By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008
VIERA, Fla., March 27 -- With President Bush slated to open Nationals Park by throwing the ceremonial first pitch Sunday night, new Washington Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca has assumed all spring that he would be the man to receive it.
But Thursday morning, on the last day of spring training, General Manager Jim Bowden informed Lo Duca that the honor instead will go to Manager Manny Acta.
The choice has symbolic implications. Lo Duca was one of the primary figures in the report by former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Bush, in turn, is an avid baseball fan and former owner of the Texas Rangers who has publicly denounced the use of steroids, both in professional sports and by America's youth.
The White House said it played no role in determining who would catch the pitch.
"Whatever the decision the Nationals make is up to them," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said by telephone Thursday. "In no way did we, or would we, raise any issues."
Lo Duca said after Thursday's final Grapefruit League game that he had no animosity about the situation.
"I'm not upset," Lo Duca said. "I'm just not catching it. They just told me that was the decision, that they'd go with Manny."
Lo Duca declined to speculate as to whether his role in the Mitchell report had anything to do with the decision. Bowden did not mention that in his conversation, Lo Duca said.
Bowden did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Nationals President Stan Kasten said by e-mail that the club was "still finalizing details" about the pregame ceremonies, and that more information would be made available Friday, when the club holds its first workout at the new ballpark. The team will host an exhibition game Saturday against the Baltimore Orioles before opening the season with a nationally televised game Sunday night against the Atlanta Braves -- one in which Bush is scheduled to both throw out the first pitch and appear in the ESPN broadcast booth.
The only other time Bush has thrown out a ceremonial pitch before a Nationals game was on April 14, 2005, when baseball returned to Washington after a 33-year absence. That night, the starting catcher was Brian Schneider, and he was on the receiving end of the pitch.
Lo Duca battled a torn meniscus in his left knee through most of spring training. But after playing consistently over the last week -- though he did not play Thursday -- he is expected to be in the lineup Sunday night. Earlier in the week, he spoke about the chance to catch the president.
"It'll be cool," he said. "It's something you'll always remember."
Though it is typical for the starting catcher to receive a ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day, Bush hasn't always thrown to catchers. In April 2001, he threw out the first pitch in Milwaukee, and then-manager Davey Lopes caught the pitch for the Brewers. In 2006, however, Bush opened the season in Cincinnati, throwing to Reds catcher Jason LaRue. On Oct. 30, 2001, he threw his most famous ceremonial pitch, opening Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium -- just seven weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11 -- by firing a strike to Todd Greene, then a backup catcher for the Yankees.