President Obama can do one small thing Monday to help boost his image among a politically divided public:
Throw a strike.
The commander-in-chief will resume a century-old tradition Monday when he tosses out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day in Washington. Few acts during his presidency will attract more scrutiny.
Throwing a baseball to a friendly catcher may sound easy. But it often comes amid a cascade of boos from fans on the opposite side of the political aisle and jeers from those who loathe seeing a baseball bounce in front of home plate.
“You always know you’re going to get some boos, because at any ballpark the likelihood you’re going to get a 50-50 audience politically is a given,” said Mike McCurry, a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton, who threw out the first pitch on four Opening Days.
Presidents have been throwing out the "first pitch of the season" since William Howard Taft did it in 1910, when the Washington Senators (remember them?) hosted the Philadelphia Athletics (remember them?) at National Park (remember it?). The tradition earned new life when baseball returned to the nation's capital in 2005. It has, over the years, become a symbol of spring and, in the opinion of baseball historian Paul Dickson, “a kind of spiritual rebirth.”
Dickson said some fans took to booing the president in the 1930s, when Herbert Hoover drew chants of “We Want Beer” from a crowd angry over Prohibition. President George H. W. Bush once drew boos for tying up traffic prior to an All-Star Game appearance, and his son, George W. Bush, heard a smattering of loud boos before throwing out the first pitch at the opening of Nationals Park in 2008.
“It may be traditional,” said Dickson, author of “Baseball: The Presidents Game,” “but it may also be when the rubber hits the road. I’m sure there are some who might want to go in and boo President Obama, but he’s a big guy.”
Obama’s appearance at Nationals Park will be his first as president, though he did throw out the first pitch at baseball’s All-Star Game last July in St. Louis. The crowd showed him respect for reaching home plate, but he was not unanimously cheered. That may have had something to do with the fact that the president was wearing a Chicago White Sox jacket. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that Missouri went to John McCain in 2008.
Nationals officials say they aren’t concerned about how fans will treat the president.
“I don’t tell fans how to act,” Nationals President Stan Kasten said. “I love the fans in Washington; I’m sure they will give an appropriately warm welcome to our commander-in-chief.”
Over the years, many presidents have risen to the occasion after taking the time to practice and warm up.
When the Baltimore Orioles' new ballpark, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, opened in 1993, President Bill Clinton insisted that he throw the ceremonial first pitch from the mound, something no previous president had done. Aides said Clinton insisted on a long warmup session before the game.
“We made Clinton practice and practice and practice so he wouldn't throw a dirt ball,” McCurry said.
Perhaps no President took the task more seriously than the younger Bush, an avid baseball fan who once was a co-owner of the Texas Rangers and loved to joke that he once traded Sammy Sosa.
“He threw hard and threw like a baseball player,” said Tony Fratto, a deputy press secretary under Bush, who played catch with the president on the South Lawn of the White House. “He took a lot of pride in it, not just that he was going to throw a strike, but that he was going to throw off the mound. He threw it in the dirt once -- it was his first time, in Milwaukee [in 2001]. But he never wanted to do that again.”
In October of 2001, Bush threw a perfect strike to open Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, earning hearty cheers from the New York fans whose city had been devastated by the September 11 terrorist attacks a month earlier.
“It was a special, special moment, and there was a lot of symbolism to it,” Fratto said.
Obama missed last year’s Nationals opener because of the G-20 summit in Europe, and other presidents have skipped games due to domestic crises, wars and deaths of friends.
But not every head of state has had a good excuse; in his first year as president in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower famously skipped Opening Day to play golf at Augusta National Country Club, home of the Masters Tournament.
Presidential staffers say there are certain unwritten rules when it comes to attending sporting events. Among them: leave before the seventh inning, so your motorcade doesn’t tie up traffic.
Indeed, the logistics of having a world leader at a sporting event are daunting. Fans are usually encouraged to arrive at the ballpark early to allow for security checks, and it’s not uncommon for some sections to be temporarily closed off. At the opening of Camden Yards in 1993, the team was unable to distribute black commemorative cups after the Secret Service determined that the color could hinder their ability to spot a gun in the crowd.
“There is a lot of planning and logistics, for sure,” Kasten said. “But it’s not a burden at all. We’re well-equipped to do it....we’re talking about a tradition that goes back a century and it’s thrilling to be just a small part of all that.”