Bush throws first pitch for Nationals
President gets first look at Washington's new stadium
Posted: Sunday March 30, 2008 8:41PM; Updated: Monday March 31, 2008 10:59AM
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush had enough to worry about -- like not flubbing the first pitch in front of a crowd that might not exactly be his biggest fans anyway.
So before the game, when a couple of Atlanta Braves gave him a team jersey and suggested he wear it to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park, Bush laughed. Uh, no thanks, guys. Might as well put on a sign that says "Boo me."
"I'm not going to give them any excuses," Bush said of the 40,000-plus people gathered for the opening of Washington's gleaming baseball stadium.
Over in the Nationals' swank clubhouse, general manager Jim Bowden told the president he expected him to throw a strike. More pressure.
"Shhh," Bush responded. "Keep expectations low."
By the time Bush emerged onto the baseball field, he had ditched the gray sports coat and popped out of the home dugout in a red Nationals jacket. He was greeted by plenty of loud jeers, but also determined cheers, as if the fans in both camps were trying to outduel each other.
The president didn't dawdle on the pitcher's mound. He quickly released the ceremonial first pitch high and to the third-base side of the plate, where Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta caught it with ease.
It wasn't surprising that Bush's pitch went high. People tend to have long memories when the ball is bounced to home plate. So Bush made time this week to hurl some practice pitches in his backyard -- the South Lawn of the White House. He took some private throws just before his prime-time toss Sunday.
"I didn't want to bounce it, that's for certain," Bush later told ESPN announcers Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. "That's why I came in with high heat."
The president stayed until the fifth inning, or about 9:45 p.m. That's a late night for him. He was there long enough to see the ballpark's first strikeout, hit, run and homer, as well as the laughable race between those presidents with the giant heads.
Bush might have stuck around longer if he hadn't been facing a long day ahead -- a trip Monday of more than 5,000 miles to Ukraine.
The tradition of a presidential first pitch goes back to 1910, when a formally dressed William Howard Taft threw the ball from his seat in the stands. Each occasion is different, but some years surely have more pizazz than others, and Bush is benefiting from a little good timing.
Washington is buzzing about baseball. There are opening days of a season every year, but opening days for a stadium are etched into a city's history.
Bush had the kind of drive to the stadium that many Nationals fans would consider a commuter's dream. It took him just six minutes to go the three miles from the White House to the ballpark on South Capitol Street. It helps when the highway is shut down for you and parking for your motorcade is reserved.
Behind the scenes, Bush comfortably chatted with players from both teams, signed autographs and posed for photos.
When Bush got to the Nationals' quarters, he had to feel comfortable just looking around. He was standing in an oval office.
The Nationals' clubhouse is sharp-looking and spacious, and considerably larger than the oval room in which the president works. The players seemed almost bashfully respectful at first. Then they warmed up and approached him, one by one, for photos.
"Chief! El jefe!" Bush said to relief pitcher Chad Cordero, calling him by his nickname. "Nice to meet you."
When towering pitcher Jon Rauch seemed to get edged aside by other autograph-seekers, Bush turned to him and said, "Big man?" The 6-foot-11 Rauch told the commander in chief, "I can wait."
Bush watched the game with members of the Lerner family in their owners' box.
It was the second time Bush has performed the first-pitch honor in Washington and the sixth time overall in his presidency.
Bush has taken keen interest in the development of the $611 million riverfront Nationals Park, which came together in under two years. He is often known to make comments to his advisers about it when his Marine One helicopter hovers over on the way to and from the White House.
In his earlier days, the president had an unremarkable stint as a relief pitcher the freshmen baseball team at Yale University. Baseball ended up being quite good to him. Before he got into politics, Bush was managing partner of Texas Rangers -- a team that a couple decades earlier had been Washington's Senators. Asked on ESPN if he might get back into baseball, Bush said, "I think I'm pretty much gonna be a fan."
As for Sunday, the ending Bush missed was just about perfect for Nationals fans.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit a homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to win it. There was nothing but cheers this time.
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