Washington, D. C. May 2001

The Oval Office and the Diamond

A selective survey of America's First Fans

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Last October, as George W. Bush waited nervously for his first debate with Al Gore, his adviser Mark McKinnon tried to help him focus by softly whispering in his ear what is something of a mantra for Bush: "Willie Mays, Willie Mays"—the name of Bush's all-time favorite baseball player. Whether or not McKinnon's chanting played a role, Bush went on to win the debate and—more or less—the election. A true baseball lifer is now President of the United States.

Every chief executive except Rutherford B. Hayes has had some encounter with baseball or its forerunners. "No other sport has been so graced by presidential attention," the baseball historians William B. Mead and Paul Dickson wrote in Baseball: The Presidents' Game (1993). But George W. Bush is in a league of his own. He is the first President to have played Little League (he was a catcher), the first to have owned a major-league team (he was the managing partner of the group that owned the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1994), and the first to my knowledge to draw on baseball for his theme music on the campaign trail (John Fogerty's "Centerfield"). When asked, during a primary debate, what his biggest mistake had been, Bush deftly replied with a self-deprecating joke about his days with the Texas Rangers: "I signed off on that wonderful transaction—Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines." Last February, during his first address to a joint session of Congress, he explained his optimistic notion that the federal budget surplus can be used simultaneously to lower taxes, increase education spending, and retire much of the national debt in this way: "Yogi Berra once said, 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it.'" Bush's favorite movie is Field of Dreams, which made him cry, he once said, because it reminded him of playing catch in the back yard with his father—a pretty fair ballplayer himself once. When Bush Jr. moved into the White House, he took the collection of autographed baseballs he had displayed in his Austin office—some 250, far more than the number of books displayed.

It would be stretching matters, but not by much, to say that a President's affinity for America's national game necessarily translates into an understanding of America itself, and therefore into a knack for governing the country. After all, Bill Clinton doesn't really know baseball, but he left office with high job-approval ratings similar to those of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who surely did. This much, however, can be ventured: the ways in which a President interacts with baseball reveal something about the essential nature of the man.

Before he sabotaged his legacy by getting himself impeached and, on his last day in office, pardoning the fugitive financier Marc Rich, Clinton was known for his acute political instincts. Those instincts led him to associate himself with baseball, but his relationship with the game was never an authentic one (his true love, really, was college basketball). As a reporter I went with Clinton to see the Orioles play in Baltimore on opening day in 1993. A year earlier President Bush the elder had tossed the ceremonial first ball from the mound, only to have it bounce in the dirt before it reached home plate. Clinton, eager to avoid such embarrassment, and willing as always to do his homework, donned an Orioles warm-up jacket and cap and practiced for a while under the stands. Still, he lobbed the ball so softly that it sailed a bit high and outside. But he happily pronounced it a strike—and, for the most part, we writers let him get away with it.

However, he didn't get away with the hubris of trying to single-handedly settle the baseball strike that deprived America of the 1994 World Series. It was apparent that Clinton understood neither the intractability of the labor issues involved nor the culture of modern baseball. His aides took note of the fact that one of the players' representatives, the pitcher Tom Glavine, of the Atlanta Braves, failed to wear a necktie for a meeting with the President. What they should have focused on was the heat of Glavine's emotions: he hinted that any player who crossed the picket line would have trouble once the strike ended, and referred to Phil Niekro, a former teammate, as "greedy" and "a scab" for even considering pitching during the strike. With another strike looming next year, the sportscaster Bob Costas asked President Bush if he would try to intercede. The baseball-savvy Bush said no.

Jimmy Carter had even bigger problems than Clinton with the sport. "It was almost as if he was coached in baseball ineptitude," Mead and Dickson wrote. During his campaign Carter regularly inflicted on the public the sight of himself in shorts pitching slow-pitch softball. But after his election he couldn't be bothered to throw out the first ball on opening day (or at any other time), thus becoming the first President in nearly seventy years to eschew the tradition. As President, Carter didn't even attend a major-league game until three years into his term. In hindsight this is hardly surprising: Carter was also the President who thought he could ignore Congress. His inadequacies at baseball not only foreshadowed his insufficiencies as President but also help to explain them.

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