This President’s Day, we remember perhaps the most memorable presidential baseball moment the country has ever seen.
Today, we celebrate President’s Day, which one may not think has much to do with Major League Baseball. On the contrary, however; Presidents have been linked to the National Pastime seemingly forever. Ceremonial first pitches have been thrown by several presidents dating back decades. President George W. Bush once owned part of the Texas Rangers, and is still a regular at their home games. It’s he that I remember most when it comes to baseball and our Commanders in Chief.
First and foremost, this is not a political column. I won’t be sharing my thoughts on Bush’s policies or his presidency, and I don’t care much for anyone else’s. I’m hoping the comments section of this very column doesn’t become a dumping ground for political discussion, because that’s not what this is about. Instead, it’s about the single most memorable presidential baseball moment at least of my lifetime, and possibly in the history of the game.
George W. Bush’s first pitch before Game Three of the 2001 World Series will always be the greatest presidential baseball moment I’ve ever seen. I was young at the time – still a couple months shy of my eleventh birthday – but I remember it vividly. Of course, my understanding of the moment then – and the series of events that led to it – were less than complete. Something with the gravity of the September 11th attacks is a lot for any person to digest, let alone a fifth grader, but that shouldn’t make my memories of the event any less special.
Going into Game Three, the Yankees trailed the Diamondbacks, 2-0, after fairly lopsided contests in Arizona. While the Yankees won Game Three, 2-1, and eventually took a 3-2 series lead only to lose in seven games, I feel none of that matters for the purposes of this moment. For that brief moment before the game, it didn’t matter who was playing, who you were rooting for, or even whether you were a baseball fan or not. All that mattered was where the game was being played, and the man who threw the first pitch.
Game Three of the 2001 World Series took place on October 30, 2001 – only 49 days after the city of New York was devastated by the attacks of September 11th. Major League Baseball was barely getting back to everyday life after a break in action which delayed the beginning of the World Series, hence Game Three taking place the day before Halloween.
President Bush’s first pitch was historic for several reasons, many of which had nothing to do with the circumstances surrounding the game. Bush became the first sitting president to throw the first pitch in a World Series game since Eisenhower in 1956. Bush also threw the pitch from the mound, something few who throw a ceremonial pitch do; most tend to throw from several feet in front of the hill. In later interviews, Bush has said it was Derek Jeter of all people who convinced him to do so.
With chants of “USA! USA!” ringing through Yankee Stadium, President Bush came out donning an FDNY fleece. His bullet-proof vest was easily recognizable beneath the slim-fitting jacket, somehow giving the moment added depth. While it certainly isn’t unusual for a sitting President to protect himself in public, the idea of the leader of a country fresh off an attack standing in front of 60,000 people with his own life at least theoretically in danger just meant something almost indescribable. It was the President of the United States saying to not only New York, but to the rest of the country and the world watching, “I’m here. I’m with you. We’re back.” To top it all off, he threw a perfect strike.
Everything about it was perfect, while remaining understated. The wave to the crowd, the thumbs up, the perfect strike. It was all perfect. It was all so reassuring; you could feel the city and the country coming together. Much like Mike Piazza’s home run at Shea Stadium only a few weeks earlier, the moment was bigger than baseball, while simultaneously being only about baseball, all while contradictorily having nothing to do with baseball. It was, at once, a return to the norm while being in no way normal. It was a celebration of the mundane, because less than two months after 9/11, the country – and especially the city of New York – needed the mundane. The President of the United States throwing the first pitch at the World Series would normally just be a cool moment before an important baseball game. That day, it was the important event, at least for a few minutes. Then, when it was all said and done, they played a baseball game, which is perhaps even more important.
Later, after he had the benefit of hindsight, Bush told TIME, “It was the most nervous I had ever been…It was the most nervous moment of my entire presidency.” Here was the President, the most powerful man in the free world, a man who made decisions on war and crime and education and trade, and the most nervous he’d ever been was throwing a baseball. That’s how important the moment was to him, and I don’t think a single person watching that night could argue.
On this President’s Day, that’s what I remember. That for one moment, one night, in October 2001, it didn’t matter who the President was. All that mattered was that he was there for his country, and the city that needed him most. And he threw a perfect strike.