Ladies and gentlemen, please direct your attention to the VIP box adjacent to the home-team dugout...or to the pitcher's mound...or to the sky above, where Bill Clinton, 14 other presidents, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, Lillian Carter, John Glenn, George Jetson, Roger Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Smoky Joe Wood, Smokey the Bear, Mike Ditka, Casey Stengel, Monica Seles, Marianne Moore, Elie Wiesel, Elle Macpherson, Kiteman, Rocket Man, Cannon Man, a naked woman, the Pope, Yul (the King) Brynner, Queen Elizabeth II, Mrs. Walter O'Malley or Mr. Rogers will throw out...or hand-deliver...or bounce in the dirt...the ceremonial first ball.
Lo, and often low, the first pitch. Ball One. It is as much a part of the Big Game—Opening Day, the All-Star Game, the World Series—as the commemorative program, the introduction of both teams, the bunting draped over the railings, the national anthem as sung by Dwight Yoakam. The origin of the ceremonial first pitch has been lost to baseball history, but the throw seems always to have been there. When Abner Doubleday and his friends played the first game of "base ball," in upstate New York in 1845, the mayor of Cooperstown probably threw out the first ball.
A century and a half later, the first ball tradition thrives. In fact, the Clinton family of Washington, D.C., came close to pulling off an unprecedented First Family first ball tripleheader to open this season. The original plan was for Bill to throw out the ceremonial pitch in Baltimore on Monday while Hillary Rodham was in Chicago to do the honors for her beloved Cubs. However, due to the recent stroke suffered by her father, Hugh Rodham, she was unable to attend the opener at Wrigley Field. Meanwhile, First Daughter Chelsea was invited by the Class A Daytona Cubs to throw out the first pitch in their home opener on April 12, but because of her grandfather's illness, she too had to decline.
The Bill Ball era began shortly after noon on Monday in Oriole Park at Camden Yards. President Clinton, dressed in an Oriole warmup jacket, strolled around the field while the visiting Texas Rangers—who, ironically, are partially owned by George W. Bush, son of the 41st president—were taking batting practice. Someone yelled, "Are you going to play today, Mr. President?" and Clinton replied, "I've taken enough positions this week."
He looked a little tired, but then day games after summit meetings are always tough, especially when the game is in Baltimore and the summit was in Vancouver. He met several of the Rangers, including Jose Canseco and manager Kevin Kennedy, giving Clinton one more photo op with a Kennedy. Asked if he gave the President any advice on the upcoming first pitch, Kennedy said, "I told him to keep his shoulder in and not fly open." In a batting cage beneath the stadium, Clinton took about 40 practice throws.
In the meantime, outside the park, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and fellow demonstrators from his National Rainbow Coalition distributed literature and chanted, "Partnership and ownership/Baseball, yes; racism, no." The President did not encounter the demonstrators, but their handouts included an eight-page letter from Jackson to Clinton urging more minority hiring throughout baseball.
After the national anthem, the emcee of the opening ceremonies, Oriole broadcaster Jon Miller, told the sellout crowd of 46,145, "Here to throw out the first ball is a rookie who's just moved into the area from Arkansas, the President of the United States, Bill Clinton." To a mixture of cheers and boos, Bill took the hill. Actually he jogged to a spot just in front of the mound, turned and, with his left hand, quickly lobbed the ball about 50 feet to Baltimore catcher Chris Hoiles. It was a decidedly conservative pitch and on the right side of the plate. Even with baseball's desperate need for southpaws, Clinton should keep his day job.
After the pitch, the President joined fellow Arkansan Brooks Robinson, the Orioles' Hall of Fame third baseman, and Miller in the WMAR-TV booth, where together they called the top of the first. They chatted about Clinton's own modest baseball career, about listening to Harry Caray on the radio and about Canseco. "I shook hands with him before the game," said the obviously impressed Clinton. "He's a good-sized fellow.... Why has he changed his stance, Brooks?" The President stayed until the seventh inning, then headed back to the White House, where he was to meet Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak the next day.
The first chief executive to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day was the 27th president, William Howard Taft, who decided on the spur of the moment, on April 14, 1910, to go to the game at National Park between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics. Legend has it that Taft was in the mood for a distinctly masculine pursuit because of the rough treatment he had suffered the night before at a suffragettes' meeting in Alexandria, Va. (Women were 10 years from voting and 83 years from First Woman Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
In any case the 300-pound righthander showed up without much fanfare, commandeering-in-chief a choice box. Head umpire Billy Evans suggested that President Taft throw out the first ball, a privilege usually reserved for a District of Columbia commissioner. Since then, every president has let fly a ceremonial pitch, though Jimmy Carter missed out on Opening Day. What follows is a brief scouting report on each of our national aces.