The Nats extend an Opening Day first-pitch invite

President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill, in Phillies gear, watching a game at Citzens Bank Park.

When Donald Trump first took the job he will vacate in January, the Washington Nationals hastened to invite him to throw out a ceremonial Opening Day first pitch. At least, the team and the White House were in “talks” toward arranging it. The then-new president seemingly hastened not to accept the invitation thanks to a “scheduling conflict.”

That was then, this is now. Trump is on the threshold of departing office as only the second sitting American president not to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at any major league baseball game since William Howard Taft introduced the practise in the first place. Who would have thought Trump shared common ground with Jimmy Carter?

President-elect Joe Biden is known to be a longtime Philadelphia Phillies fan but not otherwise sinister on a personal level. (He likes to joke that being a Phillies fan allows him to sleep with his wife.) That didn’t stop the Nationals from extending him a post-victory invitation to come to Nationals Park, just about any old time he chooses, Opening Day preferably, and throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Spotting the invitation on Twitter myself during a Saturday visit, I couldn’t resist replying to the Nats as I’d replied to Jesse Dougherty, the Washington Post‘s Nationals beat writer: Biden should do well throwing out such a first pitch. He won at last by standing on the mound with the bases loaded, two out, and a full count in the bottom of the ninth, and freezing Trump with a called strike three on the low outside corner.

“[Biden] was up by 4 million+ runs, so not a save situation,” tweeted one respondent. No, but I probably should have made clear that Biden and Trump dueled in a complete game that went to extra innings before Biden finally delivered the game-ending strikeout.

Complete games have become baseball outliers over a longer period of time than stubborn baseball “traditionalists” want to admit or care to research. (The last time half or more of a season’s games were complete games: 1922; the last time forty percent or more were such games: 1946; the last time thirty percent of more were such games: 1959.) So don’t fault the respondent for not knowing one when he saw one.

Biden/Trump wasn’t quite analogous to the most fabled extra-innings complete game, between Harvey Haddix and Lew Burdette in 1959, but the Biden/Trump game in presidential politics is even more of an outlier than was Haddix taking a perfect game to the bottom of the thirteenth.

Trump, of course, pitched the extra innings under protest. No few of his arguments compared to the kind a frustrated 1960 Yankee fan might have made, when he or she noticed the Yankees out-scored the Pittsburgh Pirates (55-27) in the World Series the Pirates won and proclaimed thus that those Yankees were the true Series winners. Well, no, they weren’t.

Those Yankees weren’t exactly outliers, either. Eighteen other teams in World Series history have out-scored the opposition while losing the Series. The Yankees themselves had three other such Series, in 1957 (they out-scored the Braves by two), 1964 (they out-scored the Cardinals by one), and 2003. (They out-scored the Marlins by four.) They’ve also been outscored in three Series (1962, 1977, 1996) they won.

But I digress. Give Trump credit where due: he may have performed the most unusual first-pitch ceremony of all time in September 2004. Invited to throw out the first pitch for the Somerset (NJ) Patriots, Trump audaciously landed his corporate helicopter in center field, then strode to the mound to wind up and throw. For the record, he threw something arriving just under the floor of the strike zone that might have meant a swinging strikeout in actual competition. Might.

Trump did interrupt a coronavirus briefing from the White House in July to say he’d be throwing a first pitch out at Yankee Stadium come 15 August, before a game between the Empire Emeritus and the Boston Red Sox. The president spoke about an hour and a half before Dr. Anthony Fauci threw one out at Nationals Park on baseball’s pandemically-delayed Opening Day. (We do mean “out”: Fauci’s pitch would have been a strike . . . if the low outside corner was more adjacent to the on-deck circle than the plate.)

It proved to be news to the Yankees, more or less; they told reporters the president hadn’t actually been given an invitation for that date. Trump countered that he’d gotten the invite straight from the Yankees’ team president Randy Levine, who’d once been rumoured to be on Trump’s list of candidates for his White House chief of staff.

