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Obama takes to the pitcher's mound to set things right

By Michael D. Shear
Monday, April 5, 2010; 1:49 PM

President Obama pitched high and way to the left as he threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the 2010 baseball season at Nationals Park Monday, marking the 100th year of the presidential tradition.

Dressed in khakis and a red Nationals jacket, Obama waited until he got to the pitcher's mound to put a Chicago White Sox cap on his head, grinning from ear to ear as he did so.

Obama, a lefty, put his mitt on his right hand and took very little time to warm up, firing off his pitch quickly. Unlike last year, when he pitched a near-grounder at the All Star Game, the president's ball popped high, prompting the catcher -- third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- to leap to his right to catch it.

Unfazed, Obama waved to the crowd, stopping briefly to shake hands with members of the team before heading off of the field.

Obama received a rousing welcome from fans in the packed stadium, who had turned out on a beautiful spring day for the game against the Phillies. Rob Dibble, a sports broadcaster on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, described Obama as a "lanky left hander" and compared him to the Philly pitcher Cole Hamels.

The president did not take his appearance on the mound for granted, aides said. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama practiced pitching within the past week with aides Reggie Love and Marvin Nicholson.

"Like major leaguers making their debut tonight, the president has fit in a little spring training to get his arm in shape," Gibbs said.

Obama follows in the footsteps of William Howard Taft, who started the practice in 1910 with the then-Washington Senators, and every president since then -- with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who threw out a pitch for a World Series game but never on Opening Day.

Presidents have skipped for all sorts of reasons -- Woodrow Wilson cited World War I a couple of times; Taft missed the 1912 opener because a friend died on the Titanic; Dwight D. Eisenhower is said to have passed one year to play golf instead. Last year Obama let Vice President Biden throw out a pitch at Washington's opener.

The White House staff is no doubt hoping that the image of Obama on the mound will portend good things for a year that is jam-packed with tough agenda items: nuclear arms treaties; Iran sanctions; financial reform; environmental legislation; another Supreme Court battle; continued economic doldrums; and more Afghan concerns.

Not that a first pitch always guarantees success in the future. Richard M. Nixon threw out the first pitch for the California Angels on April 6, 1973, in the opening game at Anaheim Stadium. (It was the first presidential pitch for a team other than the Senators, who had left Washington.)

Nixon resigned the following year.

So could the fate of Obama's agenda this year hinge on baseball?

Consider the following: The general manager of the Chicago White Sox invited Obama to throw out the first pitch of last year's Major League Baseball season -- an honor that presidents have been accepting for 100 years. But Obama -- a longtime Chicago resident who is frequently spotted wearing a White Sox cap -- declined the request. Where was he on Opening Day? In Istanbul, giving one of the first major foreign policy speeches of his presidency.

And look what happened.

He returned to Washington to find his health-care bill quickly bogged down in "tea party" protests and legislative squabbling. The war in Afghanistan took a turn for the worse, causing him to order a huge infusion of troops. Global warming and financial regulation bills stalled. And a Virginia couple crashed his first big party.

That'll teach him to snub one of the great bipartisan traditions in American sports -- something that is hardly an act of the left, the right or the center. Throwing out the first pitch is, like Obama says frequently, "not for the lobbyists, not for the special interests, not for politicians, but for the American people."

Now Obama has a chance to set things right in his presidency.

Baseball has returned to Washington. Spring has returned to a region pummeled by snow and ice. And after getting health-care legislation passed, Obama will return to Prague on Wednesday to sign a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

This time, though, he's in Washington for Opening Day.

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