NEW YORK — NEW baseball commissioner A.Bartlett Giamatti faces the usual array of pressing issues as the 1989 season gets under way today - labor-management relations, expansion, drugs, TV, equal opportunity, etc. An added topic this year is the investigation of Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose, reportedly for gambling activities. But what the game really needs first of all, Mr. Giamatti says, is a chance to catch its breath after nearly two decades of economic and social upheaval.
``Baseball has undergone and absorbed a whole set of dislocations,'' the distinguished educator-turned-sports administrator noted during a wide-ranging interview in his Park Avenue office. Among other things he cited free agency (``an economic dislocation which it has learned to handle''), equal opportunity (``an issue that should have been better attended to''), and the many technological advances of recent years.
``The game has been struggling to accommodate all these dislocations, to come to a sense of balance, a stable and sustainable equilibrium,'' he added.
Giamatti, a scholar in the field of Renaissance literature and former president of Yale University, might seem an unusual choice as a baseball official. He has been a lifelong fan, however, and has also written a number of articles on the game.
It was no great surprise, therefore, when he accepted the post of president of the National League three years ago. And it seemed equally natural when he was elevated to the commissioner's job this year after the decision of Peter Ueberroth not to seek another term.
Asked about his agenda as he begins his five-year term as commissioner, Giamatti declined to single out any one problem.
``You can't put priority numbers on things like economic stability, drugs, or equal opportunity,'' he said. ``Obviously, there are many pressing social concerns.''
One pressing issue is the specter of another players' strike in 1990 like the one that disrupted the 1981 season. Both sides are reportedly taking a hard line again, and building strike funds in anticipation of the worst. The public has an erroneous idea of the commissioner's power in this situation, Giamatti said.
``Let us not promote the fiction that the commissioner has the power to stop a strike,'' he said. ``American law gives the parties the right to negotiate. The commissioner's role is to bridge the gap. ... He doesn't sit at the table. I shouldn't, and I won't. In the end, the scene will play itself out, however the two sides want it to.''
What about equal opportunity, a high-visibility issue from the integration of the game in 1947 to the recent selection of Bill White to succeed Giamatti as National League president?
``While I think baseball has reawakened to its promise, it has a long way to go before it fulfills it,'' the commissioner said. ``I want us to get to the point where a conversation like this is unnecessary because the instinct for equal opportunity is total. `WE need a situation where any individual will feel he is going to be considered if he wants to be and has the qualifications. That's the theory - not quotas, not goals or timetables, but basically voluntary plans. I'm not going to sit here now and say `do this,' or `do that.' But you must - must - expunge any vestige of racism.''
On drug use, including alcohol, Giamatti emphasized that the players must accept their position as role models.
``A tremendous social responsibility comes with being a successful public performer,'' he said. ``If they don't want that responsibility, they should do something else. ... Whether they find it onerous, burdensome, or whatever, they have a responsibility to the young people who look upon them as heroes.''
He disagreed with the common perception that things have grown much worse in this regard over the years.
``I don't think it's a matter of `the good old days,''' he said. ``And I don't think we saw it that way then, either. ... We sanitize our perceptions in retrospect. That's human nature.''
What about the other side of the alcohol problem - drinking in the stands and the problems it frequently causes?
``The clubs are doing much more than they had been doing five years ago,'' he said. ``We want to make sure we continue to have up-to-date and sophisticated management programs, and good relationships with law enforcement agencies, and good security.''
What about some of baseball's other image problems, such as the growing perception that today's players demonstrate a selfishness and greed beyond all reason? This is perhaps best exemplified by the phenomenon of ``card shows,'' where youngsters must pay to get the autographs of million-dollar-a-year players.
``Of course it's a concern,'' Giamatti said. ``I don't happen to find card shows and the image of self-centered players and operators agreeable or attractive. They project a negative image. But these shows are run by outsiders. They're not under the control of baseball.''
The situation involving Pete Rose, baseball's all-time hit leader, is under the commissioner's jurisdiction. At this stage, however, Giamatti's office says only that the probe will take several more weeks, and that no action will be taken until the investigation is completed.
As to whether baseball has been dragging its feet on expansion (the American League last increased to 14 teams in 1977, while the National League has consisted of 12 since 1969), Giamatti said it is not a simple matter. `I HOPE by the summer we'll have a timetable for a timetable,'' he said. ``It would be in the National League, and not for more than two teams - and it wouldn't be immediate.''
Asked whether he thought the increase in cable TV coverage presaged a day when the World Series might be shown that way, he said: ``As far as I'm concerned, no. It's not going to happen.'' He was a little less certain about the playoffs, saying only: ``I would hope not - unless the market changes dramatically.''
On controversial game-related issues like artificial grass and the designated hitter, Giamatti makes no secret of the fact that he stands with the traditionalists.
``I believe the game is best on real grass in the afternoon in the sun,'' he said. ``But I understand the realities....''
And the designated hitter?
``It doesn't provide the kind of trauma to the game that requires the commissioner to step in,'' he said. ``Actually, it's the best non-life-threatening controversy in baseball!''
What does the future hold?
``We have an obligation to spread amateur baseball both at home and abroad,'' he said. ``Building up the game at all levels - Little League, Babe Ruth Leagues, the colleges - is in our own self-interest. That's where the pool of talent is - and also of fans. Internationally, the game ought to keep its excellent relationship with Japan and Latin America, and we also want to do more in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.''