President Bush meets with US team
Confident that baseball, softball will return to Olympics
BEIJING -- President Bush made baseball the last stop on his tour of Olympic venues on Monday before taking Air Force One back to Washington, D.C.
Bush spent time addressing the United States and Chinese teams, talked baseball in the U.S. dugout, had a young local volunteer come to his side of the park so he could sign her foul ball, posed for pictures, watched a few innings of the U.S.-China tuneup exhibition, and said to the head of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) that he is confident baseball and softball will return someday soon as Olympic events.
"We'll get it back," Bush told Harvey Schiller, president of the IBAF and former U.S. Olympic Committee chief, as they sat side-by-side in the stands behind the U.S. dugout on the eve of baseball's opening round, which starts for the U.S. team on Wednesday at 6 p.m. local time against Korea on the same Wukesong Stadium Field 2.
The eight-team tournament runs through the gold-medal game on Aug. 23, and it will be the last chance for a gold medal in the sport for at least eight years. Baseball and softball have been dropped for the 2012 Games in London by the International Olympic Committee, so no one really knows what other opportunities there will be in the future like the one now in front of two-dozen top American prospects.
"He was positive," Schiller said after Bush's super-fortified motorcade left for the airport. "He said, 'We'll get it back.' He's been very supportive of returning baseball to the [Olympics[ in 2016. I talked to him about returning it as a demonstration sport in 2012. It's a long shot, but I like long shots. The important point is, he's behind baseball and softball.
"I think the odds of it coming back are strong. It's still hard to understand why it was taken off in the first place. We're fully WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) compliant -- doping was a big concern in all sports, and I can't think of a single instance in Olympic baseball of having a positive drug test. We've had great cooperation from MLB and the IBAF, we had a great World Baseball Classic, it's a global sport enjoyed by at least one to two billion people. We're all sad that it is being removed. Its effect is to hurt a lot of young players.
"We just have to do our best. I think the important thing to say is, it's time for what baseball can do for the Olympic movement and not the other way around."
That is the kind of focus that the U.S. players appear to have as the Games are about to begin for them. All parties were enthralled to have the president drop in for what wound up being a longer visit than he had planned.
"The best thing is, it's exciting for the players, both teams, the coaches, to show that kind of interest in the game," Schiller said. "We didn't have to brief him on anyone. He knew the names, or he'd ask them. ... He stayed longer than he had planned. He was very thankful for the chance to do it. It was great for the volunteers, too."
Among the many photos Bush posed for was one for the ages: a group shot of the U.S. and China teams behind the batting cage. The White House press corps photographers had to step back far enough to get them all into the pictures. Those are the two nations that are expected to be battling for the most overall medals in these Olympics.
Bush -- currently in a tense diplomatic rift with Russia over that nation's sudden takeover of one of the capital cities in former Soviet satellite nation Georgia -- was followed by the White House press corps and did not speak to reporters. He seemed to love just talking baseball, and spent a while in the dugout asking various U.S. players where they went to college or high school.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be around the most important guy in the world like that," said U.S. trainer John Fierro, "but it was also nice just to see him relaxed. I'm sure he can't do much in that position. I asked one of the Secret Service guys and he said the president was loving this rare opportunity."
Fierro was taking some photos for people, and having a little trouble between the on-off switch and the shutter button.
"This guy's a little tech-challenged, isn't he?" Bush razzed in typical clubhouse humor.
"I've been called worse," Fierro replied.
"So have I," Bush came back, and there was a big round of laughter.
Bush knew all about U.S. manager Davey Johnson, general manager Bob Watson and hitting coach Reggie Smith, and he had his photo taken with each of them and their wives. Bush talked to Johnson's wife a bit about her boutique fashion business in Central Florida named Bella.
First Lady Laura Bush also was in attendance. Each time the president met someone on the U.S. team from his home state of Texas, he had to let her know about it. First he chatted with Rockies prospect Jayson Nix, whose offseason home is in Dallas and who attended Midland High School, the hometown of Laura.
"Laura, Midland High School here," Bush shouted.
Then he met Brett Anderson, who grew up in Midland.
"Laura, another from Midland here."
Anderson pitched five scoreless innings in the exhibition, striking out eight. Afterward, he said meeting Bush "was crazy, a really cool experience." Anderson's father Frank coached the University of Texas team during its 2002 College World Series title season, and they had that in common to discuss.
Nix had met the Bushes before the Opening Ceremony on Friday. Asked about seeing them again in this setting, he said:
"It's cool seeing them. It makes me feel like I'm talking to my mom back home."
Kevin Saucier is a scout for USA Baseball from Pensacola, Fla., and when Bush heard his thick Southern accent, he said, "Where you from, the swamps?"
"They were making fun of my accent -- it was once in a lifetime," Saucier said with a big smile. "[Bush] thought it was Louisiana."
Fellow USA Baseball scout Mike Larson said, "It was a thrill. What we consider the most powerful leader in the world, and you're shaking his hand."
Bush gathered the Chinese team and its manager, former Major Leaguer Jim Lefebvre, and addressed the players through an interpreter. Not uncommonly, MLB and the U.S. have built a foundation for baseball in China, starting four years ago and fostering an atmosphere that let the country develop to reach this point as an Olympic foe.
"You're pioneers," Bush told them. "You're teaching your country how to play a great sport. You're at the beginning of something we hope will take hold.
"When I was a little guy, I played baseball. I dreamed of being a Major Leaguer. Someday a Chinese player will be on one of the Major League teams because of what you are doing. Congratulations."
A precious moment occurred early in Bush's visit when a young female volunteer caught a foul ball along the third base stands. The sport is new to the Chinese, so baseball customs aren't known. What should she do with the ball?
All of a sudden, clear across the other side of the stands, the president of the United States America shouted, "Bring it over here!" Word gradually was carried around to her that she should walk over and have him sign the ball. He not only did that, but he then posed for several photos with her, and pretty much made her into a local legend among the other volunteers, who swarmed her when she returned to that side of the stadium, admiring the pictures.
"I told her, 'I want to [Photoshop] you out of the picture and put myself in it instead,'" said one of her fellow volunteers, speaking of the woman, who already had left the ballpark.
It was the last day before the Games begin for baseball. It also was an eventful one.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.