Why America needed Trump's first pitch

It would have been heartening to know that he's willing to step onto the mound, even when it's hard

It's time for Trump to step out of his bubble.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi )

On Aug. 18, 2006, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played the longest nine-inning game in Major League Baseball history — nearly five hours. But long before the game ended in the wee hours of Aug. 19, it began in the sunshine of a perfect baseball day at Fenway Park. A former first baseman, flanked by 9- and 10-year-old brain tumor patients, stepped up to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch.

The former first baseman was a sight to behold, all 236-or-so pounds of him tucked into his suit, over which he wore an unbuttoned Jimmy Fund cancer research Red Sox jersey. Once the self-proclaimed best "bball player" to break in his glove on the dusty schoolyard diamonds of New York City, the veteran player now squinted the distance to the catcher.

He wound up. And he let it rip.

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The force of his pitch made his corn-silk hair ruffle, his face contort, and his tie lash like an angry reptile's tongue. The ball launched from his hand, released by a network of muscles refined by the uncountable years of evolution that allow for a person to throw with enough force to kill. More than 38,000 fans in the stands followed the demonstration by rising to their feet to salute the flag for the "Star-Spangled Banner."

As it turns out now, it was Donald Trump's first and only ceremonial first pitch.

President Trump's new hometown field — Nationals Park in D.C. — invited him to throw the first pitch today when the Washington Nationals open their season against the Miami Marlins (incidentally, Trump's other hometown team). The White House has cited an unexplained "scheduling conflict" in declining the invitation.

There could not be a worse time for him to stay away.

Trump has strayed little from the safety of the bubble he has created for himself between the White House, his luxury resort Mar-a-Lago, and his own rallies. Many people have gone as far as to raise questions about Trump's grounding in reality; it's not particularly hard to imagine him as a cantankerous king of yesteryear asking his yes-man court to confirm he is wearing clothes. Trump has refused to accept the reality that his inauguration was not the biggest ever and, unable to deal with losing the popular vote, he imagines that millions of illegal voters must have snatched away his indisputable victory.

A baseball game is not a sanitized campaign rally full of supporters who would cheer wildly for anything Trump did, treating even a pitch that bounces in the dirt as if it was a perfect Clayton Kershaw slider. Baseball is the great American past time, complete with all the spit and dirt and bruises such an honor comes with — not to mention the hoots and hollers and heckling. Trump's absence, while not surprising, can be read as insulting: For a president who has promised to return the government to the people, Trump sure seems afraid of the people.

Every president since Ronald Reagan has stumbled through the semi-magical ceremony of throwing a first pitch during his first year in office (and Reagan was likely only kept away because he was shot on March 30, 1981, just before the season began). The tradition began with America's most unfit president, William Taft, who opened a game for the Washington Senators in 1910. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson continued the tradition while simultaneously becoming the first sitting president to attend a World Series game. Rabid baseball fan Franklin D. Roosevelt threw eight opening-day pitches during his time in office, more than any other president.

It is true that President Trump would almost certainly be booed — the D.C. metro area voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton — but that fact has not kept other presidents from making appearances on the mound. In 1931, prohibition President Herbert Hoover was reportedly assaulted by boos and shouts of "we want beer."

In America's darkest hours, baseball has been an escape and a glimmer of hope. Just a month after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush threw a perfect first pitch and for a single moment, the precise arc of the ball seemed like it could have buoyed the entire nation:

Trump's absence is made all the more conspicuous by the fact that he was reportedly very good at baseball in his youth. His former baseball coach told Rolling Stone that as a senior "we had scouts from the [Philadelphia] Phillies to watch him, but he wanted to go to college and make real money." A former classmate alleged Trump could throw 80 mph, and when playing catcher, Trump was unflinching in the face of speeding foul balls.

Trump even wrote a poem about baseball when he was 12, published in his yearbook:

I like to hear the crowd give cheers, so loud and noisy to my ears.When the score is 5-5, I feel like I could cry.And when they get another run, I feel like I could die.Then the catcher makes an error, not a bit like Yogi Berra.The game is over and we say tomorrow is another day. [The Washington Post]

Besides his own baseball history, as a showman and self-proclaimed outsider, Trump should presumably feel more at home in a ballpark than in the midst of an inaugural ball. Instead, he has chosen to stay away.

That's a shame. America in some small way needed Trump's first pitch today, be it as a moment of hilarious catharsis in a troubling time or as a confirmation that even if we might not agree with our leader, he is in fact willing to step onto the mound, including at times when it might be tough to do so. And just as America needed that pitch, Trump did too — as a moment of humble reflection, or as a reminder, with a glance to the stands, of who the people are that make America great.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.