A White House natural

Ballgame: In the inaugural T-ball game on the South Lawn, everyone goes home a winner.

May 07, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Memphis Red Sox, a T-ball team composed mostly of first- and second-graders, were to take the field on the South Lawn of the White House. President Bush would be watching each play and every at-bat.

But the message from the Washington team's manager, Quintin Thomas Sr., to his 17 pint-sized players was to focus on fundamentals -- throwing, catching and keeping eyes on the ball until making contact.

"I tried to keep it that way," Thomas said, "so the kids didn't get caught up in what a big deal this was."

It appeared to work. In the inaugural White House T-ball game yesterday, the relaxed Red Sox squad exploded for eight runs in the top of the first -- and only -- inning of their game against the Capitol City Rockies, en route to an apparent 8-4 victory.

But under the rules of T-ball, a game in which there is no pitcher and batters whack the ball off a tee at home plate, no official score is recorded. In other words, everyone is a winner. And on this particular day, everybody also got to chow down on hot dogs and burgers with the leader of the free world after the final out.

Six-year-old Kate McDonough, who made several dazzling plays at first base for the Rockies yesterday, said in a post-game interview that the stately setting and all the accoutrements of the White House did not distract her. Meeting and chatting with the president was "good," she said, but added that she had already forgotten what he said to her.

She did want to discuss the condition of the playing field, pointing out that the South Lawn was preferable to the park where her team usually plays. "There is no dirt [here]," she said. "It's good. You don't get your shoes muddy and stuff."

The T-ball program -- the White House plans to hold occasional games all summer -- is another opportunity for Bush, a former Little Leaguer (the White House released a 1955 roster for the Midland, Texas, Cubs to prove it), to show off his passion for the national pastime.

In March, Bush invited 46 Hall of Famers to the White House for lunch. The First Fan threw out the first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers home opener last month. And he plans to attend the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., next month.

The president also clearly delighted in another occasion to play down the aura of his office and play up the image of an "average guy" who happens to love baseball, read the box scores in the morning and watch "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN any chance he gets.

In welcoming players and about 300 parents and invited fans, Bush said he saw no better place for a ballgame than "the people's house." With his wife, Laura, beside him, he lounged comfortably in the fifth row of the bleachers, appearing to follow every swing and take in many of the solid hits with the satisfaction of a kid whose father had just treated him to a lazy Sunday afternoon at a big-league ballpark.

Yesterday, bleachers, bases and a home-run fence were set up on the South Lawn.

"This is a historic moment," Bush said, standing on the makeshift field in dress slacks and a hunting fleece, having dashed into the White House to change into casual game-wear moments after arriving by helicopter from Camp David.

Then the president said those magic words: "Play ball!"

With that, the Red Sox (wearing blue uniforms) prepared to bat, and the Rockies (dressed in red) took the field. The teams were selected by Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pa. The Rockies play in the Capitol City Little League; the Red Sox in the Satchel Paige Little League. Both leagues are based in Washington.

The White House being an apparent draw, some baseball luminaries were on hand. Broadcaster Bob Costas provided the play-by-play and announced all the players' names after the game as they each received an autographed ball from Bush; when the public-address system failed, Costas began yelling names as loudly as he could, lest any parents feel cheated.

The Famous San Diego Chicken was also on hand. He became a particular annoyance to the Rockies first baseman, when -- perhaps forgetting that she was not a young fan in the stands, but a player on this afternoon -- he began gnawing on her cap out on the field.

Another quirk in the rules yesterday was that a half-inning came to an end not when three outs were recorded, but when every player on the team had batted. "Runners at first and second with six out," Costas said, in a voice he may have used to announce a major-league playoff game. "This has the making of a big inning -- apparently because there are unlimited outs."

The Red Sox offensive charge in the top of the first was helped along by Kofi Hodge, who drove in two runs with a sharp hit. When Costas announced Kofi was coming to the plate, he noted that the player likes mathematics and the cartoon "X-Men." (At this point, players in the field began chanting "X-Men, X-Men." Coaches did not say after the contest whether that may have distracted them from playing their best defense.)

When 7-year-old Makeda Hankerson came to the plate for the Red Sox, which, as the Rockies, was composed of boys and girls, Costas decided to take a swing at Baltimore's baseball franchise. "Makeda says she likes the Orioles," said Costas, "which shows she has a charitable spirit."

After the game, players were followed around by reporters. Many said the most exciting part of the day was meeting the president. Jalen Stewart, the 7-year-old Red Sox first baseman, said he thinks Bush is "great" because "he works a lot."

With reporters huddled around him, Red Sox player Kendall Keeling, 7, insisted he was not intimidated despite the surroundings. "This was just like an ordinary game to me," he said

His 47-year-old manager agreed. Sort of.

"It was just another game once it got started," Thomas said. "But when [my players] go home and look at that ball with the presidential seal on it, they're gonna realize, "Wow.'"

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