In a warm-up area underneath the stands at Camden Yards yesterday, President Clinton was starting to get loose.
"I was throwing it pretty hard -- and occasionally in the strike
zone," the president related later during an interview with The Sun aboard Marine One, the presidential helicopter.
But as he gathered himself to throw the traditional first ball on Opening Day, Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles, apparently noticing that the president was feeling his oats, issued a gentle warning:
"He said, 'Don't forget, Mr. President, the main thing is, you don't want to ground the ball,' " Mr. Clinton recalled with a belly laugh. "So I said, 'Okay, I'm just going to loop it over to you.' "
It's not a coverup on the order of Watergate, but the Clinton White House has some explaining to do after Bill Clinton's first presidential pitch and his otherwise successful rookie debut at Camden Yards yesterday.
For weeks, young White House aides who normally speak adoringly of Mr. Clinton had cautioned that when it came to baseball, the new president was something of a nerd.
One claimed that Mr. Clinton throws "like a girl." Another made a point of saying rather defensively that the president knew college basketball a lot better. A third kept pointing out that there is no major league team in Arkansas.
But then who was that tall, silver-haired man with the trademark black Orioles cap and warm-up jacket who strode out to the edge of the pitcher's mound yesterday and then repaired to the press box to give a half-inning of effortless and expert commentary?
Last time he was up this way, Mr. Clinton told workers at Westinghouse, "I'm working on my toss."
He wasn't kidding.
Introduced to the crowd as "a rookie who just moved in the area from Arkansas," the president walked quickly to the mound. Accustomed to adoring crowds, Mr. Clinton seemed a little surprised by the smattering of boos amid the applause.
But if the president was nervous, he didn't let it show.
Following the old Oriole pitching tradition to "work fast, change speeds and throw strikes," Mr. Clinton looked toward the plate for his target, took the ball out of his left-handed Rawlings Pro outfielder's glove and threw.
Although his throw didn't have much in the way of velocity, it did hit Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles about belt high. Former Oriole pitcher Jim Palmer, for one, was impressed.
"He did it the Orioles way," the Hall of Fame pitcher said.
"Palmer's amazing," the president said, marveling at how youthful he looks.
The president, who rode the MARC train to Baltimore and departed by helicopter before the game ended, said he was also impressed with meeting Frank Robinson. But the one person he gushed over most was home-boy Brooks Robinson, the third Oriole Hall-of-Famer in the owners' box, but the only one from Arkansas.
"He's still a folk hero in Arkansas," the president said. Only half-joking, the president added, "He could have beaten me for governor if he had decided to run. It would have been no contest -- a real lay-down."
When Mr. Clinton got his chance in the broadcast booth with Brooks Robinson and play-by-play man Jon Miller, he came across as knowledgeable about baseball, if a tad overenthusiastic.
When Mr. Miller introduced Juan Gonzales, the Orioles announcer noted that the Texas outfielder had hit 43 home runs last year.
"Led the league, didn't he?" Mr. Clinton observed.
The president characterized a diving stop in the first inning by Glenn Davis as "a great play." Moments later, a futile dive by second baseman Harold Reynolds was described by the president as a "great effort."
Yet the president was an honest journalist when he had to be. Before the first pitch, as he was out on the field, the president was noticed by Texas Rangers' slugger Jose Canseco, who broke stride and went over to shake Mr. Clinton's hand.
But in the first inning when the Texas rightfielder wandered off second base and got picked off, the president said he seemed to lose concentration.
The more instructive comment, however, was when a Rick Sutcliffe pitch to Mr. Canseco was low, the president remarked, "That's what I was scared of doing."
In the interview, the president discussed how George Bush, "an accomplished college player," bounced the ball in the dirt. "He tried to burn it in there," Mr. Clinton said. "I decided the main thing was to get it to the catcher."
Mr. Clinton discussed his lifelong affection for the national pastime.
"I love baseball," he said. "When I was a kid I played at school. We didn't have a varsity team, but I played, you know, in the boys club."