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Catching a Presidential Pitch

Bush to Continue Tradition of Chief Executive Throwing Out First Ball at Opener

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page D01

Most times, Brian Schneider doesn't have to think about it. He'll crouch down, thump his right hand into the soft leather of the catcher's mitt that sits on his left, and have someone hurl a baseball at him, upward of 90 mph.

The ball that comes toward him tomorrow night, though, won't travel half that speed, yet Schneider's knees just might be knocking, the plastic of his shin guards clicking together a bit. Schneider, the Washington Nationals catcher, boasts a collection of more than 200 baseballs, autographed by men he has met and those he hasn't, by his heroes, Ernie Banks and Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. The one he catches tomorrow night will be different.

President Calvin Coolidge, at right, prepares to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, bottom, wearing glove, in the 1924 opener at Griffith Stadium. (Courtesy of Henry W. Thomas)

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"I mean, it's the president," Schneider said. "Who wouldn't be honored to catch that pitch?"

The first official pitch for the Nationals in their new home ballpark, RFK Stadium, will be thrown by right-hander Livan Hernandez. But before the game, the ceremonial first pitch will come from President Bush. Schneider intends to be there to catch it and, eventually, have it signed so he can add it to his collection -- a ball that instantly overtakes all the others.

The proceedings tomorrow night continue a long tradition of presidents throwing out first pitches that began 95 years ago to the day, when William Howard Taft tossed a ball to Washington Senators great Walter Johnson, who then went out and threw a one-hitter to beat the Philadelphia Athletics, 3-0. Since that day, nearly every president has continued the tradition. The walls of a conference room at Major League Baseball's headquarters in New York are lined with the photos of such occasions. President Bush threw an Opening Day first pitch in St. Louis last year. President Clinton did it at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1996. But when Washington had a team, the president used Washington's ballpark, and ballclub, as his platform for such occasions.

"I remember most of them," said former Senator Mickey Vernon, 86, who is scheduled to be at the opener. "It was an honor, really, to have them there."

Several presidents have held special affection for baseball. Thus, baseball men frequently have in-roads to presidents that others don't. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden once sat with George H.W. Bush in a luxury box during a minor league game in Chattanooga. Assistant general manager Tony Siegle chatted extensively with Richard Nixon during a game in Philadelphia in the early 1970s. Team president Tony Tavares has already been to the White House for dinner with President Bush, part of a "baseball bunch" setting in which the men who lead and play the game talk baseball with the man who leads the nation.

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, a Hall of Fame player, attended one such dinner at the Bush White House. "It was outstanding," Robinson said, "once you get over the intimidation factor type of thing."

But if there is one club in baseball that is likely to have less of an intimidation factor with the president, it is the one that resides in the nation's capital.

"I think the relationship a Washington team has with a president is different than any other," said former Senators pitcher Jim Hannan. "We had presidents at the park many, many times."

The ceremonial first pitch, though, used to be much different. And were it to be carried out as it used to be, Schneider's chances of catching it would be reduced to 1 in 50. The president used to throw the ball from the stands. Most of the photos, in fact, show the president from straight on or a slight angle, hurling the ball onto the field.

What the photos don't reveal is that the president had to toss the ball over a line of photographers, all angling for the best shot. Behind the photographers, players from both teams jockeyed for position. "It was somewhat of a rugby match," Hannan said.

"That scramble was something," Vernon said. "Somebody might get spiked, which a few guys did over the years."

Veteran Senators learned how to best jockey for position. One year, a catcher named Ken Retzer out-thought everyone else, and ended up with the ball. The next season, he passed on his wisdom to Hannan, who was just a rookie.

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