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Baseball and politics: a cozy combination

Baseball is America's pastime. And politics is Washington's pastime. Put the two together and what do lovers of both get? A perfect game. A great double play. Howard Mortman explains why.
President Bush, who will throw out the first pitch at Thursday's Washington Nationals home opener, has plenty of experience, including this April 6, 2001, effort at a Milwaukee Brewers game.Larry Downing / REUTERS

Baseball is America's pastime. And politics is Washington's pastime. Put the two together and what do lovers of both get? A perfect game. A great double play.

We're just days away from Thursday’s home opener of Washington's first baseball season since Nixon's first term.  So consider:

  • The team's colors are an homage to patriotism:  red, white, and blue, with a triumphant splash of gold.  They go along with the pleasing, unifying name, Nationals. The package could easily work on a political campaign bumper sticker.
  • The White House Web site has a baseball page. An excerpt: "From throwing to catching and fielding to batting, America's Presidents have long enjoyed playing or watching a good game of baseball."
  • "The Politics Program" on local NewsChannel 8 last week sported an "all-baseball show" with the Nationals president and general manager.  It did a similar all-baseball show in December.
  • A March 26 Bob Novak column began this way: "Eight of the District of Columbia City Council's 13 members want to disinvite George W. Bush from throwing out the first ball when Major League Baseball returns to Washington on Thursday for the first time since 1971."  The column headline: "Baseball politics."
  • The first home game is listed on ABC News Political Calendar.

Even the most singularly focused political junkie must acknowledge the influence of baseball.  President Bush was a managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.  Ronald Reagan used to broadcast and re-enact baseball games on the radio.  Hall-of-fame pitcher Jim Bunning is a U.S. senator.  And who was that sitting next to Hillary Clinton during President Clinton's 1999 State of the Union Address?  None other than Sammy Sosa, who made a repeat appearance last month in Congress, joining other Major League Baseball star players to discuss the problem of steroid use.  Fortunately for Washington baseball fans, Sosa is Peter Angelos' problem now.  No wonder, with Sosa, the Orioles are so-so.

President Bush this week throws out the opening pitch at RFK Stadium (only D.C. would name its ballpark after an attorney general), an act itself proving the intertwining of baseball and politics.  The president's pitch resumes a tradition that began with William Howard Taft, who in 1910 tossed to the Senators' Walter Johnson. (Here's one for you baseball trivia lovers: Johnson pitched a shutout win, allowing the Philadelphia Athletics just one hit in a 3-0 victory for Washington. This year, the other Philadelphia team, the Phillies, beat Washington on opening day.)

Symbolic renewal
Baseball's Hall of Fame Web site describes the executive act this way: "The president's annual appearance at the start of each season symbolically renews the bonds that unite the country, its leaders, and the game — a ceremonial springtime rebirth as America's National Pastime. For presidents, baseball offers a welcome connection to a wholesome, all-American image."  

Sounds like a State of the Union address. Or the budget request.

Don't forget: In 2001, President Bush threw out the first pitch at Game Three of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.   It was a warm, supportive crowd.  Surely April 14 will be equally friendly to the president — what with all those W's on everyone's cap.  But opening day presents this political sub-drama: The Nationals battle the Arizona Diamondbacks. That's right, Arizona, as in John McCain.

Let there be little doubt who will be in the stands on Opening Day: Politicians.  Lots of politicians.  And the people who lobby politicians.  And the people who donate to them.    And the media celebs who cover them.  Better be careful getting angry at a player or umpire.  Yell out "Get rid of the bum!" and half the crowd will think you're demanding a recall election.

The Washington Post reported on political and media heavy-hitters angling for the best seats in RFK stadium: "Major League Baseball is returning to Washington after a 34-year absence, but the game of connections and status never left town. So for months, VIPs from business, politics and the media have been working to get choice tickets to Nationals games."

The status factor
Yes, along with patriotism, there's status.  Political status.

"One of the things that Washington has is many people who define themselves as being important," team President Tony Tavares told the Washington Post about ticket requests. "There are very few people that don't define themselves as being important in Washington."

That's politics for ya.  Everyone's important.

Of the old Washington Senators, it used to be said: "First in war, first in peace, last in the American League."  Of our new baseball team we can add, "And always in politics."