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Nationals embraced by Trump at White House, where they can’t escape politics

After winning the World Series, the Washington Nationals visited President Trump at the White House on Nov. 4. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Tony L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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President Trump literally embraced the Washington Nationals on Monday, five days after their World Series title, by wrapping catcher Kurt Suzuki in a bear hug during a joyful ceremony on the South Lawn — but one that included notes of political commentary.

Suzuki received the president’s affection when he took to the lectern on the South Portico of the White House at Trump’s invitation and donned a red “Make America Great Again” hat, raising his arms as the president hugged him from behind. The moment came before a crowd of more than 1,000 on a sunny fall afternoon and punctuated an unlikely season for a team that won a seven-game series over the Houston Astros last week. It was also perhaps a measure of vindication for a president who was booed by the home crowd at Nationals Park when he attended Game 5.

Nationals’ Kurt Suzuki wears MAGA hat, receives Trump hug during White House celebration

But even as most of the players joined Trump, several thanking him for the invitation, seven of the 25 players on the active roster for the World Series were absent, most of them minorities. Relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, who is white, had declared publicly last week that he would opt out over objections to Trump’s rhetoric and policies. All-star third baseman Anthony Rendon, outfielders Victor Robles and Michael A. Taylor and pitchers Javy Guerra, Joe Ross and Wander Suero also were not present.

A team spokeswoman declined to provide context for why specific players did not attend, and no players, coaches or front-office members were available for interviews following the ceremony.

Sean Doolittle on declining White House invite: ‘I don’t want to hang out with somebody who talks like that’

Their absence appeared to mark the latest example of the highly politicized nature of such sports ceremonies during Trump’s tenure. Several teams have declined to visit the White House, and others, including the 2018 World Series-winning Boston Red Sox, have been sharply divided. Most of Boston’s minority players opted out during a ceremony in the spring.

Trump was upbeat in praising the Nationals, calling the size of the crowd that included players’ families and White House staffers a record for South Lawn sports ceremonies. He marveled that “Baby Shark,” the preschooler ditty that became the unofficial team anthem, was a “very powerful little tune” — and a military band played a live version as the players led the crowd in mimicking a shark chomp with their hands.

Many in the crowd donned Nationals jersey and hats, and the White House draped metal gates in red bunting that matched the team colors. The Commissioner’s Trophy was on a small table next to the balcony’s arm rail.

“America fell in love with Nats baseball. That’s all they wanted to talk about,” Trump said, adding after a beat: “That and impeachment. I like Nats baseball much more.”

The remark drew a laugh from the crowd.

Trump did not allude to Doolittle or the other players who were absent. As he recited some of the heroic moments of the Nationals’ World Series run, Trump invited players, including Suzuki; pitchers Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin; first baseman Ryan Zimmerman; and outfielder Juan Soto to the lectern to make remarks.

Photos from the World Series champion Washington Nationals? visit to the White House

Nov. 4, 2019 | The Washington Nationals are celebrated by President Trump on the South Portico of the White House. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Zimmerman, who presented Trump with a Nationals jersey bearing his name and No. 45, praised Trump’s leadership. He called the visit an “unbelievable honor” and said the team would “like to thank you for keeping everyone here safe in our country and continuing to make America the greatest country to live in in the world.”

Zimmerman and Suzuki drew blowback online from Trump’s critics, but they also garnered high-profile support. “That’s awesome and he’s right,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted in reaction to Zimmerman’s praise of Trump. One of President Trump’s reelection campaign Twitter accounts tweeted a video clip of Zimmerman’s remarks.

Charlotte Clymer, a press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign who had praised Doolittle last week for snubbing Trump, called Suzuki’s action “pretty heartbreaking to see.”

The Nationals did not discuss the decision to attend with players, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. Players were only asked whether they planned to attend or not.

Tres Barrera, Raudy Read, Roenis Elías and Wilmer Difo — who were on the Nationals’ 40-man roster but were not active for the World Series — also were not in attendance.

Several of the players who skipped the event are Latin American. Robles, Difo and Read were born in the Dominican Republic; Elías was born in Cuba; and Rendon, Guerra and Barrera are all Mexican American.

Taylor and Ross are African American.

Guerra said he was not there because he and his fiancee, Allison, are preparing for their wedding in Mexico this weekend. A person close to Robles said the 22-year-old outfielder already had travel booked to return home Sunday.

The Nationals, fresh off their World Series parade, kept the party going at a Capitals game

A handful of players wrestled with the decision to attend in recent days, and some did skip the visit for political reasons. Others felt their status — or lack of status — made it so they felt compelled to attend with their teammates. Three players felt that the quick turnaround made it hard for players to decline the invitation without making a political statement, people close to the players said.

Team owner Mark Lerner, General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez were in attendance, and Rizzo and Martinez made brief remarks.

Rizzo called the Nats’ campaign, during which they rebounded from a 19-31 start, a “miracle season and an unforgettable postseason.” He said the team “unified a region when the region needed unifying the most. Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places, and this here is a beautiful place.” Trump and first lady Melania Trump applauded.

The players exhibited some of the loose, carefree spirit that defined their season. Infielder Howie Kendrick stepped to the lectern to pretend he was going to speak before Trump came out, drawing chants of “How-ie!” from the crowd. After Strasburg spoke, the crowd chanted “four more years!” — a reference to their hopes that the pitcher, now a free agent, re-signs with the team.

“I’m going to consider that four more World Series titles,” Trump joked.

But it was Suzuki, who is Japanese-American, who produced perhaps the most memorable image, donning the hat and raising his arms in triumph.

“It was amazing. That was the president. Just trying to have some fun,” Suzuki told USA Today Sports via text message. “Everybody makes everything political. It was about our team winning the World Series.”

Trump, whose presence prompted chants of “Lock him up!” from the home crowd at Game 5, beamed. “I didn’t know that was going to happen,” the president said.

Sam Fortier and Cindy Boren contributed to this report.

Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki put on a "Make America Great Again" hat when President Trump introduced him at a Nov. 4 World Series celebration. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

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How I longed to see Washington Nationals World Series logos on buses in downtown Philadelphia

The Nats’ celebration wasn’t a parade. It was a massive gathering of a joyous sports family.

The Nats parade let a city and its team to share a communal moment

Nationals World Series parade: Washington throws a ‘once in a lifetime’ baseball bash

Two Nationals fans got engaged at the victory parade

How ‘baseball-crazed’ D.C. celebrated its last World Series title in 1924

How the National Baseball Hall of Fame picked the items bound for the Nats’ World Series exhibit