IF they had played baseball in Plato's Republic or Machiavelli's Florence, the obvious choice for league president would have been someone like A. Bartlett Giamatti. After eight years as president of Yale University and an even longer career as a literary scholar, Dr. Giamatti is now at the helm of the National League, where he serves as a combination philosopher-king and Renaissance man, coupling the practical concerns of baseball today with his considerably larger views of the game.
``For me, baseball is the most nourishing game outside of literature,'' Giamatti reflected in an interview. ``They both are re-tellings of human experience.''
Baseball offers a unique story, he says, through a century-long oral tradition combining facts, anecdotes, and myths, and through a legacy of statistics chronicling players and their teams. ``It's a good place for a literary person,'' Giamatti concludes.
Giamatti's present position, in fact, should better allow him to pursue academics. In the last six months he has had time to resume his Renaissance studies and write articles covering a wide range of interests. Besides writing on Italian Renaissance poetry, he has composed a preface for the ``Arm Chair Book of Baseball'' and an essay on the Italian-American experience.
While trading college quadrangles for baseball diamonds seemed far-fetched when Giamatti assumed the reins at the league's New York office last December, he has mingled among team executives, players, and fans as comfortably as he traversed the halls of academia.
``To go from Yale to the National League is simply to go from one form of management to another,'' explains Giamatti, noting that his university post prepared him for his present job. Meeting the demands of trustees, professors, and students is not all that different from satisfying his present constituency of owners, general managers, and umpires, he insists, adding that administrative tasks from labor negotiations to public relations make the same demands in the major leagues as in the Ivy League.
It is also not unusual for someone with credentials outside baseball to assume command, Giamatti observes. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth emerged from the business world; his predecessor, Bowie Kuhn, practiced law; and current American League president Bobby Brown, once a ballplayer, has been more recently a cardiologist.
``Major sports are major parts of society,'' Giamatti says. ``It's not anomalous to have people who love sports come from other parts of that society.''
Still, his entry into professional sports came as a surprise. He had already resigned the Yale presidency in the spring of 1986, intending to return as a professor of humanities, when the National League search committee approached him. Within three weeks, the 49-year-old Giamatti had switched vocational playing fields and had shocked some of his colleagues in the process.
``Some of my academic friends think I've fallen from a very special grace. I've had a lot of people say to me, `How can you do this? What kind of intellectual stimulation can you have?''' says Giamatti, a lifelong fan who has published numerous baseball articles and could often be spotted around campus wearing a Boston Red Sox cap.
If anything, Giamatti admits, he left behind the world of the mind when he suspended his work as a Renaissance scholar - a career that earned him a full professorship by the age of 33 - to become an administrator. ``Being the president of a university is a great privilege, and it's fascinating in many ways,'' he says, ``but intellectually stimulating it's not.''
Baseball, on the other hand, is ``a remarkably interesting opportunity to stay in touch with this country in another way, but through a medium no less important to everybody,'' he observes.
It's also more than just an American ``game,'' he contends. ``It has a peculiar hold on the American soul. It was one of the ways you became an American after you got off the boat, whether you were coming from Ulster or from the Ukraine. And you can see the way it still binds the country together - 80 million people watched the last game of the World Series this past fall.
``You can really read American culture and its changes, good and bad,'' Giamatti adds, including the nation's racial problems, the ethic of teamwork, and the virtues of individual achievement.
Giamatti has even written a piece likening ballparks to the Garden of Eden. These ``green places,'' many of which still stand amid teeming cities, enable those visiting to return to something they have left behind, he theorizes. It is not surprising, he says, that the object of the game is to ``get home'' rather than to ``reach fourth base.''
``Whether you see Fenway Park or Wrigley Field as an Eden or not,'' he elaborates, ``you are out there because you remember something that you want revived.''
Giamatti's transition to his new position was not without its share of irony. As president-designate, he had the best seat in the house during last October's World Series to watch the National League champion New York Mets stun the Red Sox, the team he has supported since childhood. ``Of all the moments for the Red Sox to get into the Series with a real chance,'' he groans in memory.
``I was rooting for the Mets until Game 6 [when the Red Sox seemed about to win their first world championship in 70 years], but from that point on, something older than me asserted itself,'' he confesses.
``I'm afraid they've never had the about-to-be president of the National League quite as enthralled about the American League as I was in the late games. I just couldn't fight my genes.''
By midseason this year, of course, the new president's allegiance was firmly in place, allowing him to savor fully the National League's 2-0 victory in Tuesday night's All-Star Game.
Musings about baseball aside, Giamatti also manages to cover the more down-to-earth needs of his league, from supervising umpires to certifying player contracts. And he takes a practical stance toward baseball's bigger problems.
Major league teams need to adapt to the high-tech age, he insists, and recognize the advantages of cable and network television coverage without letting TV completely govern schedules and playing times.
Along these lines, Giamatti suggests that Chicago's Wrigley Field - an aesthetic landmark that has never had the light towers needed for night games - should install them ``on a very limited basis,'' especially for postseason play and its prime-time television audience. Otherwise, he fears, the venerable stadium will become obsolete.
Giamatti also condones the artificial surfaces on which many National League teams play and which baseball purists have condemned for making infields too fast and injuries too frequent. ``Multi-use stadiums are here to stay,'' he concedes. ``If we had a perfect world, we would be playing all games on grass. But it's only a near-perfect world.''