A fellow can't go around every minute worrying about nuclear incineration, and so President Reagan dribbled a basketball on the White House lawn the other day. He clutched under one arm a jersey given to him by the Philadelphia 76ers and tried to bounce the ball off the grass with his free hand. This is more fun than reading the unemployment box scores, but I have a better idea of how the president can use his lunch hour.
He can help bring a major league baseball team back to Washington.
Reagan, the first sportscaster but third offensive lineman to live in the White House in a decade, has had the Islanders in for a visit, as well as Sugar Ray Leonard, Jim Valvano, John McEnroe and Wayne Gretzky. After the Redskins won the Super Bowl, he met their plane at the airport. He has made phone calls to Whitey Herzog, Harvey Kuenn and Don Shula, giving every tavern's slow-pitch softball team reason to hope for a White House invite.
Good. But if the president wants to turn hero worship into meaning, he should remember the words of a predecessor, the golfer/poker player from Ohio, Warren G. Harding.
Harding doesn't get quoted often, probably because he was always asking, "What's a Teapot Dome?" But he said something smart worth repeating today: "I never saw a game without taking sides and never want to see one. There is the soul of the game."
The prez was talking baseball, right after World War I when the Washington Senators were both alive and good.
That's the problem in this town today. We can't take a side. We have no team. Summers have been silent too long. However much the Baltimore Orioles want us to drive over with our wallets, it's not the same. They are Baltimore's Orioles, not generic megalopolis Orioles belonging to all of us. We stand in Washington, outside the candy store, with our noses flat against the window, wishing we had a side to take.
How strange we must look to the rest of America. Here is an affluent metropolitan area of nearly 3.5 million people with its heart the capital of a great nation whose most beautiful game is baseball. How out of touch, how out of step, how simply out of it we must look to the folks of Peoria and Dubuque who don't need much convincing anyway that Washington is strange.
Well, we have football in June in Washington.
We have Team America in Washington playing a European game. ("Soccer, Mabel, is what that is, I do believe. Furriners kickin' a beach ball.")
And the first week of June, 10 weeks into baseball, there was Reagan on the White House lawn dribbling a basketball.
As sideshows to the summer-long drama of baseball, these circumstances would be tolerable. But no. This is as good as it gets, sports fans. Until we get baseball back, Washington in the summer might as well be Missoula.
We wouldn't ask the president's help in a mission impossible except that he has shown a weakness for baseball. He grew up in glorious central Illinois, where his first job, not unlike his current one, demanded he be a creative communicator on a topic beyond comprehension: he did radio play-by-play of Chicago Cubs games. This work later earned him, as president, a membership in the Emil Verban Society, a collection of Cubs loyalists named in honor of an obscure infielder who hit one home run in seven seasons (the society loves irony).
Admiration of baseball is only the start to restoring it in Washington. Postponing Armageddon is easier, presuming (as one must to sleep nights) that the Soviets share our interest in surviving forever or until the Cubs win a pennant, whichever comes last.
A president is on his own in baseball, for the baseball pooh-bahs gave up on Washington a dozen years ago and ordered addicts here to root for the Orioles. In fact, Washington media accounts often call them just-plain "Orioles," leaving out "Baltimore."
This is the result of sophisticted marketing designed to sell a foreign team to a Washington clientele hungry for baseball. It's good business and there probably are a few Washingtonians who think pressing a nose to the Orioles' window is better than nothing.
For the greater number who want their own candy, the thought of a 12th silent summer since the Senators were taken off to Arlington, By Damn, Texas, is enough to hope that someone, someday, somehow will get a major league team back in the one city that ought to have it.
Under baseball's rules now, Washington is too near Baltimore to have an American League team. Neither league wants to expand because expansion would mean existing franchises would have to share the $1.1 billion TV jackpot with another team (or teams).
So, it seems Washington's best chance is the purchase of an existing franchise. The San Francisco Giants always are said to be for sale, but that city now is talking of a domed stadium.
Other cities--Miami, St. Petersburg and Tampa--have prepared presentations as to why they should get teams. Louisville may draw 1 million customers for AAA ball this summer, causing that city to dream.
And Washington sits, waiting. The Redskins' owner, Jack Kent Cooke, once in minor-league baseball as owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has suggested in an off-handed, seeking-information way that he would like to buy a major league baseball team.
Maybe President Reagan's next sports guest at the White House should be Jack Kent Cooke.