First fan in fantasyland

Baseball: Former owner George W. Bush greets superstars in the East Room. Next up: T-ball on the South Lawn.

March 31, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For a moment yesterday, the mystique of the presidency seemed to drop away, and the man who occupies the White House looked like nothing so much as an awe-struck baseball fan. Standing behind a lectern, George W. Bush watched a boyhood fantasy spring to life.

Any fan could have dreamed up the image: Holding court in a room, surrounded by dozens of Hall of Fame players who had trekked from across the country just to visit you. Presidential perks being what they are, that's precisely what happened to Bush, as he played host to 46 baseball superstars who helped him celebrate the opening of a new season.

There were legends like Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski and Robin Roberts. Recent heroes, such as Nolan Ryan, Kirby Puckett, Mike Schmidt. And Orioles' Hall of Famers like Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson.

A Little Leaguer who grew up aspiring to be a major-league star, Bush acknowledged his great fortune to hold a job that lets him have a crowd of baseball greats over for lunch.

"One of the great things about living here is you don't have to sign up for a baseball-fantasy camp to meet your heroes," Bush said. "It turns out, they come here."

As the first former baseball team owner to become president, Bush had met some of these members of the Baseball Hall of Fame during the time that he held a partial stake in the Texas Rangers in the 1990s. Even so, the sight of five decades of baseball arrayed before him in the East Room of the White House was a thrill.

Consider that:

The president is a self-described "baseball fanatic."

Before turning in each night, he tries to watch "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN.

He reads the box scores each morning during baseball season.

He has a favorite team (the Rangers, of course). And a favorite National League club (Texas' other major-league team, the Houston Astros).

Like many fans, he has been monitoring the progress of a young prospect this spring: Ruben Mateo, a Rangers outfielder with both power and speed.

Bush will likely derive even more pleasure than his predecessors did when he performs the presidential ritual of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for a home opener. He will do so this year on Friday in Milwaukee, where the Brewers will christen a new stadium in a game against the Cincinnati Reds.

One reason why Bush chose Milwaukee, aides said, is that the president has fond baseball memories of that city. There, he watched Robin Yount (who was among the Hall of Famers at the White House yesterday) get his 3,000th career hit, and Ryan pitch his 300th victory.

The White House has not ruled out the possibility that Bush will visit Camden Yards for Orioles games this year or throw out the first pitch in Baltimore in future seasons. Former President Bill Clinton visited Baltimore several times to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day, and he went to Cleveland in 1994 to help celebrate that city's new stadium.

"Everyone who loves baseball can remember the first time he saw the inside of a real major-league park, with real big-league players," Bush said yesterday.

"It stays with you forever - the greenness of the grass, the sight of major-leaguers in uniform, the sound of big-league swing meeting a big-league pitch. And when you're a kid and you actually meet one of your baseball heroes or get an autograph on a ball, that's a big deal, too."

But there was room for policy yesterday, too. Bush unveiled a new program: T-ball on the South Lawn.

Participants in the monthly games will be children, mostly disadvantaged youths ages 4 to 8 from around Washington, the White House said. Aides said the president expects his Cabinet secretaries and staff to make time for the games, serving as spectators or perhaps even coaches.(For the uninitiated: T-ball is a form of baseball with no pitcher in which children hit a ball off a stationary tee.)

The initiative will be run out of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives and could be a political boost for Bush. That arm of the White House has so far been associated exclusively with Bush's proposal to offer federal funding to religious outreach groups, a plan that has drawn fire from some liberals as well as some conservatives.

Now, the office will also be handling the rather less divisive task of setting up bleachers and bases on the grass behind the White House.

"After we moved in, I pointed out to a great baseball fan, the first lady, that we've got a pretty good-sized back yard here, and maybe with the help of some groundskeepers, we can play ball on the South Lawn," Bush said yesterday. "She agreed, just so long as I wasn't one of the players."

Bush played on his Yale University baseball team, as did his father. But unlike former President George Bush, who as captain and first baseman twice led Yale to the College World Series, the younger Bush was hardly a star.

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