Sports Nut

Bush League

It’s the opening week of baseball season, which means it must be time for George Will and his ilk to spew about the pristine majesty of “our national pastime.” This year’s bloviation is even worse than usual, because it includes hoo-ha from a newly prominent and all-too-powerful fan: President George W. Bush.

The president announced last week that he is undertaking a four-year campaign “to help revitalize America’s pastime.” He will visit minor- and major-league ballparks and even drop by a Little League game now and then. And he is turning the South Lawn of the White House into a tee-ball field. Starting in a few weeks, school kids from across the country will play in what the Wall Street Journal describes as a “lengthy series” of tee-ball games. The kids will be coached by—I am not making this up—Cabinet officials and other top aides. Celebrities will be trucked in to sing the national anthem. (Tee-ball is notable for being the only American sport more tedious than baseball.)

The tee-ball scheme reeks of banana republic politics. It’s embarrassing to have the leader of the free world whiling away his days watching tot tee-ball and exhorting Manager/Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to put in a pinch-hitter. (It conjures up images of Idi Amin or some other tin-pot dictator ordering his ministers to wrestle for him.)

But the baseball initiative is not merely embarrassing. It’s wrong. It runs counter to the president’s own avowed belief in free markets. The president shouldn’t use the power of his office—not to mention tax dollars, which will fund the tee-ball tourney—to undertake a public relations campaign for his favorite sport. Let baseball rise or fall on its own. If Americans don’t like squandering four perfectly good hours watching nine men stand around in a field, then it’s not the president’s job to tell them they should. (“Do you really want a bunch of government bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., telling you what sport you should watch?”) Bush has assigned the baseball revival to his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. This is fitting. It will take divine intervention to make baseball supplant basketball and football in the American consciousness, and even God’s best effort might not be enough unless Mark McGwire can hit 80 dingers this year.

The Bush baseball initiative also constitutes an ugly conflict of interest. Imagine that the president launched a special, four-year public relations campaign on behalf of the oil industry, placed government-sponsored oil wells on the South Lawn, and ordered the White House to draw its power from oil plants instead of hydroelectric ones. The press would go crazy. Rival coal, hydroelectric, nuclear, and alternative power industries would be justifiably incensed at the presidential meddling.

Bush has put out an unassailable front: bucolic photos of tots whaling at a tee-ball in the backyard of the White House, warm crackerjack shots of the president catching a day game at Wrigley. But this only masks the essential sleaziness of what he is doing, namely, giving an enormous favor to the industry that gave him his fortune. In 1989, Bush got a sweetheart deal to purchase a chunk of the Texas Rangers for $600,000. After he ran the team for a few years, he sold out for $15 million. Now he’s paying back Bud Selig and crew with a PR campaign that favors their multibillion-dollar sports industry over equally worthy rivals (football, basketball, hockey …).

The NFL, NBA, and NHL don’t dare gripe about the presidential baseball initiative. If they did, President Bush could smile his lopsided grin and say, “C’mon fellas, it’s only a game.” But he’s got $14.4 million that says it’s big business, not a game. Baseball doesn’t need presidential largess and doesn’t deserve it.