- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

UPDATED:

From making March Madness bracket picks in the White House Map Room to thanking Russians for Washington Capitals hockey star Alex Ovechkin, President Obama is embracing his role as America’s No. 1 sports fan.

He plays basketball and golfs most weekends, and he’s hosted nine sports teams from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Columbus Crew soccer champions at the White House since taking office in January - a record-setting pace.

“The passion that Obama has is on the extreme side and shared by only a small handful of presidents,” said Marc Ganis, a sports analyst and president of Chicago-based SportsCorp Ltd.

Mr. Obama’s enthusiasm goes beyond the usual photo-op. He knows his facts and he loves his Chicago teams - pro basketball’s Bulls, pro football’s Bears and big league baseball’s White Sox.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama was in the sports spotlight again, throwing the ceremonial first pitch at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in St. Louis and trading quips with Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Joe Buck - including an insult to the Washington Nationals’ lousy season.

The southpaw president had practiced his delivery in the White House Rose Garden and in Busch Stadium for a warm-up session with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. Mr. Obama was hoping for a better pitch than his 2005 attempt at the Angels-White Sox game, but his pitch was short of the plate.

Still, the president did a fist pump after the throw and later told Mr. Buck that baseball is “such a reminder about what’s great about this country. You can’t beat it.”

“This is as much fun as I’ve had in quite some time,” he added.

His color commentary included “Uh-oh” on a tough play, and “How ‘bout that?” during a good moment. He also joked baseball couldn’t have a federal bailout because “We’re out of money.”

In the locker room before the game, Mr. Obama hugged players and signed autographs.

Mr. Obama, who took to the mound in a White Sox jacket, was introduced to TV viewers as “A Sox fan through and through.”

“I like the fact that he’s active in sports,” a Washington ESPN Zone bartender said as Mr. Obama was on the jumbo television screen.

Former President George W. Bush, a former part-owner of the Texas Rangers franchise, threw out several first pitches and also was known to love sports. His first year in office, Mr. Bush hosted six teams and some Hall of Fame inductees at the White House, according to a tally kept by Mark Knoller of CBS News, the unofficial presidential historian for the press corps.

The Obama White House is similarly sports-obsessed, and Mr. Obama has Mr. Bush beat - the current president has hosted nine teams in less than six months.

“Bush in total hosted 40 sports teams [over eight years]. Obama is on his way to besting that record,” said John Sayle Watterson, author of “The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency.”

Mr. Obama also works sports references into just about everything - noting his Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is a “lifelong” New York Yankees fan and lauding the Russian-born Mr. Ovechkin, hockey’s reigning most valuable player, during a speech in Moscow last week.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig told reporters in St. Louis that the White House accepted his invitation for Mr. Obama to throw the opening pitch within 24 hours, noting that made him happy because Mr. Obama has had such a busy schedule this month.

“No matter what one thinks politically, right or left or whatever, this is a big thing. The players will enjoy it. The fans will enjoy it,” Mr. Selig said.

Mr. Ganis and Mr. Watterson said Mr. Obama is unusual among politicians because he is such an overt fan of his preferred teams - though he did waffle on his World Series choice when teams from the swing states of Florida (the Tampa Bay Rays) and Pennsylvania (the Phillies) were competing in October.

The White House Flickr.com feed has posted photos of the president with a golf club or basketball, as well as 14 photos of Mr. Obama with a football. The administration also posted video of Mr. Obama shooting hoops with the University of Connecticut champion women’s basketball team.

Some are frustrated that the new president has not shown the local D.C. teams much love. The only Washington game he attended was when the Washington Wizards played the Bulls on Feb. 27 - one night after he treated the Chicago team to a White House tour. He sat courtside at the Verizon Center during the game.

This White House frequently issues e-mails offering “readouts” of Mr. Obama’s meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders. This summer, it also put out details of Mr. Obama’s calls to Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

The president congratulated each coach on their championship seasons and invited them to the White House. Mr. Obama went further with Jackson, expressing “interest in the Lakers’ innovative triangle offense,” according to the official White House “readout” of the call.

At 86 words, the Jackson readout was shorter than the 123-word readout of Mr. Obama’s calls to the Japanese prime minister on North Korea’s nuclear test, but was 20 words longer than the official report on Mr. Obama’s June call to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

• Mark Zuckerman in St. Louis and John Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.