Red Sox and White Houses

2019-05-03 BostonRedSox2018Series
The Red Sox start celebrating their 2018 World Series conquest in Dodger Stadium . . .

On purely baseball terms the season barely a month old hasn’t been outstanding for the defending world champion Red Sox. There are small signs of them turning a corner, but small is the key word. So far.

They’re 14-18 to open, after a bullpen faltering led to a one-out, game-winning three-run homer by Nicky Delmonico of the White Sox in the bottom of the ninth Thursday night. It left the Red Sox six and a half games out of first in the American League East, while their eternal rivals from the south Bronx—battered as they’ve been so far—sit a mere two and a half out.

On terms just outside the lines these are interesting days for the Olde Towne Team. They’re scheduled to visit the White House next Thursday, after finishing a set with the Orioles in Baltimore, which is one sort of convenience. Maybe the only sort. Not that every last Red Sox plans to be there, but the club didn’t make the visit mandatory and offered their personnel the option to join or not.

The Athletic believes that traces back to an incident that followed their 2004 triumph, when co-owner Tom Werner turned up at a rally for presidential candidate John Kerry wearing a Red Sox jacket. He’d been criticised heavily for wearing the jacket at a political rally, and he says accepting the Trump invitation is simply a question of a presidential honour regardless of whom the office holder happens to be.

“To me, having sort of reflected on it, this is something that is an honor that’s been bestowed by the president and the White House on the Red Sox, and it’s not a mandatory event for the players,” Werner told the magazine. “Many players are excited to go, and many players have elected not to go, but we feel as an organization that we are appreciative of the invitation and we look forward to the experience.”

Werner, co-owner John Henry, their organisation, and their players are mindful enough that no matter who decides what it could be taken the wrong way, considering the political climate. Massachussetts isn’t exactly a bastion of unquestioned support for President Tweety, but the invitation did put the Red Sox in a kind of metaphysical bind, as The Athletic notes:

[A]ccepting or declining the invitation could have been spun as a political statement. In that sense, the Red Sox were in a lose-lose situation. If they turned down the invitation, the decision would have been cheered by many as a strong rebuke of the Trump administration, but it would have been derided by others as an overreach of political ideology. By accepting the invitation, the Red Sox have allowed their players a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, while disappointing some of their blue-state fan base who will see, perhaps not an endorsement, but a tacit acceptance of the president’s more extreme statements and views.

The individual Red Sox are a mixed group when it comes to who will or won’t be at the White House next week. And Werner prefers it that way.

Manager Alex Cora still hasn’t decided whether to go; he’s been critical of how the Trump Administration dealt with hurricane relief in his native Puerto Rico. Pitcher Chris Sale and still-ailing second baseman Dustin Pedroia plan to be there. J.D. Martinez, the Red Sox designated hitter/outfielder, is an open Second Amendment supporter and is liable to be there, too.

Some observers may fear Trump himself will take those absent personally. or his supporters may take it as an indication the Red Sox need to be brought to heel. Maybe it ought to be made plain that accepting an invitation to the White House after a World Series or other triumph shouldn’t be assumed a concurrent gesture of support for a particular White House’s policies or politics, no matter who happens to occupy it.

Regardless of how many Red Sox actually show up next week, they’ll be the first baseball team of the 21st century to have met three sitting presidents. The stupefying, actual-or-alleged curse bust in 2004 plus their 2007 followup got them two meetings with George W. Bush. Their 2013 triumph, the first time they’d won a World Series in Fenway Park itself since Babe Ruth was still one of their pitchers, got them a meeting with Barack Obama.

The Yankees have some catching up to do. For that matter, so do the Giants: their Series conquests this century got them meetings with only one president (Obama), albeit three times. The way things are now, with the Giants in painful need of a remaking/ remodeling, the Yankees have a better chance to meet either Trump or his immediate successor.

Baseball and the White House were casual acquaintances for the most part since the Grant White House hosted its first professional major league team—the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Ronald Reagan—who began his professional life as a baseball broadcaster in Iowa and remained a baseball fan for life—turned inviting World Series winners to the White House into the tradition it’s become.

The Dodgers (twice), the Cardinals, the Orioles, the Royals, the Mets, and the Twins visited Reagan after their 1980s World Series wins. For his part, Reagan preceded those visits with calls to their managers (Tommy Lasorda, Whitey Herzog, Joe Altobelli, Dick Howser, Davey Johnson, Tom Kelly) immediately after they won those Series.

When Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s career hits record, the Reds’ then player-manager got a congratulatory telephone call from Reagan, who said, “You know, Pete, I’ve been rooting for you your whole career. Come to think of it, I used to root for the fella whose record you broke.” Had he still been in office when Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan blew Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson away for his 5,000th career strikeout (Ryan’s, not Henderson), Reagan would likely have called the Express.

Reagan himself entered the broadcast booth one more time before his term expired in 1988, joining Cubs broadcast legend Harry Caray. “You know, in a very few months I’m going to be out of work, so I thought I ought to audition,” the president quipped—before delivering an inning and a half of very credible play-by-play.

Try to imagine Trump, Obama, Bush (who was actually a former Rangers co-owner), Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush as baseball announcers, even in jest. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

What a difference over half a century made. The Washington Senators (the ancient, not-quite-wholly-accurate legend: “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”) won the 1924 World Series but Calvin Coolidge, who wasn’t exactly a baseball fan, wasn’t in any big hurry to host them at the White House–despite a flood of fan mail begging him to do it.

The Senators won the 1925 pennant and then Silent Cal met the Old Nats—right before they lost the Series in five games to the Pirates. Nobody knew, or dared to suggest, whether that proved any kind of White House jinx.

Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, was an unapologetic baseball fan who loved throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Washington’s Griffith Stadium every April. He also made sure to be in the house for Game Five of the 1929 World Series, in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, as the Athletics finished off the Cubs for whom Hoover was suspected of rooting—the Cubs at the time did their spring training on Catalina Island in California, near where Hoover had one of his two homes.

When major league baseball celebrated its centennial in 1969, Richard Nixon—who loved the game deeply (in his retirement he frequently brought his grandchildren to the field boxes in Shea Stadium)—greeted a large group of incumbent and former players, including Phillies pitcher Grant Jackson. At the time, troubled Phillies star Dick Allen was in a contract holdout. When Nixon advised Jackson to tell Allen to sign already because he wouldn’t make a better living anywhere else, Jackson didn’t miss a beat.

You tell him, Mr. President,” Jackson said. “He’s making more money than both of us.”

Dwight Eisenhower was a regular at Senators games in the 1950s, as well as a friend of owner Clark Griffith. Maybe his rooting interest (and, perhaps, the popularity of Damn Yankees?) kept Ike from nothing more than a personal letter to Don Larsen when that Yankee righthander pitched his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

When the Yankees were invited to the White House after winning the 1999 World Series, a band struck up “Hail to the Chief” as Bill Clinton walked into the room accompanied by the Yankees’ then-owner, the (shall we say) Falstaffian George Steinbrenner. It might have inspired the least disingenuous remark Clinton ever uttered as president.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Clinton quipped to The Boss as the music began. “It’s not for you.”

 

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