Levine didn’t affirm or deny, but another Yankee official said subsequently that the invite was on. The invite may have been on but that Trump first pitch ended up not happening.

Biden has said since his win that he’d like to work in a bipartisan spirit as best as possible in (speaking politely) contentious Washington. I have a suggestion for the president-elect and the Nats that might show he means business when Opening Day arrives next April.

He could do as then-president George W. Bush did when major league baseball returned to Washington in 2005. Bush was presented a unique baseball to throw for the ceremonial first pitch, owned by the late Washington Senators relief pitcher Joe Grzenda, who’d saved it from the final Senators game, ever.

Grzenda intended to throw that ball to Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke at the plate, with two out and the Senators looking to say farewell with a 7-5 win on 30 September 1971. Thanks to heartsick Senators fans bursting the fences, swarming the field, leaving the RFK Stadium field and scoreboard resembling the remains of a terrorist attack, and forcing the umpires to forfeit the game to the Yankees, Grzenda never got to pitch to Clarke.

But he kept the ball and, at long enough last, got the invite to throw it as a first pitch in RFK in 2005 before the freshly transplanted (from Montreal) Nationals opened for new business. Instead, he handed the ball to Bush, likewise clad in a Nationals jacket, and Bush—ironically, a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers that the Senators became—threw a neat breaking ball up to the plate.

Nats catcher Brian Schneider caught the Bush pitch. He had ideas about keeping the ball until Grzenda asked to have it back and the memorabilia-happy catcher obliged.

Grzenda died in July 2019. (Clarke passed away three months ago.) Assuming his family still possesses the ball—which Grzenda pitched to get Bobby Murcer on a grounder for the second out before being unable to pitch to Clarke—Biden’s people might think to ask them for the honour of throwing that ball out for the Opening Day first pitch.

The Nats might also think about making that particular ball an annual Opening Day first pitch tradition. They don’t have to worry about weird mojo attaching to the ball. Their 2019 World Series triumph took plenty of care of that.

If Biden jinxes or fouls his own presidency, it won’t be because he throws the last ball of Washington Senators baseball. Just be sure he doesn’t get any bright ideas about arriving at Nationals Park to do it by way of landing Marine One in center field.

With a friend like Trump . . .


President Donald Trump, holding a New England Patriots helmet at the White House celebrating the Pats’ Super Bowl LIII victory. He managed to conflate a football beneficiary of the former Alabama coach running for the Senate with the man who coached the Pats’ American Football League ancestors, among others.

When last we had occasion to think of Donald Trump in sports terms having nothing to do with kneeling during the National Anthem, he attended Game Five of the last World Series in Nationals Park. He was booed rather lustily, with intermittent chants of “Lock him up!” punctuating the chorus.

The “lock him up!” chants returned in the seventh inning—not for President Tweety, but for home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, whose evening to that point was full of such dubious calls (including the fourth ball called a third strike on Nationals outfielder Victor Robles during the inning) that both Nationals and Houston Astros fans alike wanted him in the stockade.

Now, though, the president about whom “polarising” often feels high praise arouses the attention of Deadspin, the online sports publication. He arouses it by way of the campaign trail, on a conference call, supporting former longtime Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville’s campaign as Alabama’s newly-crowned Republican nominee to the U.S. Senate.

Trump wanted to praise Tuberville as the reason the University of Alabama hired a particular football coach, after the Auburn Tigers bushwhacked the Crimson Tide in six straight meetings between the two schools. Then, he wanted to praise that coach. Uh, oh. “Beat Alabama, like six in a row, but we won’t even mention that,” President Tweety began, starting with Tuberville. “As he said . . . because of that, maybe we got ‘em Lou Saban . . . And he’s great, Lou Saban, what a great job he’s done.”

