Balking at the First Pitch

Among the dozen commanders in chief who have tossed out the ceremonial first pitch is Warren G. Harding, who opened the Washington Senators' 1921 baseball season, continuing a presidential tradition begun 11 years earlier.
Among the dozen commanders in chief who have tossed out the ceremonial first pitch is Warren G. Harding, who opened the Washington Senators' 1921 baseball season, continuing a presidential tradition begun 11 years earlier. (1921 Associated Press Photo)

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By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007

This is a baseball story, so let's get right to the stats.

Today is Washington's 65th Opening Day since 1910, when William H. Taft gave us a tradition: the ceremonial first pitch by the president. Taft threw the inaugural one for the Senators that year. In the local club's 63 home openers since, a dozen presidents have done the honors 45 times, from front-row seats or from the mound, making them 46 for 64 overall (.719). Pretty reliable.

President Bush kept up the tradition in 2005, celebrating baseball's return to the nation's capital after a 33-season absence. But he missed last year's home opener -- and he'll miss today's, too, when the Nationals host the Florida Marlins at 1:05 p.m. Except for when the world was at war, only two other presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Richard M. Nixon, missed Opening Day ceremonies two years in a row. And Wilson had suffered a stroke.

What gives?

"Oh, yes, he was invited," said Bush spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. She said the president, an avid baseball fan and former part owner of the Texas Rangers, would love to be there. But "it's not possible with his schedule. He's got various meetings during the day, a meeting earlier in the morning. . . . It just wasn't going to work out."

With Bush's approval ratings stuck below 40 percent in recent polls, Lawrimore was asked whether the president feared he'd get booed. "No," she replied. "Certainly not."

You might have seen this mentioned in the paper recently, that Bush wouldn't be coming to the home opener. It was the last item in a little roundup story from Nats spring training camp. No one thought it was a big deal.

Long ago, though, when baseball held a singular grip on America's imagination, a president's decision to skip Opening Day was cause for headlines. Usually, a personal tragedy or historic crisis or calamity was to blame, though not always. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to skip the 1953 home opener to play golf, and he took a beating for it in the newspapers.

"It's hard to understand today how huge baseball was for so many Americans in those generations," said John Odell, a curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"And you can't help but admit that it's just not the case anymore."

Last Opening Day, while Vice President Cheney filled in on the RFK mound (and heard some boos), Bush was in the Midwest, talking with senior citizens about Medicare's prescription drug benefit. His meetings today are in the White House. As for Cheney, his office said he'll be in Alabama this afternoon, speaking at a reception for a Republican senator.

Nationals President Stan Kasten said it's not surprising that Bush has turned down first-ball invitations two years in a row, given the weight of his duties.


CONTINUED     1           >

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