Barack Obama: What a pitcher!

It's Obama's turn to throw the pitch that ushers in the baseball season. But can he match his predecessor at the mound?
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The Independent US

He stays cool under pressure, but President Barack Obama will be forgiven a twinge or two of anxiety when he strides into Nationals Park in Washington DC today to perform one of the most sacred rituals of the Easter holiday: throwing out the ceremonial pitch of the new baseball season.

The future of the nation may not be in play but make no mistake, the pressure will be on. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of this most American of traditions – president William Taft first did the honours in 1910 – and no president wants to pitch a ball that falls short or goes badly off course. Heaven forfend Obama's ball does an FDR, for instance, and smashes the camera of a newspaper photographer.

Even before he heads for the mound – the spot on the baseball diamond where the pitcher winds up to send the ball flying – Mr Obama will be unsure of the welcome he should expect. George W Bush attracted a few boos in the same stadium in 2008 when his approval ratings were lower than a long hop, and there is no escaping that Republicans enjoy baseball just as much as Democrats.

"You always know you're going to get some boos, because at any ballpark the likelihood you're going to get a 50-50 audience politically is a given," said Mike McCurry, the former press secretary to president Bill Clinton.

And a lot of the country will be watching. "It may be traditional," Paul Dickson, a baseball historian, observed, "but it may also be when the rubber hits the road. I'm sure there are some who might want to go in and boo President Obama, but he's a big guy."

Nor does Mr Obama have the advantage of experience. He should have thrown the presidential pitch at the start of the 2009 season, but missed the occasion on account of a small gathering in a Docklands conference centre called the G20 Summit. He sent Joe Biden, the Vice-President, in his place.

No wonder, then, that he has been mumbling excuses. "I did not play organised baseball when I was a kid, and so, you know, I think some of these natural moves aren't so natural to me," Mr Obama let us know the other day. An athlete who has demonstrated his talent for basketball, he has apparently been taking the challenge seriously enough to indulge in some secret pitching practice in the Rose Garden.

Not turning up was never under consideration. The only president never to have obliged the fans with a first pitch was Jimmy Carter, for reasons only he could disclose. Mr Bush, in spite of those boos, savoured the opportunity as a former owner of one of the country's best-known teams, the Texas Rangers.

In 2001, he threw a near-perfect first pitch in Yankee Stadium, not at the start of the season but during the World Series, just a few weeks after the 11 September attacksm in New York."He threw hard and threw like a baseball player," Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman later recalled. "He took a lot of pride in it."

It's not often that Mr Obama finds himself trying to rise to a standard set by Mr Bush in matters of great national import. (It is the national pastime, after all). But today he will be doing just that.