NEW YORK -- Friday, Sept. 1, 1989. The start of a long, lazy Labor Day weekend.

Fay Vincent was sitting on the sundeck of his Cape Cod summer home when the phone rang about 3 p.m. Bobby Brown, the American League president, was on the line with word that Bart Giamatti had had a heart attack.

Within an hour Vincent would learn -- by radio -- that his friend and boss, the baseball commissioner, was dead.

A year later, it seems the sorrow and turmoil of that hot summer day have come to characterize Vincent's first year in office as Giamatti's successor.

And while his life as a behind-the-scenes deputy commissioner ended abruptly, his link to Giamatti lingers. Indeed, the phrase "Bart and I" still finds a way of fitting into his conversations.

"A year since Bart died," Vincent said, sitting in his office earlier this week. "It doesn't seem possible.

"I lost him and I lost the fellow who was president of Columbia at the same time, Dick Gallop. I lost two guys that I was closer to than virtually anyone. Those were two big blows.

"Bart and I hung out on all different levels . . . and baseball was just one of the layers."

He paused.

"You know, I miss him a lot."

Vincent said last September that he was "willing to stick it out and perform" because he knew Giamatti's agenda. He was willing, in effect, to play Harry Truman to Giamatti's Franklin Roosevelt.

Just eight days before Giamatti's death, the two had finished the messy business of barring Pete Rose for gambling. That over, they looked forward to the pennant races and World Series.

But on Sept. 2, Vincent was made acting commissioner; on Sept. 13 the job was his for 4 1/2 more years.

And on Oct. 17, the World Series became the Earthquake Series, and Fay Vincent was front and center at Candlestick Park.

"I think to some extent there was a problem of establishing one's own persona and becoming recognized to be the commissioner," Vincent said in his soft-spoken, measured way. "In one sense the accident of the earthquake, which happened very quickly after I became commissioner, probably helped that in the sense it was a situation where I had to do something very visible and very important.

"We got through it and I think in the process I became better known as the commissioner as opposed to Bart's deputy. It was hard because, in a way, we had done everything together. I think it was hard not to say, 'Bart and I,' 'Bart and I' all the time when in fact Bart was dead."

The earthquake was only the first test of Vincent's resolve and stamina. Next came a lockout that delayed spring training and the start of the season, and the investigation of George Steinbrenner.

Even the rain delays at the All-Star Game and Hall of Fame ceremonies somehow came to be associated with Vincent's presence.

He has conducted news conferences by candelabra (earthquake), in a New York hotel at 1:15 a.m. (lockout), in the lobby of a Manhattan office building (Steinbrenner) as bewildered tourists looked on.

"Is the last year normal?" he wondered. "That's the question I've always wondered. That may be the normal pace here."

He has no doubt whatsoever that Giamatti would have made the same decisions he has in the last 12 months.

"There would have been some differences maybe in style," Vincent said. "Certainly the major issues that we dealt with during the year he would have agreed with wholeheartedly."

Yet, he said, he never asked himself "What would Bart do?"

"It's not productive, because I don't know that that would help me make a decision. I tend to think that Bart and I fundamentally agreed on the principles, what's important. We had the example of the Rose case where we worked through that so closely. I know the areas where we might have disagreed a little bit during the Rose proceedings. That was a tough example in a difficult time, and as a result I think Bart and I . . . on the one hand we came together, and on the other hand we saw the differences in our approaches.

"Part of it is he wasn't a lawyer and I was, and therefore for me it was much easier to encounter litigation. Bart was like most human beings, much more confused, if you will, by the whole Rose litigation and the lawyering. I think had Bart been alive during the Steinbrenner mess he would have found that difficult because it was so lawyerly. Whereas for me it's somewhat easier."

It was easier because his background was in business and law; Giamatti was a renaissance scholar at Yale. Before Giamatti, Vincent ran Columbia Pictures Industries and was an executive with Coca-Cola Co. He moves just as comfortably among movie stars as among baseball stars.

"Candy Bergen made a great statement," Vincent said. "I was with her one time at a friend's house. I said to her, 'Does it bother you that you are so visible and people come up and ask you for autographs?' And she said something I've never forgotten. She said, 'Look Fay, all my life I've tried to be a successful actress. I got to the point where I was successful and well known. How can I complain about people coming up to me when that's what I set out to do, become visible and become a celebrity? Once you achieve your objective, don't sit there and complain about it.' She was very smart."

Like Giamatti, Vincent has a reverence for baseball that comes from being a lifelong fan. Giamatti didn't hide his passion for the Red Sox, nor does Vincent conceal his devotion to the Yankees.

The 52-year-old commissioner has managed to visit every ballpark this season, schmoozing with his subjects during batting practice, criss-crossing the field in his Faymobile. The little golfcart helps ease the pain of standing, the result of arthritis and a spinal injury from his college days. He relies on a cane to support his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame.

"I was advised by people in baseball to go to ballgames, to be a commissioner who was on the field and knew the players and cared about the game within the lines," he said. "And I think I did that. I think the players know me, the owners know me, the people at the field know me, the groundskeepers know me. I'm there. And I think they know that this administration cares a lot about the game of baseball as opposed to the business of baseball.

"I guess what I really learned is how important baseball is to people in this country, how much they care about it. I travel around and people come over to me and tell me how important it is that I do this job properly and how supportive they are and how much they care about the game, how often they come and what distances they travel. There's a devotion to baseball that is just extraordinary."

He said his job has been easier since Steve Greenberg became deputy comissioner this winter, a sort of Vincent's Vincent. Greenberg is a former agent and is a son of Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg.

"I must say when Steve came I really didn't know whether we would capture the same sort of remarkable relationship that Bart and I had, but we have, I think," Vincent said. "If anything, he's a better deputy than I was. It's been wonderfully successful from where I sit."

Vincent, naturally, attaches a special significance to the Earthquake Series, saying the worst brought out the best. After 11 days, the series resumed with a special ceremony before Game 4. Red Cross workers and other volunteers threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and the crowd at Candlestick followed with an a cappella version of "San Francisco." There weren't many dry eyes in the house.

"The whole pregame period was very special," he said. "I think it will be very hard to find a moment that is as emotionally powerful as that one."

So how does he think he has done?

"If I do give myself a grade, I'll do it privately," he said. "I don't think it's good to get into that."

Others aren't nearly so shy.

"He's kept this ship on its proper course through some very, very difficult times," said Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, who as chairman of the Player Relations Committee has worked more closely with Vincent than any other owner.

"No commissioner had a more difficult first year," he said. "That the game is still on its proper course and still transcends everything is a tribute to him."

"At great sacrifice to himself, because he has difficulty getting around, he's at the ballpark," said New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who flew to Hyannis, Mass., in his private plane and took Vincent to Martha's Vineyard the night of Giamatti's death. "He recognizes he's got to be a shirtsleeve commissioner . . . talking to the people on the field, meeting the middle management of baseball teams. He's experiencing it, not perceiving it. That's a sign of his dedication. That's an effort."

Don Fehr, head of the players association, said: "No one has made any pretense that he would have gotten the job in the ordinary course of events. I think that a year ago people would have viewed him as the guy who stepped in when Giamatti died. People wouldn't have that view today."

If Vincent acknowledges anything, it is that he has come to be associated with trouble -- the kind wrought by nature and man.

"They were teasing me this morning," he said, dusting ashes off his shirt from his first cigar of the day. "They had a gnat infestation in Toronto last night and somebody said, 'How could that happen when you weren't there?' I had nothing to do the gnats in Toronto. I'm clean."