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Keeping His Eye on the Ball

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The Washington Post's Dana Milbank sketches President Bush's annual tee ball game. Video by Akira Hakuta/washingtonpost.comWashington Sketch

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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 17, 2008

It was another day of turmoil in the capital. The Federal Reserve chairman again tried to reassure jittery markets. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he wanted more troops in Afghanistan to put down the growing insurgency. And just before 4 p.m., President Bush stepped onto the South Lawn for what he called a "historic" moment.

"Play ball!" cried the commander in chief.

Leaving his cares behind, Bush then sat down for more than an hour to watch 6- and 7-year-olds play T-ball, to unveil a "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" postage stamp, and to lead the crowd in singing that anthem with the majesty of "Hail to the Chief."

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.

I don't care if I never get back.

The president had reason to be sincere about that last line. Earlier in the day, the administration announced the highest inflation rate in a quarter-century. His aides worked to steady Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the tottering mortgage giants. And Bush, at 28 percent approval in the polls, seems to have abandoned any hope of a home run that could solve domestic economic problems or the wars overseas.

But by one measure, Bush remains more enthusiastic than ever: his role as the nation's chief cheerleader. Yesterday's T-ball game, the 19th of his presidency -- followed by a dinner last night in honor of Major League Baseball, the third of his presidency -- brought to at least 95 the number of sporting-related events he has participated in during his time in the White House. He has done no fewer than 18 such events so far this year -- already passing his previous record of 13 in both 2001 and 2007.

The 95 sports events (with hundreds of athletic teams) are more than double the number of Cabinet meetings Bush has held (45), more than quadruple the number of meetings he has had with Russia's Vladimir Putin (22). The 19 T-ball games he has held are more than twice the number of meetings he has had with China's Hu Jintao (nine). And the three dinners he has held in honor of professional baseball are nearly equal to the five state dinners he has hosted during his entire presidency.

These are the stats kept by CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, the world's most devoted chronicler of presidential comings and goings. By his reckoning, the only activity that seems to rival the president's love of sports is his love of fundraising. Bush has attended 322 fundraisers since taking office.

Fundraising, however, is work. For a president facing little good news at the office, sport is pleasure. For Bush, former owner of baseball's Texas Rangers, it began in March 2001, when, in the presence of Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and others, he launched the White House T-ball league. Since then, athletes have passed through the White House by the hundreds. Last month, Bush welcomed 20 college teams at once, including the University of Maryland Eastern Shore women's bowling team, the UCLA women's water polo team, and the Penn State men's and women's volleyball squads.

Bush has even taken his love of sport abroad, watching a T-ball game in Ghana this year. But sometimes his enthusiasm causes an errant shot. Given a basketball at the White House by Shaquille O'Neal, Bush tried to dribble the ball, but it didn't bounce. Shooting hoops with children in Northern Ireland last month, he came up with an air ball and a missed layup.

But Bush keeps playing -- and because he's the president, everybody plays along. Workers set up bleachers, picnic tables, refreshment stands, a home-run fence and painted base paths on the South Lawn for yesterday's "All-Star Game." Country singer Kenny Chesney sang the national anthem. Current and past baseball greats Ryne Sandberg, John Smoltz, Kevin Millar and Rick Monday served as coaches, former Nationals manager Frank Robinson acted as commissioner, and ESPN's "Mike and Mike" handled the play-by-play.

The enthusiastic president arrived early. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this historic occasion," Bush said before leading the players in the Little League Oath. Bush, in short sleeves and a cowboy belt, then took a seat in the fourth row of the stands to watch as each player was introduced by favorite food and movie ("Jack likes ice cream and 'Curious George' ") before taking a turn at the plate.

The game must have looked familiar to Bush in these final months of his presidency: dropped balls, swings and misses, and players running every which way. But in T-ball, at least, "absolutely no score will be kept," as Mike and Mike put it, "and everyone will leave as a winner."

At the end of the game, Bush joined a large chipmunk named Dugout on the field to hand out baseballs to the players. But even on the South Lawn, he found that his popularity went only so far. A young girl named Emily from Kentucky, apparently afraid to meet the president and the chipmunk, ran crying from the field when Bush tried to present her with a ball.

Undeterred, Bush lingered to sign baseballs and pose for pictures. He was in no hurry: His next big event, the Major League Baseball dinner in the State Dining Room, wouldn't start for two more hours.


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