- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2006

My elementary school teachers always said if I really applied myself, I could become president someday.

Why do I have a feeling this wasn’t what they had in mind?

The opportunity, though, was too good to pass up. When the Washington Nationals invited members of the media to participate in the midgame Presidents Race at RFK Stadium, this intrepid reporter couldn’t wait to volunteer.

Which explains why, in the top of the fourth inning Thursday afternoon, I found myself not in the press box staring at a computer screen but standing just behind the right-field corner with the 25-pound head of George Washington protruding from my shoulders, nervously waiting to emerge into a throng of 29,007 screaming fans.

Is this what they mean by “participatory journalism?” Betcha George Plimpton never did this one.

Before we get to the race itself, some background …

The Nationals began running the live-action Presidents Race about a month ago, once new ownership took over and decided to spice up the gameday experience at RFK. The race is the brainchild of Josh Golden, the club’s entertainment manager, who wanted to come up with an in-game promotion similar to Milwaukee’s racing sausages and Pittsburgh’s running pierogies, just with a District flair.

The presidents, then, were an obvious choice. And with the help of Randy Carfagno, a New York-based costume-maker who specializes in oversized mascots, the four faces of Mount Rushmore came to life: Washington, Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

The nightly race was an instant hit with fans, who pick their favorite president and root him on to victory. Those poor suckers who keep choosing Teddy must not realize he hasn’t yet won a single race.

The race’s participants had previously been team employees, friends and even Golden himself when he couldn’t find a last-minute fill-in. Thursday’s event, then, was a first, with three reporters joining a Nationals front-office intern to compete.

Though the race takes place in the middle of the fourth inning, the process begins in the top of the second, when we are escorted into a dressing room deep in the bowels of the stadium. Up close, the giant foam heads are quite impressive. Carfagno was diligent in the details, from Teddy’s tiny glasses to the mole on Abe’s cheek.

It takes nearly two innings to get suited up. First come the stockings/shoes. Then the oversized body. Then the giant head, actually a backpack-like contraption that fits snug on your back but wobbles like crazy above your own head. The finishing touches are the customized coats, each replicas of the ones worn by the original presidents in famous photos.

As we were ushered out of the dressing room — don’t forget to duck when passing under the low-hanging ceiling fan, lest George’s powdered wig be chopped off — the difficulty of the task at hand sunk in. This was not going to be easy. It was hard enough to walk a straight line in this get-up. How was I going to run the equivalent of a 100-yard dash?

Then came the most important words of advice from Golden: “Don’t fall. If you fall, I’m not quite sure how to get you up.”

Great, one more thing to worry about.

There was no backing out now, though. The top of the fourth had just ended, and we were about to make our big entrance. Roosevelt (played by Howard Fendrich of the Associated Press) was first out of the gate, opening up a huge lead before slowing down to soak in the fans’ adulation. Lincoln (Todd Jacobson of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star) was next, towering over all of us. I was right behind, my 5-foot-7 frame engulfed by this 10-foot-tall visage of our founding father. And bringing up the rear was Jefferson (Ryan Thomas, Nationals intern), trying to make up ground.

It was no trouble passing Teddy, who somehow never loses his goofy grin despite his never-ending string of losses. About halfway down the first-base warning track, I decided it was time to make my move on Abe. So I veered to the outside, nimbly made my way around him and then shifted into fifth gear.

I was in the lead, and the race was mine. The only problem: Through my tiny, mesh-covered window through George’s neck, I saw the finish line, still some 150 feet away. It might as well have been 150 miles as far as I could tell.

I wasn’t about to let up, though, not on the verge of my moment of triumph. So with legs churning and arms flailing, I motored my way through the ribbon, narrowly defeating Abe, Tom and poor Teddy (who finished last yet again) and then played it up to the cheering crowd.

The four of us gathered in a circle, did our best imitation of the old Washington Redskins’ “Fun Bunch” end zone routine and then made our grand exit through the stands, waving and doling out high-fives.

By the time we made it back to the dressing room and were helped out of the costumes, we were drenched in sweat. I suddenly had newfound respect for Screech, the Phillie Phanatic and the San Diego Chicken. Who knew this was such hard work? The simple task of covering a ballgame seemed to pale in comparison.

Alas, this likely spelled the end of my racing career. I intend to retire with an unbeaten record. If anyone tries to challenge me to a rematch, I’ll simply make like Jerry Seinfeld and declare that “I choose not to run!”

I got to be president for a day. I’d much rather be a sportswriter for life.

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