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban must be double-checking his records to be sure he didn’t change his name inadvertently, somewhere. And, to re-assure himself, with apologies to Mark Twain, that the reports of his death have indeed been exaggerated greatly. The National Football League and its long-ago-absorbed upstart competitor the American Football League would love to know how the real Lou Saban coached from beyond.

That real Lou Saban, as Deadspin couldn’t wait to remind anyone caring, coached in both American pro football leagues and in college football for a very long time. But not past 2002, after a decade of working at far lower than Division I programs.

The president who once denounced the late Sen. John McCain for having been captured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War (“I like people who weren’t captured”) and makes a fetish of “winning” (without stopping to think that one man’s “winning” is another’s self-immolation) chose quite a winner to conflate with Alabama’s incumbent football coach.

Saban, who may or may not be a second or more distant cousin to Nick, was a charter coach of the Boston Patriots, when the AFL was born in 1960. From there he enjoyed a sixteen-season career coaching in the AFL and—when his Denver Broncos moved with the merger—the NFL. He had three first-place finishes (coaching the Buffalo Bills, 1963-65) and two AFL championships. And that’s all, folks.

He had six winning seasons in sixteen coaching the pros. His final record as a pro football coach is 95-99-7. Except for his back-to-back AFL championships, Saban never led his teams past a single playoff win. He did get to return to the Bills in 1972, coaching the teams fabled for O.J. Simpson and the Electric Company offensive line, but they never got past second place or a single playoff loss, either. He resigned after a 2-3 start in 1976 and never coached in the NFL again.

But he did return to the college coaching lines, which he’d visited once in the middle of his pro coaching life (University of Maryland: 4-6 in 1966), and where his coaching career began for a single season in 1956. (Northwestern University: 0-8.) He coached the University of Miami to back-to-back losing seasons (1977-78) and Army (1979) to one losing season. His complete coaching record at the major schools: 15-35-2.

Saban left Miami in the middle of a row over three freshman players attacking a Jewish student in yarmulke while he walked toward a campus religious service. They carried him to Lake Osceola in the middle of the campus and threw him in. Having been off campus when the attack happened, Saban returned to learn of it and say, according to Bruce Feldman’s history of Miami football, “Getting thrown in the lake? Sounds like fun to me.”

After he left Army, Saban took a brief, curious career turn. He became one of George Steinbrenner’s “baseball people,” doing Steinbrenner (a personal friend) a favour and becoming president of the New York Yankees for 1981-82. Even allowing that Steinbrenner did love football, engaging a football lifer as a baseball president seemed along the line of hiring a furniture designer to develop vacuum cleaners.

If Saban had anything to say about some of the turmoil around those Yankees, there seems little enough record of it:

* Steinbrenner fired first-time manager Gene Michael in 1981, after Michael challenged The Boss to knock it off with the constant threats. Steinbrenner’s bid to mollify The Stick became a classic of Yankee panky: Why would you want to stay manager and be second-guessed by me when you can come up into the front office and be one of the second guessers?

* Steinbrenner burned through three managers in 1982: Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon (who’d picked up Billy Martin’s pieces and led the Yankees to a World Series championship in 1978), Michael again, then Clyde King.

* Steinbrenner hired former Olympic hurdler Harrison Dilliard to help turn the Yankees into a speed team, an idea so hilarious as it was accompanied by continuous running drills in spring training that wags began calling the Yankees “the Bronx Burners.” (The experiment lived only slightly longer than some Yankee managers kept their jobs.)

The man who thought it sounded like fun for three of his Miami players to dunk a Jewish student in Lake Osceloa isn’t on record anywhere that I know of suggesting what fun Steinbrenner’s King of Hearts act in the south Bronx must have been for those on the wrong end of His Majesty’s scepter.

