Opening day for Major League Baseball was last Monday. Fans pushed their hands into the backs of their hats, dusted off their gloves and flooded into stadiums around the country. A new season has arrived and with it a renewed sense of what might be.
Moreover, in Cincinnati, President George W. Bush ’68, upon the request of new Reds owner Bob Castellini, threw out the opening pitch. For the third straight year, Bush had the opening day honor, and again reminded us that he is the greatest president in the history of our country, at least in terms of throwing out the opening pitch.
Picture a dry, scorching, hot day in late June 1958. The Midland, Texas, little league team takes the field to the cheers of a few parents, one of whom is a prominent oil businessman. His son, George W., trots out to his position behind the plate, grinning out of the side of his mouth, something he’s picked up from some of his Texan friends. The coach, Frank Ittner, will later say, “Well, he was a good catcher. But he was like his daddy. He couldn’t hit.” That’s alright, though. He was like his daddy. Forty-two years later he became only the second son of a former president to win a presidential election. And even if he couldn’t hit, he could throw, which is a talent that has served him well throughout his two terms in office.
The presidency and baseball have long been linked. According to one soldier’s diary, George Washington played an early version of the game with his men during some down time at Valley Forge. Abraham Lincoln took the game quite seriously and was known for delaying presidential business in order to get his turn at bat on the White House lawn. President Andrew Johnson, possibly in hopes of appeasing the populace in the midst of his impeachment hearings, named baseball our country’s national game.
William Howard Taft 1878 put the presidency’s indelible stamp on the game of baseball when he started the tradition of throwing the opening pitch. He did so on April 14, 1910, at Griffith Stadium in Washington. FDR, despite his disability, still managed to throw out the opening pitch from his first row seat. But no president has used the opening pitch as effectively nor performed the task as proficiently as President George W. Bush.
Having played in high school and having owned the Texas Rangers, George W. had had plenty of exposure to the game before being elected in 2000. Not a year after his inauguration, the world changed, setting the stage for a war on terror and great domestic political debate, but also for the most dramatic opening pitch of all time. On October 30, 2001, Bush threw out the opening pitch for Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium and uplifted the country.
In the tunnels of Yankees Stadium, minutes before taking the stage in front of 50,000 fans with the nation watching on television, President Bush warmed up with his bulky bulletproof vest hidden under a navy blue fleece, the American Flag stitched onto the right sleeve and “President Bush” etched casually on the right breast. Bush tried to recall his days as a catcher on the Midland Little League team (he is, after all, the first president to have played little league).
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter walked by the president, who quickly solicited the star’s advice. “Just don’t bounce it,” Jeter said. “They’ll boo you.” Bush asked if he should throw from the mound, to which Jeter smiled and nodded. After a moment of silence, the president proceeded to the mound. He toed the rubber, raised the ball in his right hand and smiled, as if proclaiming our country’s perseverance and strength.
Then, he came to the set and delivered. A strike, a gosh, darn strike. The Yankees won that game and the next two in dramatic fashion. The only other men to pitch for the Yankees that night: Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera. The president got the night started on a powerfully encouraging note.
At the start of the 2005 regular season, Bush welcomed the Nationals to Washington, D.C. by again throwing a strike. And then just last week, in Cincinnati, he fired one up and in to Reds catcher Jason LaRue. Each time, he follows the same routine: first walking out onto the mound, then waving to the fans and finally grinning that now famous grin before starting his delivery. He seems confident. Perhaps this is his forum, because he looks comfortable.
In the summer of 2004, as the presidential race was heating up, John Kerry threw out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game. Kerry did not throw from the mound. Frankly, he looked like a lefty throwing right-handed. It was awkward and painful. And yes, he did bounce it. And yes, even in a stadium of mostly his own partisans in his own state, Kerry was booed. He was neither confident, nor comfortable. He just wasn’t presidential material; he couldn’t have held the responsibility of throwing the opening pitch on opening day.
With the weight of the world on President Bush’s shoulders, you don’t see that familiar grin very much these days. But it’s therapeutic and reassuring to watch the president throw out the first pitch. This is America’s game, and he knows what he’s doing out there. Policy and politics aside, the man can throw a strike, and that’s something that Bush has used, if only fleetingly, to win over baseball fans everywhere.
Nicholas Thorne is a sophomore in Pierson College. His columns appear on Wednesdays.