- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals’ home opener last night, making him the first president since Richard Nixon in 1969 to do so before a regular-season game in the city.

Bush is a former owner of the Texas Rangers, and he remains a big baseball fan. He follows it closely through box scores and by watching games on television — ‘the dish,’ as he called it.

He paid close attention to the saga of the return of baseball to Washington for the first time in 34 years and has followed the fortunes of the Nationals during spring training and the first weeks of the season.

He said he hopes to attend some Nationals games but is wary of creating problems for fans at the ballpark with the extra security his presence necessitates.

The president’s love for the game hasn’t diminished since he left the Rangers to take over as governor of Texas in 1994. He yesterday spoke to reporters from The Washington Times, The Washington Post and USA Today of his affection for baseball, the issue of steroids in baseball and the state of the game:

Question: Have you been working out?

Bush: You try to control your adrenaline, not go with your heat, and wear the right shoes. I am looking forward to it. This will be the fifth time I will have thrown out a first ball, the fourth time in a major league park: Milwaukee, Opening Day; St. Louis, Opening Day; New York, World Series, and today. Then I opened the College World Series, which is neat.

I have been in front of a lot of crowds as president and governor. I have spoken before 200,000-some people in Romania, but there is nothing like going out there to throw that ball. It is a different feeling. The crowd is all pumped up.

The relationship between the mound and the plate is really different than you think. I can remember Davey Lopes caught the ball in Milwaukee. I got out there and I wondered, ‘Where is Lopes?’ He seemed so far away.

It is also a great thrill as a baseball fan to be invited to throw out a pitch. I am honored to be throwing out the first pitch, continuing the tradition of presidents throwing out the first pitch for a Washington baseball team. It is really a great moment.

Question: Did you ever go to a game in Washington?

Bush: I may have gone to a [Senators] game. My older brothers went to a lot in the Paul Casanova era, as I recall.

I am not sure what to anticipate inside the stadium. I do know this town is full of anticipation about Opening Day, and it’s neat.

I can remember our Opening Day at Arlington Stadium, when Rusty Rose and I went to be introduced as the prospective owners, with Eddie Chiles, because they hadn’t quite closed the deal. Tom Landry threw out the first ball, and I remember thinking, ‘God, this is really a great experience.’

It opened a neat chapter in my life, which was baseball. It was a wonderful experience for me, Laura and the kids. This will be kind of reminiscent of other opening pitches I’ve thrown and that one day I was introduced as one of the owners of the Rangers, but with a different twist to it: as president in the nation’s capital.

It will be interesting to see the crowd. I haven’t had much time to analyze and think about the moment. But I will think about it a lot. Since it is not my first pitch, I will be able to observe more. Like the [second term] inaugural address, I was able to take in more of the moment.

I want to enjoy it and absorb it and be able to really get outside myself and get a sense of the atmosphere.

Question: Will there ever be a more meaningful first pitch than the one you threw before the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium in New York?

Bush: I would never say never more meaningful because history has a way of challenging mankind. But it was a very dramatic moment, made moreso by Derek Jeter.

They had asked me if I wanted to loosen up a little bit, and I said, yes, I would like to. I went underneath the bowels of Yankee Stadium, in the old decrepit-looking undercarriage of this magnificent ballpark, and this old veteran equipment guy showed up.

He said, ‘Do you want to play catch, Mr. President?’ I said, ‘I’d love to.’ I started winging them in there — this is by the batting cages — and Derek Jeter walks in and says to me, ‘Are you going to throw the ball off the mound?’

I said, ‘I don’t know, they have it set up both ways, the mound or in front of the mound. What do you think?’ He said, ‘I would throw it off the mound if I were you.’ I said, ‘OK, I think I will.’ He turns around as he is walking out and says, ‘But don’t bounce it. They’ll boo you.’

So I come walking out for this dramatic moment, and I’m thinking what Jeter said: ‘Don’t bounce it.’

The crowd was chanting ‘USA,’ and it was a very emotional, very loud experience. It was something I will never forget.

Baseball has a way of doing that, by the way. Baseball has a way of dramatizing some big moments in life.

Question: How close did you follow the efforts to bring baseball to Washington, and was there ever a point where you might have become involved in making that happen?

Bush: I viewed it as a local matter that would have to be decided by local opinion makers, local editorialists and, most importantly, the local elected officials.

