NBC News
updated 10/6/2007 1:30:38 PM ET 2007-10-06T17:30:38

Richard Florino sat behind Rudy Giuliani at a town hall meeting here Wednesday wearing a Boston Red Sox shirt, with pitcher Josh Beckett’s name and number in block letters on the back. In the front right corner, he had affixed a “Rudy” sticker.

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It’s an unusual combination, but one that is starting to catch on.

“Beckett’s pitching tonight,” Florino explained as justification for wearing the shirt a few hours before the first pitch of the American League Division Series between the Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. “I know Rudy’s a Yankees fan, but he’s always straightforward about it. He’s not phony.”

While the former New York City mayor may be best known for his work shepherding the country through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, his love of baseball, and especially the New York Yankees, may run a close second.

Whenever he enters a diner on the campaign trail — even in New Hampshire, part of Red Sox nation — the Republican presidential candidate is greeted by people in baseball shirts and hats. Yankee fans and Yankee haters alike shout at him as he walks by and Giuliani gravitates to them, seamlessly segueing into conversations about the need for a deep bullpen and the values of bunting. Baseballs or baseball cards are often there for the signing.

He has campaigned with Yankee legend Yogi Berra, and recently suggested that Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter could be his vice presidential running mate. The former No. 3 person at the Justice Department said he knew Giuliani’s first choice, Yankee manager Joe Torre, couldn’t run with him because they are both from New York. But he forgot that Jeter, at 33, is too young to run.

Talking about baseball humanizes Giuliani, supporters say, the same way Ronald Reagan’s love of jelly beans or Bill Clinton’s saxophone medleys showed a fun, personal side of the candidate. Baseball allows the mayor to connect with voters on something other than policy issues or the latest attack on the opponent.

‘He’s sincere and honest’
For Giuliani, his support for the Yankees also shows him as a man of the people.

“He sat at Yankee Stadium open in the crowd” instead of a luxury box like other politicians, Florino said. “It just shows you that he’s sincere and honest.”

Giuliani has obviously recognized the value of his baseball shtick. Speaking to college students Thursday outside of Chicago, he asked the crowd whether they respected him “for telling the truth” about his support for the Bronx Bombers.

Other New York City mayors would wear a cap with the Yankees logo on one side and the Mets symbol on the back. “But I thought the hat looked stupid,” he said, so he stuck to his Yankee cap and thought he’d be respected by Mets fans for his honesty.

“It didn’t work,” he told the students. “Every time I went to Shea Stadium, they booed me. But they actually voted for me; Queens County voted for me.”

And Giuliani also uses baseball as part of his daily barrage on the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, making fun of her support for both the Yankees and Chicago Cubs, and her decision to “alternate sides” if the two met in the World Series.

“I became a Yankee fan growing up in New York. You can understand that, right?” Giuliani asked the Chicago crowd Thursday. “She became a Yankee fan growing up in Chicago. You believe that, right?”

With the playoffs starting, and Giuliani campaigning and raising dollars in big cities with teams playing October baseball, sports seems to come up even more than Giuliani’s work on 9/11. Of course, Giuliani is still approached by law enforcement officers eager to thank him for his work in New York City, or voters with personal stories of what happened to them or loved ones on that day. But he is also followed by protestors who claim “9/11 was an inside job” and firefighters who say communications problems led to more deaths at the World Trade Center.

‘I’ll make some playoff games’
His Yankee devotion is less controversial. Although there have been questions about whether he paid a fair price for Yankees World Series rings as mayor, that never comes up on the campaign trail.

At times, talking baseball has allowed Giuliani to deflect from the issue of the day. While eating egg-white omelets at a Derry, N.H., diner on Wednesday, he discussed for 45 minutes the depth of the Yankees bullpen. Reporters wanting to ask about social conservatives lingering concerns about his candidacy could only stand by and watch.

Now that the playoffs have begun, his alignment with the game could even get him some free publicity, and maybe some new supporters. Campaign officials won’t say whether he plans to attend any playoff games or hold “watch parties” with primary voters or donors. But if Giuliani has his way, he’ll be there.

“You’re darn right I’ll make some playoff games,” he said Monday. “I have to.”

Of course, being an avid baseball fan and a presidential candidate doesn’t always mix well. When his schedule for Thursday was released, it had him speaking to Chicago donors at the same time as the Yankees’ first playoff game. When asked about the conflict by a reporter, he let out a hearty laugh and suggested he might have to wear an earpiece to catch the radio broadcast while on the podium.

“You had to bring that up,” his wife, Judith, said, smiling.

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