Nats revive historic Opener tradition
Watching President's first pitch is one-of-a-kind experience
In 1988, the Baltimore Orioles lost 107 games en route to the worst record in the Majors that season.
Determined to turn their fortunes around, they sent a lanky left-hander to the mound at old Memorial Stadium to open the 1989 season. He was a tad wild, but did help the Orioles turn the tide. Baltimore won that opener, 5-4, in 11 innings over Boston and finished the season just two games behind Toronto in the American League East.
Quite a reversal, because in '88 the O's lost their first 21 games.
That Opening Day southpaw was George H.W. Bush, the former good-field, no-hit Yale baseball captain (1948). It was his first start as President of the United States.
If memory serves, Bush's first -- and only -- pitch was high and outside. In fact, Orioles catcher Mickey Tettleton had to move up a few feet from home plate to field it.
"He caught it before it started breaking," Bush argued.
"It was a hard, high fastball," the late Ted Williams, sitting in the stands, announced with a twinge of exaggeration, then laughing.
There was a time when Presidential openers, which began in 1910, were a rich part of baseball's history and tradition. Once the Senators left Washington to become the Texas Rangers in 1972, the closest big league mound for a President to test his arm was Baltimore. Presidential openers lost much of their luster and were sporadic at best.
That changed in 2005 when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington as the Nationals.
The former owner of the Rangers, President George W. Bush, threw out the first pitch at RFK Stadium to celebrate the return of Major League Baseball to our nation's capital -- April 14, 2005.
Sunday night, he'll repeat the honors as the Nationals open their beautiful new ballpark on the Anacostia River waterfront. And at some point during the game, President Bush and I will sit down and talk baseball again, which will be fun for both of us.
The Nationals won their first game in Washington, 5-3, over the D-backs. Overall, this will be the sixth time as President that the younger Bush has thrown the first pitch. And, oh, yes, his father opened Camden Yards in 1992 as the Orioles blanked the Indians, 2-0. George W. threw the first pitch in 2001, when Miller Park in Milwaukee opened.
The afternoon before Bush tossed (lobbed) his best fastball to catcher Brian Schneider in 2005, I sat with him in the Oval Office and asked about his thoughts prior to the historic moment.
"I'm honored to be throwing out the first pitch, continuing a tradition of Presidents throwing out the first pitch for a Washington baseball team," he said, obviously relaxed. "It's really a great moment."
Nationals president Stan Kasten is determined to revive the tradition of Presidential openers.
"We're so excited to have the President here," says Kasten. "There will always be a standing invitation for our nation's president to throw out the first ball every Nationals season."
At the new ballpark, in the Presidents' Club, the Nationals have created a gallery of photos of every President who's thrown out a first pitch -- complete with quotes from each one.
"My favorite is from Dwight Eisenhower," said Kasten. "There's a picture of him as a player on his high school team. The quote is, 'When my friend and I were teenagers, we asked each other what we'd like to be when we grew up. I said I'd like to be a baseball player like Honus Wagner. My friend said he'd like to be President of the United States. Neither one of us got our wish!' "
Commissioner Bud Selig, who's done a superb job helping create what he calls "baseball's truly Golden Era," should make returning Presidental openers to prominence a priority.
"Obviously, they're a great part of our history," Selig said Thursday after returning to his Arizona office from Japan, where the Red Sox and A's opened the season. "Opening Day is a rebirth, and it's even more dramatic in Washington when the President of the United States is there. It's a time-honored tradition. Now that we have a team in Washington, hopefully it will take place every year."
These Openers have always had an enormous attraction for me, and I suspect most baseball fans -- regardless of their political beliefs -- share the same emotion. There have been so many special, if not historic, moments.
On April 14, 1910, President William Howard Taft threw out the first pitch for the Washington Senators, the beginning of this tradition. History books say he had trouble getting his 330-plus pounds in a front-row seat.
In all, 12 sitting Presidents have thrown out the ceremonial first pitch at Griffith Stadium and RFK. Until Bush's toss in 2005, no President had thrown one since Richard Nixon lobbed his in 1969. During that moment in '69, Nixon, when given the baseball, let it slip out of his hands. The RFK scoreboard lit up with a flashing "E."
Historians insist John F. Kennedy had the best arm. His 1961 baseball has been chronicled as the hardest ever thrown.
They say FDR once threw a wild pitch that shattered a photographer's camera lens.
It's all about baseball and history.
"And it's really an unusual experience," George W. Bush told me. "I've been in front of a lot of crowds as the President and Governor [of Texas]. I spoke in front of, I think, 200,000 people in Romania. There's nothing like going out to the mound and throwing the ball. It's a different feeling.
"First of all, the crowd is very pumped up. The relationship between the man behind the plate is different than you think until you get out there. I remember Davey Lopes caught the ball from me in Milwaukee. When I got to the mound, I said, 'Where is Lopes?' He seemed so far away."
It's just one pitch -- one pitch. But for that fleeting moment, nothing in baseball equals it.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.