WASHINGTON – Baseball owners once passed up a chance to hire former colleague George W. Bush (search) as the sport's commissioner, but now they're working hard to keep Bush at bat in the White House.
More than a dozen current and former owners and family members are among the president's top re-election fund-raisers, an Associated Press review found. Seven are Bush "Rangers," (search) each raising at least $200,000, and six are "Pioneers" (search) who have brought in $100,000 or more.
The Bush campaign has also received direct contributions from owners and executives of more than half of the sport's 30 teams, the AP analysis of Federal Election Commission (search) reports found.
Those include $2,000 contributions from owners George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets, Carl Pohlad of the Minnesota Twins, Peter Magowan of the San Francisco Giants and Michael Ilitch of the Detroit Tigers.
Democratic nominee John Kerry, by contrast, has taken in money from only a handful of baseball interests.
Bush also has picked up contributions from players and coaches -- including a manager he once fired. Bobby Valentine, axed by Bush as manager of the Texas Rangers (search) in 1992, gave the president the maximum $4,000 this year. Valentine said he's not surprised Bush has support from baseball owners.
"People got to work with him side by side and saw his passion for the game and passion for his work," Valentine said in an interview from Japan, where he is manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines. "They saw that he really cared about baseball when he was in it, and not just the Rangers as a business entity."
Baseball is part of the Bush legacy. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, played first base for the Yale baseball team, and the younger Bush took up the game as a Little Leaguer in Midland, Texas. He also organized a stickball league at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
With the benefit of family connections, Bush helped put together a group of investors to buy the Texas Rangers and then became its managing general partner from 1989 to 1994. There was talk back then that he might succeed Fay Vincent as commissioner, but the job went to Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig. Bush was a baseball traditionalist, opposing interleague play and the addition of a wild card playoff team.
His investment of just $600,000 turned into $15 million when he sold his share of the team while preparing to run for governor of Texas.
"The baseball platform was for him to springboard into politics," said Bruce Buchanan, a longtime Bush watcher and University of Texas government professor. "He was the face of the Texas Rangers, as well as a substantial partner in the economic side for some years, and that enabled him to become acquainted with all of these figures."
Three of Bush's former fellow investors in the Texas Rangers -- Bill DeWitt, Marshall Payne and Craig Stapleton -- are campaign Rangers. Stapleton's wife, Debbie Stapleton, who is Bush's cousin, is a Pioneer.
"George Bush knows a lot of people in baseball," said Craig Stapleton, a co-chairman of Bush's re-election campaign in Connecticut. "So we've tried to talk to people that know George Bush well through baseball. He gets a lot of support from baseball people -- not only executives and owners but baseball players."
For example, FEC reports show, Bush received $2,000 contributions from Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro, who played for the Rangers when Bush was an owner, and from New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in the game.
Bush turned to another former Texas Rangers investor, Mercer Reynolds III, to be his campaign finance chairman.
"Having experience in baseball, Mr. Reynolds was able to reach out to many people to encourage them to get involved with the campaign," said Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel. Reynolds was a Pioneer for Bush in 2000.
Former partner DeWitt is now owner and chairman of the St. Louis Cardinals, whose owners and executives have been among the most generous to Bush's re-election campaign. The team's ownership group includes two Rangers (DeWitt and Kimmy Brauer, wife of owner Steve Brauer) and one Pioneer (Robert Castellini).
A rare Democratic Cardinal is co-owner Michael E. Pulitzer, who gave $2,000 to Kerry. The Democratic nominee has also received $2,000 contributions from Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner and San Diego Padres owner John Moores.
Several Cardinals owners have made individual contributions to the Bush campaign. DeWitt said he didn't try to line up support for Bush among the Cardinals ownership.
"It turns out that Cardinal partners have been supporters of the president independent of my support of the president," he said.
The team's contributions to Bush extended to the front office and even to the bullpen: General Manager Walt Jocketty and pitcher Cal Eldred each gave $2,000 to Bush, FEC reports show. Bush threw out the first ball at the Cardinals' home opener this year.
The Cardinals' previous owner, August Busch III (search), chairman of beer giant Anheuser-Busch, is also a Ranger fund-raiser.
Drayton McLane, owner of the Houston Astros, is on board as a Bush Pioneer. McLane said he got to know Bush well through baseball.
"When I considered buying the Houston Astros, I talked to him on several occasions and he was very encouraging," recalled McLane, who bought the team in 1992. "He loves baseball. When I have the occasion to see him, boy, he's ready to talk baseball."