Last month, I read a magazine piece in which Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey was asked what he plans to do after he hangs up his glove. Garvey replied that he just might toss his hat (or his cap, as it were) into the proverbial ring.

To paraphrase a bromide, old athletes never die, they just go into politics. For example, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Jack Kemp are former football players, Bill Bradley once starred for a professional basketball team, and Harry Hughes used to pitch in the minor leagues.

That's not to say that every athlete eventually takes to the political arena. To successfully make the transition, the ex-jock must be clean-cut, straight-laced, estimable and usually right of center (that's a political stance, not an outfielder's position). Garvey, therefore, appears to be perfect political timber. "He's so conservative," one of his teammates recently said of him, "he thinks Barry Goldwater is a liberal."

Still, it seems unfair that in the world's greatest democracy, "the land of opportunity," only a particular brand of ex-athlete can get elected. What of the other brand? What of the eccentric, the flake, the weirdo? I have my personal favorities among sports crazies of recent vintage. In a popular runoff, they'd almost certainly be crushed; but they could fit into some branch of government apropos of their colorful reputations.

Among the potential nominees are football players Tim Rossovich of the Philadelphia Eagles and Mike Battle of the New York Jets. Before every game, Rossovich psyches himself up by setting his hair on fire. Battle, on the other hand, eats glass. I can just see these two as co-secretaries of state. (I know that's never been done before, but it seems that lately a pair of ex-footballers wanted to have a shot at a co-presidency.) Their finest hour would come at the bargaining table with the Soviet premier. The matter at hand would be, say, the autonomy of Yugoslavia. As the talks became deadlocked, Secretary Rossovich would commence to light up his locks and Secretary Battle would start snacking on an empty vodka bottle, just to show they really meant business. Not only would the Soviet premier blink, but he'd also blanch and maybe even pass out. Then he'd quickly come to terms.

Our national pastime, more than any other sport, seems to produce the highest number of screwballs. One of the screwiest is Bill "Spaceman" Lee, a left-handed pitcher for the Montreal Expos. The midst of a pennant race a few years back, lee explained why his front-running team was rapidly losing ground to the second-place club. "They have positive momentum," he said, "while we have negative momentum." Spaceman would have little trouble landing a job as a speechwriter for George Bush's next campaign, with the former U.N. ambassador discussing the effects of "Pos Mo" and "neg Mo."

The U.N. ambassadorship, incidentally, would be an ideal post for Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver. The Earl of Baltimore is known for kicking dirt and throwing his cap at umpires and tearing up the rule book in their faces. Staging such a performance on the U.N. podium, Ambassador Weaver would turn a diplomatic double play, reasserting America's position as a strong leader and at the same time erasing all recollection of Nikita Khrushchev's shoe-pounding show.

All the posts I've mentioned are, of course, appointed ones. To get elected to public office, the former sportsman must have the clean-cut image of a Reagan, Ford, Kemp or Bradley, and an equally clean-cut name. A short, catchy and preferably non-ethnic-sounding handle means a plus for any politician, especially one who used to be an athlete.

Over the years, many baseballers (to pick one sport) have possessed all the attributes of leadership and, yet, never had a chance to test those attributes on the field of politics, thanks mainly to their offbeat monikers. These unfortunates included Napolean Lajoie, Jigger Statz, Gink Hendrick, Heinie Manush, Eppa Rixey, alban Glossop, Alpha Brazle and Urban Shocker.

A political candidate can be, and often is, an urban shocker (a rural one, too). But if he wants to get elected, his name had better be Thompson or Williams or Smith.

Or Steve Garvey.