A. BARTLETT Giamatti, who left off being president of Yale to become president of the National League, has declared that ``the welter and farrago'' of big league baseball ``isn't so different from what I used to do, just over a month ago.'' This may or may not be a comment on the state of Yale. It certainly says something terrible about the state of sports. Sports used to be one of the simple joys -- as undemanding a pleasure as an ice cream cone, a toe-tapping tune, or a sunset. Sure, it helped to have a passing acquaintance with the rules, a smattering of information about the players, and a little crafty knowledge of strategy. But there have been baseball fans who got by on little more than an affinity to the sun and a passion for hot dogs.
Now you have to be practically a Renaissance man -- Dr. Giamatti's academic specialty -- in order to read the sports pages.
Which team or individual kicked, swatted, or generally manipulated which ball to win which contest by what score is the least of the subject matter of a self-respecting sports section these days.
A quick scan of the August sports scene so far finds tennis writers plumbing the shallows of pop psychology to report upon the return of John McEnroe. Never mind the fellow's first-serve percentage. Never mind his timing on ground strokes or his footwork at the net. Has becoming a father mellowed McEnroe? And if so, will this sweetly doting family man be able to beat that dour bachelor, Ivan Lendl? Here, it is assumed, are the questions all tennis-loving America wants answered.
Meanwhile, as the preseason games began, football writers had no time to evaluate the rookies or explain the new offensive and defensive formations. They were too busy writing legal briefs on the monopoly suits the United States Football League brought against the National Football League.
If baseball writers in August, entranced by New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden, are tempted to write odes -- as the father of baseball writers, Grantland Rice, regularly did -- they can put that rhyming dictionary back on the shelf. Gooden's ex-teammate, George Foster, implied that being black played a part in his release, and the folks in the press box have had to reassess in very sober prose the sad subject of racism in baseball.
Some days the sports pages seem to be about everything but sports.
Basketball and hockey writers have found their summer headlines in declarations by the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird and the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky that athletes in their sports should submit to drug testing. If the drugs are not threatening to take over the locker room, the topic is certainly threatening to take over the sports section.
With all the social, economic, and political issues involved, who has time to follow the bouncing balls?
Sports, as they say, is getting placed in context, but is the context swallowing up the sports?
It can be argued -- and is -- that all this reflects a new maturity. Sportswriters, sports fans, and maybe even the athletes are tired of playing make-believe in a pink bubblegum world of heroes-and-legends.
But too much realism doesn't suit sports -- a branch of romantic theater. It produces split-vision to compute how much a center fielder is being paid per minute to lose a fly ball in the sun or to wonder whether a baserunner is sliding head-first in emulation of Ty Cobb or to protect the amphetamines in his hip pocket.
The neatly white-lined world of sports used to be a last refuge. Where else is a newspaper reader to go for a comforting sense of unambiguous victory?
Well, there's always the Washington press conference, of course, where starry-eyed, one-sided victories are declared every day over hunger, communism, crime in the streets -- you name it.
Maybe the journalistic solution is to bring a little sports-page realism to politics. And if sports must resemble Yale, make it just a bit more like the Yale of Frank Merriwell, the fictional Eli superstar, who acted as if athletic contests were a kind of fairy tale, up for grabs. Was the peerless young chap entirely wrong?
A Wednesday and Friday column