Aim in doubt, Cheney likely target of boos

Target of boos, Cheney hopes aim improves today

April 11, 2006|By RICK MAESE

For today and only today, the best seats in the house might be the ones as far as possible from the playing field. The vice president is taking the mound for the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals' home opener. If his pitching aim is anything like his hunting aim, you might want to mill around the concourse until the Nationals take the field.

Safety first, you know? Pedro Martinez on the hill is one thing; Dick Cheney, something different altogether. In fact, suggested promotion today: First 5,000 fans receive orange hunting vests.

There's an important place in the game of baseball for the offices of the president and vice president. The relationship is one of the few reasons we can still call baseball our national pastime while keeping a straight face. After all, you ever watch Ronald Reagan kick a ceremonial field goal? How about Dwight Eisenhower take an honorary slap shot?

Since William H. Taft first fired a presidential fastball at Walter Johnson in 1910, our nation's leaders have been making the trek from the White House to baseball's clubhouse each spring. Sixteen presidents altogether have tossed a ceremonial pitch in the past century, a time-honored tradition that usually comes in a bit harder than a Tim Wakefield knuckler and slightly more in control than a Devil Rays middle reliever.

Politicos love baseball, well documented in the book Baseball: The Presidents' Game, by William Mead and Paul Dickson. Does Cheney stack up? Decide for yourself:

A soldier's diary reported that George Washington and his troops played a baseball-like game called "rounders" on the fields of Valley Forge. And in the early days of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt is said to have placed a call to Russian leader Joseph Stalin. "Hello, Joe?" the tale goes. "It's Frank. Giants three, Dodgers nothing."

In Woodrow Wilson's final years, he parked his sedan in the Senators' bullpen at Griffith Stadium, where relievers protected him from foul balls. And Richard Nixon surely would be in a rotisserie league these days.

This day and age, politicians are either right or left. But President Truman was ambidextrous and made major league history by tossing out two Opening Day pitches in 1950, one with each hand. And of course, the current commander in chief is the first president to play Little League baseball, own the Texas Rangers and then publicly defend Rafael Palmeiro against steroid charges.

Since Taft, the only president who failed to toss a ceremonial first pitch was Jimmy Carter (but we excuse him because the only game he attended during his term was Game 7 of the 1979 World Series, which featured the Orioles.)

Cheney, who is making his major league debut today, just doesn't strike you as a baseball guy. Sure, he looks a bit like an over-the-hill Mr. Met, but that's not enough to earn him a friendly greeting today. He looks the part of a miserly owner, not an athletic hero.

A dozen presidents and four vice presidents have opened the season in Washington, D.C. Today, though, will be unique.

The D.C. area is overwhelmingly Democratic. With Cheney's low approval ratings, crack a window this afternoon because you should be able to hear the boos from your home in Baltimore.

In fact, Cheney stands to hear more boos than any president or vice president since Herbert Hoover. Hoov took the mound in 1931, greeted by taunts. The fans weren't upset with a war or a depressed economy. Hoover had committed a sin far worse to baseball fans.

"We want beer!" they screamed, lambasting Hoover for Prohibition. "We want beer!"

As much as the Democrats knock George W. Bush, he's not as dumb as he sometimes lets on. With his own approval ratings barely in the mid-30s, Bush avoided the D.C. crowd altogether, opting to throw out the first pitch last week in Cincinnati instead. While he managed to dodge the D.C. hecklers, what about the Cincy cynics?

No problem - Bush took the field alongside two injured soldiers and the father of another solider who had died in combat. Tough to boo that, huh? If Cheney was taking notes, don't be surprised to see the veep walk out today with some poodles, babies dressed in cute outfits and a couple of sick children.

Barring that, I hope Cheney has ear plugs because this can't go well. What's supposed to be a beautiful baseball tradition will look like an awkward cameo.

If a children's book author covered the game, the story line would be simple:

See Dick throw.

Hear fans boo.

Listen to Dick curse.

It's a tradition that might be worth the price of admission alone. Assuming your seats are safely tucked away behind a protective screen. rick.maese@baltsun.com

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