Lou Saban died at 87 in 2009, two years after Alabama hired Nick. He might not have had a real reputation as a long-term winner but he did have one as a teacher. He was also in no position to be the direct beneficiary of  Tuberville’s constant seawalling of the Crimson Tide. Alabama isn’t exactly renowned for hiring octogenarian head coaches. Nick Saban, on the other hand, has a long-term winning reputation in college football: a 248-65 record; three Bowl Championship Series wins; and, ten bowl game wins otherwise.

Deadspin offers the charitable suggestion that Trump might have conflated Saban with Lou Holtz, the Notre Dame coaching legend. Careful with that axe, Eugene: In some portions of the South, confusing or conflating a Crimson Tide coach with some Hoosier coach can provoke the same kind of tavern debate (if not brawl) as could be provoked in the northeast, formerly,  if you inadvertently confused or conflated Mookie Betts with Mookie Wilson.

Trump’s sports record is dubious at best, shall we say. When he hasn’t beaten his gums about kneeling National Anthem protesters (a subject for another time, for now), he’s been a football owner (in the failed United States Football League some say he destroyed in the first place), a less-than-knowledgeable advocate (speaking politely) of Pete Rose’s reinstatement to baseball and election to the Hall of Fame, and a public critic, equally less than knowledgeable, of Maximum Security’s rightful disqualification in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

With an expert like that on his side, I’m not entirely sure that Tuberville—whose own college football coaching career was impressive enough (159-99 record; seven bowl wins)—needs adversaries.

They boo presidents, don’t they?

2019-10-27 NationalsPark

The boo birds arose when the president was shown at World Series Game Five Sunday night.

This may disappoint those among his loyal fans who like to think everything he does is without precedent, but Donald Trump isn’t even close to being the first sitting president who was ever booed at a baseball game. That news might bother President Tweety, too, since he likes to think he does things that nobody else has done or would do.

It might surprise no few of Trump’s sycophancy to know that even Democrats were troubled when the president’s mug from a Nationals Park luxury box hit the large video screen on the scoreboard before World Series Game Five and the boo birds chirped and sang “Lock him up!” through the booing.

Frankly think the office of the president deserves respect,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), “even when the actions of our president at times don’t.”

Trump, of course, played some high school baseball and was actually scouted by the Phillies at the time, choosing instead to follow his father into the real estate game. From his presidential inauguration until Game Five, however, President Tweety hadn’t gone to a single live Washington sporting event. Not even when the Nationals reached the postseason in 2017.

In the seventh inning during the Astros’ 7-1 Game Five win, the Nats Park crowd began chanting “Lock him up! Lock him up!” again. But the target that time wasn’t Trump, it was home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, whose evening full of dubious pitch calls—especially the ball four he called strike three with Nats center fielder Victor Robles at the plate that inning—had both Nats and Astros fans outraged.

The problem with Coons’s distinction between the man and the office is that it works far more intellectually than viscerally. Human nature is what human nature is. Ordinary American citizens write screeds against presidents they despise without being accused of despising the office except by those who adore the targets of their wrath. The law is mostly wonderful that way.

And ballpark crowds have booed individual presidents in the past without once believing they’re booing the presidency, even if they don’t always throw in chants to lock them up. Always have, as the Washington Post‘s “D.C. Sports Bog” writer Matt Bonesteel reminds us. And one or two of them were former baseball people themselves.

Herbert Hoover, for example. He played ball at Stanford University, and also served as its team’s student manager. He played shortstop until a dislocated finger compelled him to stop, but it isn’t known whether he played the position like the signature product of the non-related manufacturing family that bore his surname.

Bonesteel reminds us Hoover’s favourite newspaper reading was the sports section. He made a point of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at every Washington Senators home Opening Day during his single-term presidency. He also went to World Series games in three years, all to watch the Philadelphia Athletics.

And when he went to his final such game in Shibe Park in 1931, the Philadelphia boo birds chirped. Loud. Not because the A’s were doing horribly (they lost two of the three games in Shibe, and would lose the Series in seven to the Cardinals) but because the country was. The Great Depression took hold in earnest, and Prohibition-weary Philadelphians needed a drink pretty much as badly as the rest of the country did.

