Governor swings, but not at rivals

At Camden Yards, no shots at O'Malley, Duncan


With the sun dipping just below the upper deck of Oriole Park at Camden Yards yesterday afternoon, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. dug into the batter's box and squinted toward the mound.

As of today, when one of his top political rivals is set to announce his campaign to unseat the incumbent Republican, Ehrlich will find himself in a contest that means a good bit more to him than last night's game did for the Orioles, who were long since eliminated from playoff contention.

But as that first pitch came in during batting practice, the governor said, politics was the last thing on his mind.

All his attention, he said, was focused on hitting the ball, lest he embarrass himself in front of the gathered Orioles, his staff, half the state's press corps and, not least, his 6-year-old son, Drew.

Ehrlich let the first one pass to gauge the speed and then started swinging away. On the first few, he grounded weakly to the infield or popped up. But after a half-dozen cuts, the former Gilman School catcher found his old stroke, smoking a line drive to left field, a hit in any league.

"The first couple of swings were a little rusty, but after that, outstanding," said Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "He hit a lot of line drives. Unfortunately, like most young players, I think he was swinging for the fences."

The governor's trip to Camden Yards yesterday was riddled with political overtones as Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos left little doubt about whom he likes for governor next year. The trial attorney and major Democratic donor hung huge banners on both sides of the warehouse next to the stadium, visible both from the stands and from the on-ramp to Interstate 395, that said, "Thank You! Governor Ehrlich." The team arranged a VIP reception for the governor, and got him a turn in batting practice and the chance to throw out the first pitch.

The governor got his own Orioles uniform (No. 1, of course) and did play-by-play for part of the game on both radio and television.

Ehrlich helped Angelos get the best possible deal for himself from Major League Baseball in compensation for the Montreal Expos' move to Washington, the team owner explained this week, and he wanted to show his appreciation. O'Malley, for the record, gave the new Washington Nationals his blessing.

Based on the paucity of orange and black in the stands, it's unclear how many Maryland voters got Angelos' message. The Yankees are in town with the playoffs on the line, and there were nearly enough Derek Jeter jerseys in the stands to qualify Camden Yards as the sixth borough of New York.

But, Ehrlich insisted, that wasn't the point.

"Mr. Angelos came to us many weeks ago and offered to have an event here where he would thank me and my administration for doing what any governor would," Ehrlich said.

The timing -- just a day before Mayor Martin O'Malley is expected to announce his campaign for governor -- was a coincidence, Ehrlich said.

"This was scheduled in August," he said. "I forgive the mayor for walking on my story."

The governor, excited and a bit winded between rounds of swings that totaled about 50, was generally magnanimous about his potential Democratic rivals, O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

"I just fulfilled my childhood dream here," said Ehrlich, who played varsity football at Gilman and was a team captain at Princeton University. "I love sports. It was my ticket in life, and I followed my dream. ... I'm not going to have anything negative to say about either candidate. They're following their dreams."

The governor's batting practice exploits received good reviews from Orioles players. Ehrlich didn't hit any out of the park, despite what he conceded were a few home run efforts toward the end. A few almost got to the warning track, and the only ball he missed entirely came toward the end, when he tried to drag a bunt down the third base line.

"I was a pretty good player in high school," he said, adding that he had not hit a baseball in 20 years.

As much fun as he was plainly having, the governor couldn't completely divorce himself from political pressure. Appearances at professional sporting events can be risky business for politicians. Former President George H.W. Bush was ridiculed when, throwing out the first pitch at a game, he bounced the ball well in front of the mound. Also, the governor balked at a request that he appear with the leaders of the legislature a few weeks ago for a ceremonial coin toss before the Maryland-Navy football game, in part, his communications director said, for fear of being booed.

Ehrlich's appearance last night seemed designed to be boo-proof, even amid a crowd of boo-happy Yankee fans. He was escorted to the mound by former Orioles Jim Palmer, Ehrlich's wife, Kendel, and his son. He would have been joined by Aaron Broussard, president of hurricane-ravaged Jefferson Parish in Louisiana, where Maryland National Guard troops had been dispatched to help, had his flight from New Orleans not been delayed.

When he stepped out for the first-pitch ceremony, the governor was greeted with polite applause and a few whistles, but no jeers. At the mound, the Orioles presented him with a plaque commemorating his role in "preserving the future of baseball in Baltimore," and with a framed jersey that had his name on the back.

Avoiding any risk of a bounce-in-front-of-the-mound incident, the governor handed off first-pitch duties to Drew -- who got some warm-up tosses in before the game. (So did his dad, who played catch with a state trooper on the front lawn of the governor's mansion as practice yesterday.) Drew's toss easily reached home plate.

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