Lots of politicians throw out first balls at All-Star Games, but perhaps only Vice President George Bush really worries about it.
"I'm going with the slider," said Bush decisively a half-hour before the game. "I know there's a lot of risk there, but if I keep it low and outside, I think I'll be all right.
"By the way, who's catching me?" asked Bush. "(Carlton) Fisk?"
The vice president was told that a 13-year-old had been picked out of the center field bleachers to handle his first pitch.
Bush's face fell. "You mean," he said, "that I'm going to have to take something off?"
To Bush, that's no joke. Every president or vice president finds some way to claim he was a ballplayer, or, at least, a softball player.
Bush was rather close to the real thing. He was the first baseman of the Yale baseball team, which doesn't sound like much, perhaps, until you realize that in 1947 and '48 the Eli, with Bush aboard, made it to the final game of the College World Series, losing the national title in the last game of the year both times.
Of his senior year teammates, five played pro ball and two made the majors. His coach, Ethan Allen, according to Bush, "always claimed that his lifetime batting average in the majors was .301. Since he was the coach, we never disputed him."
And who was the captain of that Yale powerhouse? Bush, of course.
While waiting to do some handshaking in the All-Star dugouts tonight, Bush reminisced about his baseball days, both past and, unfortunately for him, present as well.
"I remember one year in the national finals in Kalamazoo, Ethan Allen walked the eighth hitter to get to the Cal (University of California) pitcher," said Bush. "That pitcher turned out to be Jackie Jensen. He hit a ball that's still rolling somewhere out in western Michigan. We never let Allen forget it."
Was Bush ever tempted by the thought of pro ball, like the majority of his teammates?
"Yes," he said.
After all, Bush can still recall a day against North Carolina State when he hit the easy three-quarters of the cycle: single, double, triple. And, he still says proudly, "I once worked my way up from eighth in the order to fifth."
But Bush was a pragmatist then, as now. "I never could hit, although I will say that I was a great fielder," remarked Bush, who says the word "great" as a cute politician's joke, but, considering the level of his play, probably means it. "I wasn't good enough. I knew my limitations in baseball as I know them in life. I'd have floundered somewhere down in the minors."
Nonetheless, Bush is far more at home with professional athletes than most ersatz politicos who draw a behind-the-back sneer from serious jocks.
Just a few days ago, the 54-year-old Bush ran his daily three miles with the Mets' Rusty Staub. "Let the record show," said Bush, "that Rusty quit after 21/2 miles. Maybe I can't hit . . . but I can run better."
Bush flew in with his New England friend, 17-time All-Star Carl Yastrzemski. When he walked through the dugouts, he slapped and wrestled a bit with both Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver, who are both friends and past campaigners. "What the hell's an Eli doing in here?" said Seaver, throwing an arm around Bush from behind as the Secret Service did a collective twitch.
Several All-Stars got a surprise out of Bush. Of all the ALers, Bush saved his longest attention for perhaps the least known, Coach Don Zimmer.
"Mr. Vice President, I'm Don Zimmer," said Don Zimmer modestly.
"I know, I know," said Bush. "You used to play for the Mets, didn't you?"
"I was one of the original Mets," said the nonplused Zimmer.
Everybody knows Zimmer managed the Red Sox, but not everybody knows who he played for.
For the high and mighty, Bush had a different approach.
"I'm George Brett," said Brett, with a grin.
"George who?" said Bush, looking him in the face quizzically.
Brett and Fred Lynn were laughing half an hour later.
Before this game, Bush had great plans. He said that on the plane he suggested to Yastrzemski that "maybe I should stride up to the plate with a bat, point to left field and take one cut. If you hit it, good. If you miss it, you haven't lost much . . . The guys thought it was a lousy idea."
Perhaps they had gotten wind of Bush's last batting adventure while on the campaign trail last fall. While jogging with the president of the University of California, Bush spotted a batting cage at a college practice field. "Let's try it," pleaded Bush. Once in the cage against a semiserious college Iron Mike, Bush found out the truth. He still can't hit.
"Whiff, whiff, whiff," he said grumpily. "Then, finally, a couple of foul balls. I was awful, absolutely awful. . . no excuses."
Then Bush noted, "I've now started wearing glasses, so I can see."
Those Iron Mikes better watch out now.
This evening, as Bush was introduced to his 13-year-old catcher, Derrick Williams, who was wearing jeans, sneakers, a Police Athletic League T-shirt and the glove of Kansas City's Frank White, the vice president sized up his battery mate and thought he had spotted an athlete.
Gradually, Bush warmed up with short tosses to him. Then, he started spinning the ball in a minicurve. "It's really breaking tonight," he said playfully to Bob Hope. "Let's try the knuckle-curve."
Finally, Bush had confidence in the child. During the long minutes of ceremonial time wasting, Bush took the boy aside and said, "Well, what are our signals? How about 'one' (finger) for a fast ball and 'two' for a curve? If you get nervous about the curve ball, just give me a 'one.' "
The kid smiled. Maybe not as much as when he got Yastrzemski's autograph. But it was a smile.
Bush threw out two first pitches. The first was just your basic not-so-fast ball. But, on the second, he could resist. He broke off the slider and the kid had to make a nice lunging snag or the ball would still be rolling somewhere out in western Ohio.
The participants dispersed. Bush hopped back over the railing into his bullet-proof, glass-enclosed seat. The crowd gave him the usual bored mixture of unenthusiastic cheers and sarcastic boos that are reserved for vice presidents who fly all over the country at taxpayers' expense, making silly ceremonial appearances at games about which they obviously couldn't care less.
The largest crowd in All-Star history figured Bush was bored to tears.
Derrick Williams knew better.
In the milling crowd, Bush caught the little boy's eye. "Well done," said Bush, grinning, "Hey, how'd you like the . . ."
And the vice president made the universal snapping motion of the wrist to indicate a breaking ball.
Make no mistake, when the vice president of the United States decides he's going with the slider, that's what it's going to be.