Obama's first pitch: Wild, to the left

In front of thousands of fans, President Barack Obama strolled to the pitcher's mound and tossed a baseball to Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, officially launching the team's baseball season. (April 5)
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Yes, they booed President Obama at Nationals Park on Monday. And he deserved it.

To be precise, there were two waves of boos. The first came when he walked out of the dugout and onto the field to throw out the Opening Day first pitch; those unsportsmanlike boos undoubtedly came from agitators in the crowd sympathetic to the visiting Philadelphia Phillies, while the well-behaved and long-suffering Nats fans, the Silent Majority, applauded respectfully.

But then, as Obama took the mound wearing a red Nationals jacket, he made a costly error. He whipped from his glove a folded Chicago White Sox cap, shook it open and put the traitorous garment on his head. This time the boos came from Nats fans, too.

It was so cruel to torment the hapless Nats (who furthered their reputation as the worst team in baseball with an 11-1 loss to the defending National League champions) that it seems only fair to point out a few things about Obama's pitching motion.

He began, after toeing the rubber, by pumping his arms several times without continuing the motion; had a runner been on base, the umpire may well have called a balk. Finally, Obama completed his delivery, using the familiar motion some commentators (certainly not this one) have in the past derided as a "girl toss." The ball floated, slowly and with great loft, in the general direction of home plate, but -- metaphor alert! -- wild and far to the left.

The man assigned to catch this balloon, Ryan Zimmerman, jumped up from his crouch behind the plate and took a couple of quick steps to his right, meeting the ball when it finally came down behind, and on the wrong side of, the batter's box.

There were shouts of "ohh" in the crowd. Screech, the Nationals' mascot, signaled that the pitch was a ball. But Obama -- perhaps remembering his toss at the All-Star Game last year, which was barely saved from the dirt by Albert Pujols -- seemed to think it a success. He did what looked to be a small fist-pump celebration before leaving the mound.

In fairness -- not that one need be fair to a White Sox fan -- there is nothing quite so dangerous in the American presidency as throwing out the first pitch. Do it well, and nobody will remember it. Throw a wild pitch, and it will become a symbol of your leadership.

No wonder Obama prefers the safe confines of the basketball court to the cruel baseball diamond. On the court, nobody mocks Obama's jump shot -- not even retired pro Clark Kellogg, now a CBS Sports commentator, who lost a modified game of H-O-R-S-E (they played P-O-T-U-S) to Obama on the White House court last week. Down four shots and on the verge of elimination, Obama talked trash to the old star ("Now, don't tighten up, playing against the president") and rallied to win as Kellogg threw an airball and a brick off the rim.

"I guarantee you, Clark missed a couple of those on purpose," Obama said after the game.

"You think so?" Kellogg asked innocently.

The president was back on the court Monday morning during the Easter Egg Roll, shooting some hoops with kids. He attempted a three-point shot from the baseline: After two misses, nothing but net.

That luck does not seem to follow Obama to the pitching mound. Even his fashion sense came in for abuse when he threw his All-Star Game pitch last year: He was ribbed for wearing high-waisted "mom jeans" on the mound. Obama later spoke of "all sorts of blogs who said I looked like Urkel."

But for Obama, there's no escaping the first-pitch tradition -- a tradition that began exactly 100 years ago when William Howard Taft tossed the ball for the Washington Senators. His successors all the way through Richard Nixon upheld the tradition for the Senators, and George W. Bush, braving the boos, resumed the practice when the Nats moved to town. (The crowd booed Bush again Monday when the footage of his first pitch was played on the jumbo screen.)

Before the game, the Republican National Committee, taking a break from Michael Steele's self-destruction, tried to psych out the president by e-mailing around a "research briefing" linking Obama's baseball skills to health-care reform. Its title: "PITCH IN THE DIRT." At the ballpark, helicopters circled overhead before Obama arrived, and police shut down South Capitol Street, causing a major snarl.

Inside the ballpark was a sea of red (the thousands of Phillies fans looked from a distance like Nats fans because of their identical colors) and a cross-section of Washington aristocracy: George Will, Mayor Adrian Fenty, Miss America (with tiara) and David Gregory (without tiara).

Fenty was booed almost as much as Bush, and considerably more than Obama, who this time opted for a pair of khakis with a sensible waistline.

One hundred years ago, President Taft stayed for the whole game, also a Washington-Philly matchup. But Obama left the ballpark just an hour into the three-hour game, returning to the White House a few minutes after 2 p.m. -- by total coincidence, the exact start time for the live broadcast of the White Sox season opener.

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