Real test of Bush is in his pitch

Pitch: The president's taking no chances - he got in a few practice throws at Camp David.

April 06, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - No pressure, Mr. President. But a bit of advice for when you take the mound in Milwaukee tonight: Don't do as your father did.

Think 1992, the elder President Bush, and one ugly, bouncing toss into the dirt at Camden Yards. But more on that later.

Despite his diplomatic efforts to try to end a standoff with China, George W. Bush still plans to find time to fly to Wisconsin tonight to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers' home-opener in their new stadium.

The first pitch has been a rite of passage for most presidents since 1910, though only recently have they begun throwing not from the stands but from the pitcher's mound.

Paul F. Boller, a presidential historian at Texas Christian University, says a bad throw at a ballgame probably won't damage a president's image. "It depends on what Americans think of a president to begin with," he says. "If they like him, they'll forgive him.

"But clumsiness in public - it doesn't help."

Even the best performances haven't always boosted a president's popularity. (Herbert Hoover always threw accurately but was booed by Prohibition-weary fans chanting, "We want beer!")

Is President Bush worried?

No, his aides say. But the president did practice a little last weekend, throwing with a staffer for 15 minutes behind his cabin at Camp David. The White House declined to say how well the session went, adding only that Bush prides himself on having a "good arm."

He also has a reputation as a baseball aficionado to uphold. Bush is the first owner of a major league ball club (he had a stake in the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1998) to become president. An avid reader of box scores, he can tick off baseball stats like a TV analyst.

And he likes to flaunt his knowledge of the game. Meeting with mayors yesterday, Bush told the mayor of Boston, "I'm sure you're thrilled with the Nomo no-hitter," referring to Red Sox pitcher's Hideo Nomo's no-hitter against the Orioles on Wednesday night.)

President Bill Clinton, who acknowledged his fear of throwing the ball in the dirt, took a safe approach to the first pitch: the lob. Chris Hoiles, the former Orioles catcher, offered Clinton that advice before his first presidential toss in 1993, and it worked. Clinton usually threw (very slow) strikes.

The elder Bush, of course, was a proud athlete and star first-baseman in his days at Yale University, so he may have felt pressure not to be wimpy about the whole thing. (The current president also played at Yale, but was no standout.)

In 1989 at Memorial Stadium, the elder Bush's pitch was catchable, if a bit high and outside. He also threw well in Toronto in 1990 as the first president to throw an opening pitch in another country.

Then trouble began. In 1991 at a Rangers game, Bush tossed what he claimed was a curveball that bounced well in front of home plate. "It broke too early," he said. "Like right after it left my hand."

The next year, he was to throw at the first game at Camden Yards. Bush announced he was considering throwing a fastball instead of a curve. But again, he went with the curve. Again, the ball bit the dirt.

Hoiles later told a reporter: "That was the worst toss I've ever seen in my life."

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