The hot dogs were steaming inside the White House kitchen, a Secret Service agent kept an eye on things behind the backstop, and on the lush green diamond, two jersey-clad T-ball squads got a second chance at the major leagues.
Yesterday was opening day for a new White House T-ball season, and teams from New York and New Jersey finally played the game that Sept. 11 took away. The Uniondale (N.Y.) Little League Sluggers and the 6/11 Little League Sluggers of Trenton were supposed to square off Sept. 16, but the terrorist attacks forced the White House to cancel the game.
"We were hoping we'd get invited back," said Dave Koehler, 52, who oversees the 6/11 league in Trenton and 19 others in Mercer County, N.J. "It does signify that things are getting back to normal."
And on a sunny spring Sunday at the White House, this qualified as normal: A shaded corner of the South Lawn was turned into a makeshift baseball diamond, complete with painted base lines, a backstop, several sets of bleachers and an announcer's booth plugged into a public address system. And in the audience were players' families, sports stars and the former Little Leaguer who dreamed the whole thing up, President Bush.
"Welcome to baseball at the White House," Bush told the audience from home plate before the 3:30 p.m. game, the first since Sept. 11. After reciting the Little League pledge with the kids, the president joined first lady Laura Bush and players' families on the bleachers near first base.
For the president, the one-inning, unscored game offered an afternoon of pleasant distractions. As ESPN's Rich Eisen and Alvaro Martin handled the play-by-play, both sets of Sluggers -- more than two dozen players ages 5 to 8 -- swung for the short white fence, packed more than a dozen into the outfield and generally ran amok.
One of the biggest hits of the day came from Uniondale's Bianca Officer. As the 6-year-old stood at the plate, a Trenton outfielder lost interest and crouched down to toy with the grass. After a few unsuccessful swings, Bianca connected with the soft ball -- and the batting tee it was placed on -- and rounded the bases.
"Swing hard," said Bianca, who offered the advice to other Little Leaguers in a postgame interview.
Keeping a Cabinet-level eye on much of the action was the first-base coach, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel R. Martinez. Coaching third was former Cincinnati Reds player and Hall of Famer Tony Perez. And cheering from the stands and the dugouts was Commissioner Cal Ripken.
Retired Baltimore Orioles legend Ripken was appointed by Bush to serve as honorary commissioner of White House T-ball.
"I think the president of the United States is more passionate about baseball than anyone," Ripken said, as he signed balls and baseball cards for a Little League team from Apopka, Fla., which won the U.S. championship in the Little League World Series in August and visited for the first game of the season.
The South Lawn games began last year as part of a presidential initiative that administration officials say promotes the nation's pastime and encourages old-fashioned community togetherness. Three games were held from May to July, all with District and Virginia children.
Little League officials in Williamsport, Pa., had notified the Uniondale and Trenton leagues that they had been picked for the fourth match -- the players' "South Lawn Sluggers" jerseys and baseball caps were being prepared for shipment -- when terrorists struck. Bush sent a letter dated Sept. 24 to Little League headquarters and to the leagues, expressing his regret about postponing the game.
Robert Rodriguez, president of Uniondale Little League, said the team's disappointment was "overshadowed by how close the tragedies happened to us and how much it affected everyone's lives."
White House officials had said that a season of T-ball games was planned for each year of Bush's tenure, and that the sport's return was not a question of if, but when.
"The terrorist attacks kept these two teams from playing last year," said White House spokesman Jim Wilkinson. "But these teams are back, baseball is back and the president is excited about the new season."
Several players on the two teams were Hispanic, and yesterday's game represented an effort by the White House to reach out to the Latino community. The original game was to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month; yesterday's fell on Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday.
The president shared at least one thing in common with the Sluggers: He played Little League ball in the 1950s, on the Cubs of Midland, Tex. Another Little Leaguer, Beau French, a 13-year-old Apopka player who watched the game in awe, said: "Right now, I wish I had a kid, so he could play T-ball."