As Yogi Berra once put it, "It ain't over till it's over, and nearly everybody at Bill and Hillary Clinton's picnic Saturday hoped it wasn't but feared it was.
"It" was what a perfect summer afternoon might likely bring to mind -- baseball. And on this particular afternoon, the thought was quickly followed by the awful prospect that for the first time since 1904 there will be no World Series.
While striking players and club owners wrangled elsewhere over their differences, several hundred guests gathered on the South Lawn of the White House to celebrate the long-awaited documentary "Baseball," by Ken Burns of "Civil War" fame.
Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala took the opportunity to implore Labor Secretary Robert Reich somehow to just "end the baseball strike!" And over near the batting cage, where the Durham Bulls and Frederick Keys monitored amateur athletes, Clinton said, "I'm working on it, we're all working on it." Then, with a touch of the legendary catcher/philosopher Berra, he added enigmatically that "less is more, though, and the less I say the better off we are."
Still, you can't expect a former sandlot outfielder like Clinton, married to a onetime ace shortstop, to say less for long about something that, at times, puts more Americans on the edge of their seats than other more worldly crises.
"I understand the issues and all that," Clinton said, "but the end of it will be if there are enough owners and players to elevate the idea of baseball over the specifics of this disagreement, at least to finish the season."
The other question among some of the several hundred guests was whether Burns's epic, which premieres Sunday on WETA, would be the epitaph to baseball as Americans know it.
Timed for release in the waning days of the baseball season, the nine-part documentary was intended to be a rousing, extra nine "innings." Saturday's special screening at the National Theatre of a much-abbreviated version of the series was put together by PBS, WETA and General Motors. The Clintons came through with the after-screening picnic for the town's media elite and a few special guests from Capitol Hill and the administration.
For Burns, baseball is "the story of us" as a nation, "a way to see our tendencies, our character, our life in a subtler, perhaps easier-to-comprehend form." The idea of being the only game in town wasn't the most inviting prospect but "the worst-case scenario is that the players could conceivably say, 'Look, if we can't come to the terms we can start our own league.' " That happened in 1890 and again in 1914.
Among the guests were several of the film's commentators, legends from the Negro Leagues whose fortunes and misfortunes paralleled the major leagues during the Great Depression and later. There were Riley Stewart, who played with the Memphis Red Sox and Chicago American Giants; Slick Surratt, with the Kansas City Monarchs; and Connie Johnson, who pitched for the Monarchs, often behind Satchel Paige.
"In a way, I was expecting the strike to happen for some time," said Johnson. "There's too much money involved and the ballplayers couldn't give up the things they came in with. You see, baseball players used to be slaves. When you belonged to an owner that was it. You couldn't get away from them. If you won 20 games one year and 16 the next, your salary was cut. But players got liberated from that so they're not going back."
Buck O'Neil, who made $100 a month plus $1 a day for meal money when he first started out, played with the Monarchs for 17 years and for the next 33 scouted for the Chicago Cubs, signing such baseball greats as Ernie Banks and Lou Brock.
"The idea that baseball players make too much money isn't right for the simple reason that the money's there," said O'Neil. "Hey, they're the ones who generate the money and should get it. We always did pay our celebrities, our entertainers. Our values may be a little different from other countries, but this is America. If you can make it, it's your right to get it."
Among the picnic's other attractions, which included a be-your-own-trading-card photo booth and standard ballpark fare of popcorn and hotdogs (plus more elaborate cuisine), was Hillary Clinton, who hit a couple of balls in the batting cage.
"That was a great swing," Burns told her. "Did you get some batting practice before the screening, just to warm up?"
Mrs. Clinton, who as a kid was a "big-time" fan of the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees and "understudied" Ernie Banks and Mickey Mantle, smiled. Another favorite was Satchel Paige and his advice on how to stay healthy.
"I always loved 'Don't look back, somebody might be gaining on you.' " she said.