himself for life. Struggling to learn to walk again, the boy who would never make it to the bigs used to lie in bed and wait for the Yankees to come on TV. If it was a rainout, the disappointment was total.

And that boy's legs? Well, he eventually recovered them to 50 percent, which is to say he couldn't run, or even walk very far, but on the other hand he could go for short distances so that you couldn't really tell about his injury if you didn't know. That state lasted for about 25 years. Then about four years ago the arthritis set in, ruined his hip, and now it's pretty much torture for Fay Vincent to get across a room, or off a dais, or down a stadium ramp.

"Yes, I was trying to walk again," he says, remembering the summer of '57, when the Yankees meant so much. "There was a lot of therapy. I remember feeling hurt, yes, and somewhat embarrassed and foolish. My father was devastated because he was so much a man of ... the body. In a way, he was the one depressed. On the other hand he was older, of course, so maybe he saw what it would mean. I was 18. When you're 18, you're A, immortal, and B, omnipotent."

Fay Vincent the elder was captain of the Yale football team. The son never came close to living up to the father's athletic legends. Fay Vincent doesn't say it in so many words, but his father is a major reason he didn't attend Yale as an undergraduate: The shadow was too long. (He did get to Yale for law school.) But this isn't a father-conflicted son. Mention his dad now and his voice drops soft as a bunt down third.

"He would have so enjoyed this," he says. "Particularly my relationship with umpires. The fact that I can hang around with umpires, that's an amazing thing." There's no irony here. Vincent's dad, deceased, was an umpire of amateur Connecticut baseball games until he was 76. Before that, Francis T. Vincent Sr. was an official in both the National Football League and the old All-American Conference. "My father would come home and tell us what people yelled at him all day," he says, in the kind of remark that can encapsulate a history.

How well does Fay Vincent know baseball? It's a little hard to tell. Yes, he goes for the lyric slant of light across the grass, but also for the 3-6-3 double play. He says he's not a box score maven.

Like Giamatti, Vincent is something of an intellectual on the game he loves, but one with the good sense not to try to mess with unknowables. "We really don't know what makes up this special relationship between baseball and the American soul," he says. "We just know that it's so. So let's leave it alone. ... Baseball's relationship to the American people is not something you can define. It can't be done."

At a game in Baltimore a couple weeks ago, he got to ask DiMaggio himself about hitting the fastball. Think of it, Joltin' Joe and the Hamden Kid together in a box seat. If the old man could see him now. "I asked if he guessed what they'd be throwing. He said he did, at least to the extent of the fastball." One can almost hear that conversation: The great DiMaggio, ever laconic, ever gracious, allowing as how he could pretty much tell by a sixth sense when the heater was coming in.

Though the marks are high, Vincent has not played an error-free game. Midway through this spring's lockout, he bonered a big one by suddenly announcing at a press conference his proposal that the owners open the camps in return for a promise by the players not to strike during the season. Don Fehr and the others in the union denounced that as a publicity stunt. He seemed momentarily to lose the goodwill he had built up in so brief a time. But he got it back.

Similarly, there was a moment of seeming bad judgment during the Pete Rose case. Vincent, a skilled lawyer, coordinated the legal aspects for Giamatti. Before the case was resolved, Giamatti signed a letter to a federal sentencing judge on behalf of one of Rose's chief accusers, who was an admitted felon. Rose and his attorneys contended the letter was evidence that Giamatti had prejudged Rose. For a moment it seemed as if the whole touchy Rose investigation might blow up in the faces of the commissioner and the deputy commissioner.

Fay Vincent used to hang around with George Bush's kid brother, Bucky. This was back before being George Bush's kid brother was a lot of cheese. In prep school Bucky Bush was 6 feet 5 and weighed 270 and played on the line for Hotchkiss. (Now he's in investments in St. Louis.) Fay Vincent -- another lineman on that Connecticut preppie football eleven -- was 6 feet 3 and 240.

One summer (this wasn't long before the accident) the two New England behemoths went West with the country and worked as apprentice roughnecks in the Texas oil fields. Some of the oil rigs belonged to a future president of the United States. Bucky and Fay drove out to Midland in a Renault that was so tiny it couldn't take both of them in the front seat at the same time. They used to pick the car up for kicks at gas stations, just to thrill the locals.

"We made $150 a week that summer and worked seven days a week," he says. "Johnny Cash was big on the radio. The oil workers used to call me Big'un. They'd say, 'Big'un, we're going down to Del Rio tonight, you comin'?' I'd say, 'Uh, no, I don't think I'll go this time.' See, they were going to whorehouses in Mexico."

One more fact about him: Fay Vincent once wanted to be a Jesuit. The Jebbies, ever farsighted -- at least insofar as delivering to America a future all-star commissioner -- said sorry, couldn't take him, because a priest has to be able to say mass publicly, and he had a physical affliction. "Maybe they were right," a devout man says, letting another youthful disappointment go.

