One day on the radio, I heard someone say, “That George Bush sure can throw a baseball.” He even dared us to verify it on YouTube, even if we don’t like his politics. Sure enough, the man was right. GW can bear down and throw strikes. It shouldn’t really mean anything. GW has his hands full with other things right now. But throwing the first pitch at a baseball game can mean so much to we Americans because baseball means so much.
It’s hard to find people in this country who haven’t played, watched or coached baseball or softball at some point in their lives. If you grew up in the rural Midwest like I did, well, there probably isn’t a man or woman in any of those small towns who couldn’t show you a thing or two about fielding a ground ball or laying down a sacrifice bunt. When a guy like my dad, who is not a sports guy, knows more than enough to teach my brother and I to hit, you realize how pervasive the game is.
So when GW shows he can throw, somehow, that’s a good thing. Instead of being the leader of the free world, he becomes a regular fan in the stands. We can identify with him; it’s part of the reason he got elected twice (never mind he wasn’t your average Texas Rangers fan; he owned them for a time). He’s positioned himself as a guy you could play catch with, just like you played catch as a kid, and we are suckers for nostalgia.
Baseball is 98 percent nostalgia. It’s such a slow game that there’s lots of time to reminisce and tell stories between innings, even between pitches. Most of these stories involve past baseball games. I can still remember that game-winning grand slam I hit as a 12-year-old in my last year of little league. I can tell you the score of that game was 10-6. I can tell you what park it was at and where the ball landed. GW knows that if I see him throw a ball, and then I think about that grand slam, all in the same 10 seconds, that’s good for him. I’m not saying he’s hypnotized me into voting for him, but it doesn’t hurt.
GW chose the right game because, unlike other sports, you can talk about baseball with just about anyone. I talked to my 94 year-old grandmother about 24-year-old Twins catcher Joe Mauer just the other day. My wife told me she’s into baseball right now, even though she doesn’t know much about it. Why? “Because hope springs eternal.” Baseball as hope — that’s some heavy symbolism from a woman who doesn’t like watching sports that much, but that’s the impression 130-plus years of professional baseball has made on this country. The culture of baseball is hard to separate from the culture of America.
You have to be careful, though. Because baseball is so cherished, it’s equally as powerful going in the other direction. Do something stupid in the public eye, and you’ll get criticized. (Politicians get criticized by half the country for almost anything they do or don’t do; GW knows all about that.) Do something stupid associated with baseball, and you will be object of venom and ridicule until the end of your days.
The current mayor of Cincinnati, Mark Mallory, threw out the first pitch at the Reds home opener this year, and he threw it so badly that it might become an impediment if he wants to run for re-election. The mayor even did post-incident interviews on ESPN about what happened. He had a really good sense of humor about it, but that pitch will haunt him the rest of his political life. He will forever be the mayor who “throws worse than my 19-month old,” according to one scathing web site comment. In one moment, he put his competence and his manhood into question. It wasn’t malicious or stupid. He simply threw a ball, and it was the worst thing he could have ever done.
Roseanne Barr offended just about the whole country when she mangled the national anthem before a baseball game in San Diego in 1990. Her vocal stylings were seen not only as disrespectful to baseball, but to America itself. She topped it off the song by grabbing her crotch and spitting on the ground, perhaps mimicking a typical baseball player, but by that time, she might as well be spitting on the flag. It was maybe the all-time dumbest move for an entertainer who relies on public popularity to continue working. Notice she’s not around anymore.
Steve Bartman isn’t around anymore either, at least not in his home town of Chicago. Bartman is the guy who, in the 2003 major league playoffs, reached for the foul ball headed into the stands at Wrigley Field and prevented Moises Alou from catching the ball. The Cubs were winning that game — five outs away from the World Series. After the play, the Marlins scored eight runs to win the game, and won the following game to go to the World Series. The Cubs continued their streak of not being in the Series since 1945.
Whether Bartman’s unfortunate incident might have been an extension of a curse, or if he is just some guy who was in the wrong place and the wrong time, he won’t go un-harassed in the Chicago metro area for decades. Note for the savvy baseball fan: if you have a front row seat, and your team has a chance to make a play on a pop fly, STEP AWAY FROM THE BALL! (As you can see, this rule is particularly important in playoff games.) The souvenir just isn’t worth it.
From parents behaving badly at a youth baseball games, to drunken fans running on the field to tackle umpires, to Pete Rose betting on every game he ever managed, in each instance it’s clear that the repercussions of bad baseball behavior are severe. Where GW comes from, they say: “Don’t mess with Texas.” In this glorious new spring season, filled with the hope of pennants and possibility, a more useful phrase to remember as you enjoy the games might be: “Don’t mess with baseball.”
The Head Fake is featured every week on www.readthebridge.info, and every month in the print edition of The Bridge. You can email Jay Kelly at email@example.com, or visit his web site at www.theheadfake.com.