Yesterday, the Washington Nationals announced that Dr. Anthony Fauci will throw out the ceremonial first pitch when Major League Baseball belatedly begins its season Thursday.
The 2019 World Series, won by the Nats, was a 21st century morality tale. Washington, for the most part, played old-school baseball the right way against a team that took "advanced analytics" to the next level -- to the point of using in-game electronic spying to cheat.
While fielding a team built on starting pitching supplemented with castoffs who didn't fit modern metrics, the Nats were an ethnically diverse and politically interesting team that danced, hugged, and carried on like schoolboys in their dugout after home runs. One of the Venezuelan players who started the dancing rocked the stadium with the unlikely tot tune "Baby Shark." The team featured a Japanese American catcher who likes President Trump, a white Mississippi-born second baseman who sang "La Calma" in Spanish in the clubhouse.
Like everything else in this country in 2020, however, the Nationals' planned victory lap -- not to mention the Houston Astros' tour of shame -- was sidelined by a lethal viral pandemic. The season finally begins this week, but in stadiums without fans. Nothing is as it should be this season, a grim reality only underscored by the choice of a medical doctor to throw out the first ball. In a parallel universe -- one in which Americans were dealing with this crisis the way we have in the past -- that honor would fall to the president. It happened that way after 9/11, as you may recall.
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The first president to toss out the ceremonial pitch was William Howard Taft, and every president since then has done it either on Opening Day or at the first game of the World Series -- or both. Until Donald J. Trump. This has been a surprising lapse to some. Trump played baseball in high school and was not a bad natural athlete, but he has apparently shied away from the inevitable booing that would accompany any trip to the mound. Trump's concerns are not misplaced, as Nats fans demonstrated during last year's World Series. I found the response to his presence at the ballpark rude and inappropriate, as I would have had it been directed at Barack Obama or any U.S. president. But I'm not a partisan person.
As far as I know, the first president to receive the Bronx cheer at a ballpark was Herbert Hoover, although the negative reaction to his attendance seems to have been about Prohibition as much as the Great Depression. It was at a 1931 game in Philadelphia (where else?) that Hoover was heckled by a crowd chanting, "We want beer! We want beer!"
I interviewed President Clinton at Camden Yards when he threw out the first pitch on Opening Day in 1993, and noticed that he seemed a little perplexed by the smattering of boos amid the applause when the public address announcer introduced him as "a rookie who just moved to the area from Arkansas."
But as Clinton told me afterward, he put that out of his mind because he wanted to concentrate on the task at hand. Baltimore Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles hadn't helped matters by gently warning Clinton, "Don't forget, Mr. President, the main thing is, you don't want to ground the ball."
Hoiles didn't know it, but this was already Clinton's fear. As he told me that day, George H.W. Bush, an accomplished college player, had bounced a couple of his first pitches. "He tried to burn it in there," Clinton told me. "I decided the main thing was to get it to the catcher."
So he told Hoiles, "I'm just going to loop it over to you."
Actually, Americans have learned since then that the main thing is showing up, come what may. After 9/11, George W. Bush not only urged Americans to attend baseball games, he went to Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch for Game 3 of the 2001 World Series.
As Bush warmed up his arm in a practice facility under the stadium, Yankees captain Derek Jeter wandered in. He asked the president whether he was going to throw in front of the mound. What do you think? Bush asked. This is New York, Jeter replied; you'd better throw on top of the mound or otherwise they'll boo you.
Then the star shortstop added, "But don't bounce it or they'll boo you."
If Jeter was trying to loosen the president up, it worked. Bush threw a waist-high strike. The crowd cheered and chanted "USA! USA!" America was back.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.