I have been through an experience of convincing people — in our case, we actually had an election to determine whether the local people wanted to spend money to build the stadium. We had a specific referendum, a vote.

I am mindful of the local nature of franchises and stadiums. I never had any intention of butting in or weighing in. I did follow it, because I am interested in baseball.

I think it is good for baseball to come back to the nation’s capital. I believe the demographics have changed enough, and, hopefully, the stadium will accommodate the increased population in the region. I say ‘accommodate,’ make it convenient for people to get to the park, so it does a repeat business.

I think a business where you convince customers of coming more than once will work. I know how exciting baseball can be for a community. I also subscribe to the theory that a new ballpark will help lift up a neighborhood and provide a lot of interesting entrepreneurial opportunities for people.

I am excited about it. I am excited about the team. I started paying attention to the lineups during spring training and watched the pitching staff. I know that Livan Hernandez is pitching tonight. I have read the comments from Brian Schneider about catching the first pitch.

I spend a fair amount of time in the box scores on a daily basis. That’s one way to take your mind off your job, to delve into the moment.

Question: Do you watch games on television?

Bush: I do. I go to bed a little earlier these days than I used to because I am up early. But I have the dish. I watched [Rangers pitcher] Chan Ho Park pitch a pretty good game yesterday against the Angels. I follow the Rangers closely.

The first major league game I saw in Texas was the Astros. I am a big Astros guy as well: [I] suffered through the 1980 Phillies-Astros playoffs and the 1986 Mets-Astros playoffs. I was there when Mike Scott pitched a 1-0 game against the Mets. Glenn Davis homered to win it against Dwight Gooden in a classic baseball game. It ranks right up there with the greatest game I’ve ever seen: Texas Heat, Nolan Ryan vs. Roger Clemens. Rafael Palmeiro hits a two-run homer, Jeff Russell closes. Cecil Espy on first.

It’s a little embarrassing to remember all these facts. But I am a baseball fan, and I love great moments in baseball. Tonight, for me personally, is going to be a great moment for baseball.

Question: Do you think steroids have cast a cloud over the game?

Bush: I spoke out about it in the State of the Union and did so because I am concerned about the influence on the kids, the influence of the decisions made by professional athletes on younger Americans.

It was in the context of helping people make right choices in life. There was a mixed message coming out — in baseball in particular at this moment, but in all of pro sports — that it is OK to try to make more money by using a substance that can cause harm.

The message was terrible. So I elevated it to a national level in the State of the Union address. John McCain followed it up shortly after with the legislative approach to the issue.

I do not regret in any way, shape or form bringing up the issue. I’m glad I did. I think it was responsible for me to put it in the State of the Union, a responsible position for the president to take.

I do believe the reaction since then has been responsible. There is now a program in place, worked out by owners and labor. We will see if the program is effective enough.

In my judgment there should be no steroids in baseball, but it will be interesting to determine if the exposure that has just begun on major leaguers and minor leaguers will have an effect in convincing others that there are consequences other than suspensions and fines.

There is the shame factor, is the best way to describe it. I look forward to seeing if this works. I think you have to give it a chance to work. …

Something is happening, and it is happening because of accountability not only urged by government, but also in the fan base [and] by the writers and the opinion-makers constantly remind[ing] those who follow that the players have an obligation not to let us down. And it is working.

Question: What do you think should happen to baseball records [set by players suspected of steroid use]?

Bush: That will be up to the experts, the people who follow and love the game. There is a whole group of philosophers and writers who love the game who are willing to take stands — such as expanding the playoffs, interleague play — but also to help baseball come to the right conclusion.

[Baseball commissioner] Bud [Selig] and the owners and the players are going to have to figure out how best to deal with this. I think it is very important for people to make sure, prior to coming to conclusions, that there is something to back up the conclusions.

People are saying things, and I am not prejudging one way or the other. I just want to make sure people are given a fair day. That is the problem with the system, is that everybody is tainted. I suspect that when the facts are truly known, not everybody is guilty.

Question: In Jose Canseco’s book, he wrote that as owner of the team, you should have known about steroid use on the Rangers. Did you know?

Bush: Of course not. In 1994 I was running for governor of Texas. So [it was ] unlike previous years where I would go to maybe 70 games a year and my routine would be to go to the office and do things you do as one of the owners of the team.