With something of the quality of dream: "The experience of going to a game. I mean, white uniforms at night on grass. It's so ... beautiful." You're sure he's going to add, "If you build it, he will come."

He's sitting in a suite in a Boston hotel. He's been talking about baseball for almost two hours. The Red Sox will play Toronto at Fenway this evening, and this fact alone seems to lighten Fay Vincent's heart.

His watch, with its inexpensive-looking expandable band, has slid halfway down his wrist, to the backside of his beefy hand. He is rumpled and easy. No airs here.

He's talking about Giamatti. It was a mid-life friendship, and how many people ever get a chance at one of those? They met in 1978 at a dinner for seven in Princeton. It just clicked.


"Something happened one time, I can't remember what it was, I was walking slowly. And of course Bart wasn't a great walker either, Bart had lots of physical problems, you know, not just his heart. Anyway, maybe I said something about the people who run other big-time sports, how much better shape they must be in than we are. And Bart said, 'Well, Fay, don't worry, we won't challenge Pete Rozelle to a race. We'll challenge him to a think."

Fay Vincent, Williams College, class of '60, Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude.

The weekend before Giamatti died, the two were in a chartered King Air going to their respective homes, Fay's on the Cape, Bart's on Martha's Vineyard. (Because of his walking problems, he often flies charter; airport corridors are murder.) The Rose case had just been settled and Giamatti was even more expansive than usual. There had been tough moments, and some mistakes, but they had saved the game. "You know, it was an experiment, Fay, the two of us," Giamatti said. "It's working."

The next weekend, same charter, they said goodbye again at the Vineyard airport. Vincent flew on to Harwich. He was having a cigar on his deck in the sunshine when the call came. The report was incomplete, but he somehow knew Bart was dead. There was something just too final in the words "cardiac arrest." Call it sixth sense.

"Why, Valerie Vincent," Fay Vincent says suddenly, his whole face lighting. "Where are your bags?" The commissioner's wife has just walked into the room. She's thin and pert. People say she's the one who raised the three Vincent children. The two have been married 25 years.

"I'm such a gracious winner," Fay Vincent says, turning back to the interview. It's as though a man is taking a puff on an imaginary cigar.

The phone rings. An assistant gets up to get it. The extension cord won't reach over to the chair where Vincent is. "It's okay, Rich, I'll get up," he says easily. He pulls himself up with his cane, hanging for several tentative seconds in the smooth climatized air. There's something slack and concave about him, as though he's destined to go crashing to the floor. He doesn't.

He's had sodas and ice cream bars and a couple of Fenway Franks, onto each one of which he's squirted Gulden's mustard out of a little plastic tube. He keeps asking everybody around him if he or she won't have something else to eat. He's like a benevolent monarch.

"I predict Hall of Fame," he says when Dwight Evans smashes one.

The commissioner's box, right at the Red Sox dugout, has nine seats. They're filled with some old friends, his wife, a bodyguard named Phil Knect. Knect's a former New York cop who's looked after the boss since Columbia Pictures.

The lights are on. White uniforms are moving on a field of dreams with godlike physical grace.

The mayor of Boston, Raymond L. Flynn, son of Eire, comes up to gas. The pastor of St. Monica's in South Boston is with the mayor. Both the padre and the pol are in mufti, two Boston boys cheering on the lads at the local ball yard.

"It's a Catholic game, you know, Mr. Commissioner," the priest says to Vincent. "It allows for mistakes and forgiveness."

On the mound, Roger Clemens is throwing aspirin tablets. Which is to say the Sox ace has some heat this evening. (Boston will win, 4-3, sweeping the series with Toronto, and permitting the morning scribes to enthuse, in spite of themselves, about pennant fever.)

"I went to high school with his sister," Valerie Vincent tells you, when you ask how how they met. "He's a real fan. He's probably never been happier in a job. Back when I met him, I knew there were three teams. The Yankees, the Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians."

Is he in pain most of the time? She nods.

Harry Mazadoorian, Vincent's law school roomie, who's made his own effort at depleting the hot dog industry in New England: "He especially likes to remember his old friends. I think you'd find that's one of his most endearing traits. He invites me to games all the time."

The man himself, softly: "Bart never got here. This was his favorite team, his favorite ballpark. And he never got here. The Rose thing just kept him tied down."

An hour later, the commissioner of baseball is making his way in the dark along Van Ness Street. He's trying to get to his car. Several aides are with him. The car can't be brought to the commissioner because the street is clogged with revelers and TV semi-trailers. But that's okay, the commish will walk. Beantowners don't recognize him in these shadows. Fay Vincent's just some ungainly, contented fan with a cane, going home.