Inside a drawer in the Oval Office sits a handsome old first baseman's mitt that has been oiled and tended so lovingly and so long that it's almost turned black. Though it's nearly 50 years old, the mitt has been rewebbed and is in near mint condition: good for another million scoops. As presidents go, Teddy Roosevelt may have carried a big stick, but George Bush is definitely the glove man. As the first spring of Bush's first term approaches, the South Lawn and the Rose Garden better watch out. If a grandchild wants to play catch, President Bush is an easy sell. "Sure, I get the itch," said the 64-year-old chief executive who, all his life, has been lured by every tennis racket, golf club, fishing pole, horseshoe, soccer ball, bat or glove that caught his eye. "This is the very glove I used for three years at Yale. It's the George McQuinn claw," said the President, pulling the old friend from his desk and popping his fist in the pocket as he leaned back in his chair. " 'Trapper' it says here. It's a Rawlings. I remember when this glove came out. It was just wonderful. For a while I think they outlawed this cup {i.e., style of pocket}, but now you can use anything." Every politician and especially every President tries to establish his ties to baseball -- the national pastime. Jimmy Carter played softball as cameras clicked. Richard Nixon knew reams of major league statistics. And Ronald Reagan spent five years broadcasting Chicago Cubs games. Bush does not have to strain to prove his bona fides. He's the real thing -- a legit ballplayer -- although he habitually soft-pedals it. In the first college World Series ever played, in 1947, Bush's Yale team played the illustrious University of California, led by Jackie Jensen, in the national championship game. The next year, Yale reached the national finals again, this time against Southern California. Back in that post-war golden age of baseball talent, no college played a higher level of ball than Yale, which thumped schools like North Carolina and Clemson and, during one 11-game Bush-era winning streak, outscored its foes by 76-20. The Elis coach, Ethan Allen, was a career .300 hitter in the majors. Three of Bush's teammates reached the big leagues and others played in the minors. Yale then was Stanford or Miami now. How good was Bush? Good enough that he never missed a game at first base in three years and, his senior year, was team captain. Good enough that, his last year, he fielded .990 on 190 chances and batted .264 with six doubles, two triples, a home run and a 28 runs produced in 25 games. And, finally, good enough that Yale teammate Dick Tettelbach (Yankees and Senators) has seriously compared him to Keith Hernandez as a defensive first baseman. "Absolutely superb. A real fancy Dan." Of course, presidential mythology grows with the years. Still, recent evidence exists. Eight years ago, Warren Spahn and Bill Dickey needled Bush into playing in an old-timers game in Denver. "When Tony Oliva came up," recalled Bush, "the second baseman kept yelling at me, 'Get back.' I said, 'Back? I'm on the damned grass. Whaddaya want?' But the second baseman said, 'Back. This guy can still hit.' And damn if Oliva didn't pull one right down the line." Though Oliva was 44 then and Bush 57, the President's memory of the play is that he just wishes he'd had his McQuinn Trapper. "My excuse on this part is I had a brand new mitt -- knocked the ball down -- should have had it clean." Bush dove to his left, backhanded the smash, then flipped to Milt Pappas for the out on a play that brought the crowd to its feet. Since Bush already had a solid single to center in his only at-bat, he decided to walk right off the field and into a glorious and permanent retirement. Like his old fishing friend, Ted Williams, Bush knew when to quit. "They are still some television clippings available of that moment," said Bush. "Seems the demand has slackened a little, but they're there." Bush the ballplayer and Bush the politician are not entirely dissimilar. Thought to be a lightweight hitter by Yale coach Allen, Bush became such a showman with his glove that he beat out several muscular candidates for the first base job, even though he often batted eighth. Or, as Bush calls it, "second cleanup." Bush practiced tirelessly and did everything to please. Hit to all fields. Stole bases. Made his more talented teammates look even better than they were by becoming flawless on digging throws out of the dirt. Also, he ingratiated himself effortlessly, whether by singing on train trips, teasing teammates or organizing the team gin game. Already a war vet (in the same Naval aviation class as Ted Williams), Bush was known as competitive, even hard-nosed. His leadership was understated, yet his eventual captaincy was almost taken for granted. To this day, Bush's mediocre hitting is a source of Presidential humor -- with just a hint of self-dissatisfaction tucked underneath. "I only had one 'best memory,' " he said, recalling a single-double-triple day against North Carolina State that had scouts crawling around him (until Allen disabused them.) Actually, Bush was the rarest of baseball freaks -- throws left, bats right. And he knows it. "I was all inverted . . . just backwards," he said. "I started to play tennis serving left and then hit ground strokes right . . . but my mother was a bit of perfectionist. I was about 5 years old and she said, 'This won't do. Make up your mind.' So, I opted for right." Next, Bush learned golf right-handed and, as any physiologist