Hoover was a lukewarm Prohibitionist at best but he often urged the country to dry up about the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. Upon his World Series presence the Shibe Park audience chanted “We want beer!” when not booing. “Perhaps,” wrote the (shall we say) acidic columnist Westbrook Pegler, referencing bootlegging, “Philadelphia is tired of whiskey and gin.”

About two decades later, the country wasn’t entirely tired of Douglas MacArthur even if Harry Truman was. Truman had canned MacArthur as commander of U.N. Forces Korea, and the day before Opening Day 1951 in Washington’s Griffith Stadium MacArthur delivered his fabled “Old Soldiers Never Die” valedictory to a joint session of Congress.

When Truman attended that Opening Day and threw out a ceremonial first pitch, the crowd gave Harry a little hell. He got booed even more lustily as the eighth inning approached and the public address announcer asked the crowd to stay seated until the president and his entourage left the park.

Trump isn’t even the first president under the threat of impeachment to get booed at a baseball game. Sen. Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) called for immediate impeachment hearings when Truman pinked MacArthur, and Truman’s approval ratings sank lower than the worst of Richard Nixon’s during the worst of the Watergate scandal. There goes another precedent, Mr. President.

The first President Bush-, a former Yale first baseman, took it on the chin from the boo birds at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium—Hall of Famer Willie Mays served as an honourary National League captain—perhaps as lingering fury over his broken tax hike promise.

The president didn’t throw out the ceremoninal first pitch that day; San Diego’s native-son Hall of Famer Ted Williams did, after a handshake and pat on the back from the chief executive. But when Bush was introduced formally before the game, the booing cascaded downward.

The second President Bush, formerly the co-owner of the former Senators long entrenched in Texas as the Rangers, got a lusty round of applause when major league baseball returned to Washington in 2005 and he threw out the ceremonial first pitch not long after he was renewed for a White House lease.

He used the ball former Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda didn’t get to pitch to Horace Clarke to try finishing a Senators win in their last-ever home game—because heartsick fans stormed the field, rioted, and compelled a forfeit to the Yankees. And he fired a near-perfect strike to further lusty applause.

But at the Nats’ home opener for 2008, Bush—again wearing a Nationals team jacket as he had in 2005—walked out of the dugout to throw out another ceremonial first pitch. This time, the boo birds out-hollered the cheers rather convincingly for a few moments. The country’s war weariness and economic jitters probably had more than something to do with it.

The boos faded back enough by the time Bush reached the mound to fire one high and to the left of then-Nats manager Manny Acta. A lefthanded hitter would have stood at ball one; a righthanded hitter would have been clutching his head after hitting the batter’s box with a thump.

Barack Obama got his when the boo birds in St. Louis competed with the cheers, as he strode to the Busch Stadium mound—in a White Sox jacket—to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the 2009 All-Star Game. Obama threw an eephus pitch that might have been clobbered for a home run by a hitter smart enough to wait it out and take a couple of steps forward in the box.

Strangely enough, I could find no record of such presidents as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton being booed (or, in Nixon’s and Clinton’s cases, hit with “lock him up” chants or similar hollers) when they threw out ceremonial first pitches. Hard to believe considering Vietnam, Watergate, and Whitewatermonicagate.

But when Hillary Clinton was First Lady and threw one at Wrigley Field’s Opening Day 1994, she got some boos mixed in with the cheers, doubtless residue from the HillaryCare debacle. And she threw the ball the old fashioned way—from a box seat, not from the mound. She would never have cut the mustard in Mary Tyler Moore’s parlour.

So President Tweety, his minions, and his fanbois and girls can relax. He’s not the first president controversial enough to get a phlegm-and-bile bath at the old ball game. And, whether he is re-elected, or someone from among the Democratic Party’s current gaggle of geese is plain elected next year, he’s not likely to be the last, either.