I used to love to sit in the dugout and talk to [Rangers general manager Tom Grieve] and kibitz with the writers. We would talk baseball. I am not sure what years Canseco was on the club, but I don’t think I was there much then.

I don’t remember any discussions with owners or general managers or Bobby V [manager Bobby Valentine] or [manager Kevin] Kennedy about so and so is using steroids.

The Canseco allegation about Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez was immediately rejected by those guys, and Palmeiro publicly. I don’t know what to make of those allegations. I know hurling allegations is not good for the game, it seems to me.

It is really important for baseball to deal with the subject, which it has. One of the things that has happened over the past two years is there has been an honest appraisal and a public outcry and a lot of exposure.

The sport is now beginning to seriously address the issue. I was amazed to see that there were 34 or 36 minor leaguers called to account. Hopefully that will be a part of the beginning of the cleansing of the sport.

These guys are great athletes and they are proud. They want their accomplishments to be judged and stand on their own. But there is no question the steroid issue has been a cloud over baseball, and it will be until the fans become convinced that the situation has been cured.

That is what baseball has got to understand. I think they do understand that.

Question: You have promoted the game by bringing Little League T-ball teams to the White House for games on the lawn — and particularly kids teams from Washington. The lack of both black players and fans in the game is a concern now. Are you worried about that?

Bush: I thought about that issue when I was the owner of the Rangers. This actually has been a conversation that has been held in the halls of baseball prior to now. Pro basketball rose in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and people were worried about fan bases and worried about young players. There should be a concern about baseball not being able to attract the players who will attract the fans.

I think there are two things that need to be done to make sure people come to ballparks. One is affordability. It is really important for baseball to not price itself out of the reach of the average fan. I like to watch pricing structures in stadiums.

With the Rangers, we always made sure there were sections where people could come with their families and afford a family experience. We also allowed people to bring in drinks and kind of picnic inside the stadium, as long as it wasn’t glass. We understood that baseball is a family sport with repeat customers.

The second thing is to make sure there are role models, people who are stars that can attract different types of fans.

I think, if kids understand the economics of baseball, they will begin to choose baseball over the other sports. … In baseball, you get a guaranteed contract, which stands in sharp contrast to the NFL. And generally, after baseball, your knees are intact, as opposed to being a running back.

The economics, quite frankly, for a kid in baseball are pretty darn good. Things go in cycles. I am hoping that the next Willie Mays shows up in a baseball uniform and not in a basketball uniform. Right now baseball has a lot of work to do to attract kids back to the sport.

On the other hand, there is a lot of diversity in baseball with the Latino ballplayers and fantastic players coming from all around the world.

There is work to be done in baseball, but Washington has a shot, of course, to be a leader at attracting a different fan base.

Question: Do you want to be commissioner of baseball after this?

Bush: No. I will always stay involved in baseball because I love the game. I’ve got my hands full right now, by the way, a lot on the dance card. My innings are full. I will be forever a fan.

Question: What would you have rather been, baseball commissioner or president?

Bush: I would rather be president. The presidency is really a great opportunity to help change the world. It is a great experience, and I would never trade this experience for anything.

I love my country, and I love serving America and representing America. My hopes are that the world will become more peaceful because it will become more free. It has been an honor to be a part of that experience. We have a lot of work at home.

Being president, putting the steroids issue in the State of the Union had an effect. There was a choir, and I was just a simple member of the choir. John McCain stepped in. You all wrote about it a lot and called people to account, and there was a response. That is an example about how this office can affect people, I think in a positive way.

I think when it is all said and done, people will look back and say, thankfully a lot of responsible citizens said to an important sport, fix yourself, now. And it is working, I think.

There will be a lot of talk about did the system go far enough, but the key is the system is heading in the right direction. There will be plenty of voices that, if the system doesn’t work, will be calling on more reform. No one wants the game tainted. …

I enjoy the sport and try to do as best as I can to promote it and honor it, because it is a wonderful part of the American experience. I used to say in my speeches about baseball that you could be a normal-sized person and be good.

And if you go to a game, go with someone you really care for, because you will have plenty of time to visit. There are no time limits. There is a nice pace. And it always should be outdoors, wooden bats and grass, which is not always the case.

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