Hours before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the first regular season baseball game in Washington in 34 years, President Bush predicted yesterday that the game would thrive in the nation's capital and challenged the sport to use the debut of the Nationals to boost its presence among African Americans.
On the subject of steroid use in baseball, Bush, the former managing partner of the Texas Rangers, said he was unaware of the problem at time, but believes current efforts to rid the game of performance-enhancing drugs are working.
"Something's happening," Bush said. "And it's happening, frankly, because there is accountability being urged -- not only [by the] government, but as importantly, among the fan base, primarily because of writers and opinion-makers constantly reminding those who follow [the game] that these players have an obligation not to let us down. And it's working."
In an interview in the Oval Office yesterday morning with three baseball reporters, Bush spoke enthusiastically of baseball's return to Washington and said he hoped it would encourage more African American children to play the game.
"I'm hoping, of course, that the next Willie Mays shows up in a baseball uniform and not in a basketball uniform," Bush said, invoking the name of his favorite player as a child. "But, no, there's work to be done in the inner city. Washington's got a chance, of course, to be a leader in attracting a different fan base."
Because this was Bush's fourth trip to a big league mound for a ceremonial first pitch since taking office, the president predicted that he would be able to take more time to savor the moment. However, when he emerged from the home dugout last night clad in a red Nationals warmup jacket and strode to the RFK Stadium mound, he barely paused before firing a pitch -- high and a bit inside -- to Nationals catcher Brian Schneider. Bush then waved again to the crowd and disappeared into the dugout. He sat with Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig in a box on the third base side of home plate to watch the start of the game. Bush left after the fifth inning, with the Nationals leading 3-0.
In the interview, Bush said he has no desire to work in baseball again -- as commissioner or anything else -- when his second term ends in January 2009. However, he said he remains connected to the game through his White House satellite dish -- where the Nationals now jockey for presidential viewing time with the Rangers and Houston Astros -- and through his many friends still in the game.
"I'm excited about the team," Bush said about the Nationals. "I started paying attention to the lineups during spring training. I watch the pitching staff. I know that Livan Hernandez is pitching tonight. I'm watching carefully. . . . I spend a fair amount of time [reading] the box scores on a daily basis. It's one way to take your mind off your job -- to delve into the moment."
On other subjects:
Bush said that despite his influence in both national politics and baseball's power structure, he never got involved in Washington's long-running pursuit of a major league team. He said he believes publicly funded stadiums -- such as the one being built in the District, and the one built for his ownership group in Texas -- can have beneficial effects for cities.
"I viewed [Washington's pursuit] as a local matter that would have to be decided by local opinion makers, local editorialists, and most importantly the local elected officials," Bush said. "In our case [in Texas], we actually had an election to determine whether the local people wanted to spend money to build a stadium -- we had a specific referendum, a vote . . .
"So I'm mindful of the local nature of franchises and stadiums. And I never had any intention whatsoever to butt in, or wade in. I did follow it, because I'm interested in baseball. And I think it is good for baseball to come back to the nation's capital. I believe the demographics have changed enough, and hopefully the [new] stadium will accommodate the increased population in the region . . .
"I also happen to subscribe to the theory that a new ballpark will help lift up a neighborhood and provide a lot of interesting entrepreneurial opportunities for people."
Bush said baseball's new steroid testing program, agreed upon in January and implemented this spring, should be given a chance to work before Congress takes up legislation to mandate tougher standards.