WASHINGTON – When something goes wrong in America, it's usually one person's fault. But when something goes right, everyone celebrates.
That's how it works in in baseball; that's how it works in Washington.
And that's how it went last week when Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run and replaced Hank Aaron as baseball's all-time home run king.
Prior to hitting his record-breaking homer, Bonds, who has been under a cloud of suspicion for alleged steroid use, had been one of America's favorite villains. But as soon as that ball went over the wall, everyone wanted to be near a winner.
In that stadium-lit moment in San Francisco, there was no talk of steroids or asterisks, no angry words about investigative hearings. The home crowd was jubilant, experiencing the sheer joy of witnessing a crowning achievement.
Even in the nation's capital, where everything revolves around politics, the most hardened partisans couldn't escape the bonding allure of the shot heard around the world.
"Tonight, Barry Bonds etched his name into baseball’s history books and took his rightful place among the sport’s immortals," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat who represents the Giants' home district, said in a statement issued the next morning.
“It was a great night for baseball and a great night for San Francisco — the crowd went wild," said Pelosi. And then, reaching out to another demographic for good measure, the Italian-American congresswoman added: "As a season ticket holder, I am particularly glad it happened on the Giants’ Italian night.”
President Bush, who once owned the Texas Rangers and has seized numerous opportunities to host T-ball games and congratulate winning college and professional sports teams at the White House, was less effusive. But he, too, gave Bonds his props.
"There is a lot of speculation about Barry Bonds," Bush said, "and my only advice to people is to just let history be the judge. Let's find out the facts, and then everybody's opinion one way or the other will be verified or not verified.
"In the meantime, however, it's appropriate to recognize this man can hit the baseball," the Republican president told FOX News. He added that he had placed a call to Bonds to show his esteem.
If only a crack of the bat could always bring America together. But by its very nature, baseball, like politics, is a divisive activity, pitting clubs against one another and forcing fans to choose teams. It's a precedent set by the founding fathers following the four-month Constitutional Convention — a meeting that took not nearly as long as the baseball season. Soon after the accord was reached to make one undivided nation, the Federalists and "Democratic Republicans" started drawing sides.
Bonds, who has earned $172 million in salary as a baseball player in the last 20 years, is a symbol of that division — the American dream and its more grounded truth. Born during the height of the civil rights movement, he is an African-American who has reached the peak of his industry despite institutional biases. Of course, it didn't hurt that he was blessed to enter the world through a baseball dynasty -- the son of an All-Star ballplayer, Bobby Bonds, and a distant cousin of a Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson.
Bonds is a walking contradiction: He is black, which would typically make him a Democrat; he is being investigated for tax evasion, like a number of Republicans. He is fiercely defensive of his record of accomplishments, like a Democrat; he is struggling under a strained relationship with the press, like a Republican.
Barry Bonds may be a Democrat. Barry Stocks and Bonds may be a Republican.
When it comes to politics, baseball itself is most certainly a switch hitter.
"On a practical level, it's no question it's now a Republican game," said ESPN Magazine senior writer Buster Olney. "The vast majority of players are Republicans," he said, probably the result of their being in the highest tax bracket. Joe Baseball makes $2.5 million to $3 million a season.
"Fifty years ago players would have jobs in the off-season," Olney said. "Now they go to their fifth house."
But Bonds may merely be a product of the sport he plays. Baseball is a contradiction. Like Republicans, players make a lot of money. Like Democrats, they still go on strike.
The best hitters fail 70 percent of the time, but failure is still rewarded with a raise. For those who excel, millions can be made, but being sidelined by injury doesn't mean forfeiting free health care. An ethnically diverse set of stars is still managed predominantly by old white men.
In a random sample of visitors and residents conducted on the streets of Washington, D.C., last week, no one could say for sure whether baseball is Republican or Democrat.
"It's probably a Republican sport. Why? They make all that money playing ball," said James Pearce, 66, a septic tanks and drain lines installer from Roanoke Rapids, N.C.
"I hate to associate politics with sports, but Democratic, I guess; everyone can participate," said Stacy, 39, an independent voter from Kansas City, Mo., who asked to withhold her surname.
"Republican, mainly just because of the demographics involved," said said Divi Harris, 34, a realtor who called himself a liberal. "It's sort of older white males in a sort of a higher income bracket, and I don't want to say straight across the board Republican, but if you just break down the demographics, that's kind of what it shifts to, not to say that Democrats don't like baseball or anything."
"Democratic because it's more of a people sport," said Danny Sweeney, 52, a printer from Washington, who added that he'd like Congress to follow baseball's lead. "They're not playing for people."
"I'd probably say Republican, just because I think it's probably a little bit more conservative, it's kind of boring," said Christopher Wardlaw, 27, a graphic designer from Fayetteville, N.C.
"I think it's a Republican game. I don't have a reason why," said Jack Houghtaling of Lansing, Mich., who calls himself a Republican and lover of the sport.
Olney said baseball is democratic "in the small 'd' sense" because "everyone gets to bat. Nine different guys can have a practical impact on the game." It's a far cry from football, he added, where one or two key positions can determine an entire team's fate.
Regardless of the sides drawn, baseball and representative politics are both distinctly American, and difficult for foreigners to understand. And in the end, everyone just wants to be part of a winning program.
"You've got Republicans playing, you got Democrats playing. It's like basketball and football," said Eddie Graye, a 58-year-old employee of the U.S. Postal Service.
Said Mark Rotter, an independent truck driver just passing through: The "Democratic (Party), it's supposed to be for the people, whereas Republican is for the business, whereas baseball is America's game, the people's game."