will attest, he was pretty much doomed as a hitter. Among natural lefties, few (except Cleon Jones) have ever become top righty hitters. Though Bush had Ivy Leaguer Lou Gehrig (Columbia) as childhood hero and "memorized all the stats and lineups" for years, he never had illusions about his ability. At the All-Star Game in '81, he said flatly, "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." Nevertheless, a lot of ballplayer mannerisms cling to Bush. He deflates the great, inflates the small, knows how to needle and be needled. The first time he met George Brett, the Royals star forgot to address Bush properly as Mr. Vice President. Bush responded slyly, "George who?" Yet, when a little bald man with a tobacco chaw said, "Hello, Mr. Vice President, I'm Don Zimmer," Bush answered, "Oh, I know. I know. You used to play for the {original} Mets." Although Bush lacks the time to study box scores and attend games as he once did, he still claims to have a "Walter Mitty" joy in throwing out first balls. In fact, it will take more than a faraway coup d'etat to keep him from doing the honors in Baltimore on Monday. He even plans to bring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with him.Pitching, and P.R., Tips From Ryan Nolan Ryan, one of Bush's longtime baseball friends, has filled the President's ear with First Ball advice. "Nolan says throw it high because amateurs get out there, no matter how good they are, and throw it into the dirt . . . You get more of an 'ooooh' {from the crowd} if you heave it over the {catcher's} head instead of going with the fast-breaking deuce into the dirt." History notes, and Bush knows, that Ronald Reagan's initial First Ball cleared Rick Dempsey's leap by two feet and was met with majestic "ooooohs." Bush even plots his First Ball strategy for getting to the mound. "I will stride to the mound," he said, "then stop a couple of steps short of the rubber and encourage the catcher ahead of time to {cheat out} in front of the plate. That worked very well last year in Cincinnati." For that First Ball, Bush had a preliminary practice workout at St. Albans School with his Little League grandson ("He modestly claimed to be hitting .600. We have not authenticated that.") Once in Cincinnati for the momentous occasion, Bush even solved the universal politician's problem in ballparks: how not to get booed. A 12-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl were supposed to precede Bush onto the field. "I said to the little girl, 'Are you nervous? . . . Why don't we walk out together,' thus foiling anybody who would boo an 8-year-old blond kid and a strapping looking Little League guy . . . It was a little defensive on my part, but it worked." Thus, Bush's soft personal touch and hard political instincts were wedded.An Across-the-Board Love of Games Gerald Ford may have been an all-American football player at Michigan and Teddy Roosevelt shot at least one of every species that could walk, but no President has ever had a wider or deeper interest in games than Bush. Whether he's fly fishing or pitching horseshoes, playing doubles tennis with Bjorn Borg or getting his golf handicap down to 11, Bush is just a blink away from being a sportsaholic. He still thinks soccer, in which he led Yale to a title as center forward, may've been his best sport. Once bitten, Bush never loses his love for a sport -- except golf, the game he's learned to despise. Yes, he's got the yips bad. "Putting and dancing are two of the things I hate the most," he said. "Putting, I can practice all day and still get it up in the neck -- can't bring the club through . . . It's terrible. Your friends laugh at you. They won't give you a six-inch putt because they know you're apt to stab it into the dirt and it's really been a humiliating experience." The only time Bush feels more humbled is when he campaigns with Ted Williams. "Up in New Hampshire, for example," said the President, "it's, 'Hey fella, would you get out of the way? Ted, how are you?' A great lesson . . . "Actually, I think {my putting} is one of the reasons I'm more calm now than I used to be -- the discipline that comes from being a lousy putter. {The} ridicule factor . . . "It's strictly psychological." Where does baseball rank among all his dozen athletic passions? Bush's answer is simply to hold up one finger. He can't resist the game. Once, when Vice Presidential, Bush was jogging a few miles with a university president when he spotted a batting cage in the distance. How many men Bush's age would take a detour from distance running to take BP? Bush insisted, then became so peeved at his poor hitting that he started wearing glasses. "Baseball is just the great American pastime. I try to figure out what it is. I think it's the joy of feeling a part of {the game} more than other sports -- wondering whether the guy's going to walk the hitter on purpose, wondering if the steal sign is on, wondering if he's going to bring in a relief pitcher . . . The fan somehow feels more a part of the game sitting in the stands . . . A lot of them are faster moving, but, in baseball, I get caught up in what I'd do if I were managing. "The game seems to move along pretty good . . . but I don't even mind when it drags." On Monday in Baltimore, many baseball fans may be tempted to utter a testy little boo when they see yet another politician who seems to be horning in on Opening Day. President George Bush is different. If his First Ball bounces, it was probably a curve. And if he's wearing a glove, it's his own.