BUSH opens the playing field to Little Leaguers

Monday, May 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – In some ways, Sunday was a typical day at the White House: lots of people running around in all directions, trying to avoid errors.

But at least these political players had the excuse of being 4 to 8 years old.

The Satchel Paige Little League Memphis Red Sox and the Capitol City Little League Rockies took to the South Lawn, leading off what aides to President Bush called his White House "T-ball initiative."

"It was breathtaking," Michael Stewart said after watching his son play in the back yard of the world's most-famous residence. "It was unbelievable enough to take a tour of the White House."

His son Jalen, 7, the Red Sox first baseman, took things in stride, saying the best part was the chalk-lined carpet of grass tucked into a clump of trees.

"There's no dirt," Jalen said.

When Rockies first basewoman Kate McDonough was asked the best thing about playing before the president, the 6-year-old muttered words rarely heard at the White House or anywhere else in the nation's capital: "I don't know."

An estimated 2.2 million kids across the globe – about 35 percent of them girls – play T-ball, which is designed to teach the fundamentals of hitting and fielding.

There are no pitchers in the game. Instead, the pint-size players hit the ball after it is placed on a stand, or tee.

In Sunday's game, each team member got one turn at bat and no formal score was kept.

Reporters covering the event did project an 8-4 triumph by the Red Sox, notwithstanding how well the media counted on election night.

The president, former co-owner of the Texas Rangers and stickball commissioner during his prep school days at Andover, has scheduled a series of White House T-ball games.

The first Little Leaguer to ever become president, Mr. Bush is hoping to revive interest in a national pastime beset with financial and competitive problems at the major league level.

For this opening game, the president invited a bona fide major league star – injured shortstop Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox.

"Nomar played Little League – I played Little League," Mr. Bush said. "I peaked and he didn't."

As White House cooks grilled hot dogs and the smoke wafted across the diamond, parents and siblings cheered from makeshift bleachers hauled out of White House storage. The stands were festooned with red-white-and-blue bunting, as was the outfield fence that was 110 feet away to center field.

There were other major differences to this T-ball tilt.

A four-piece military jazz band played tunes such as "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."

The San Diego Chicken, the prototype of those ubiquitous team mascots, offered cheers and high-fives to team members.

All the while, armed Secret Service guards, clad in black, patrolled the perimeter. The Secret Service helped lay out the site, which was hard to see from the street running behind the White House grounds.

Mr. Bush, who viewed Rangers games from the front row, sat about five rows up for T-ball, signing autographs and chatting with wife Laura and nephew George P. Bush.

This was probably the first ballgame ever televised by C-SPAN. Sportscaster Bob Costas, author of a recent book on the troubles of big league baseball, provided commentary on Sunday's smaller version.

Using information sheets filled out by the players, Mr. Costas noted that one "loves hot dogs, reading, and the show Sister, Sister ."

After Daniel Allen, a right fielder for the Rockies, speared a line drive, Mr. Costas called it "the best play seen in Washington since the Senators left town" – moving to Texas, where they became the Rangers.

The struggling Rangers, having just changed managers, came in for grief from Mr. Costas, who said jokingly that he and Mr. Bush agreed that T-ball may be the solution to the team's woes.

"They've got plenty of hitting and no pitching this year," Mr. Costas said.

When Quintin Thomas Jr. of the little Red Sox came to bat, Mr. Costas described him as "a very practical young man."

"When asked why he liked baseball, he said, 'Because it allowed me to meet the president,'" Mr. Costas said.

The young man's coach, Quintin Thomas Sr., said he and the players seemed to forget the hoopla once the action started.

"I was so proud of them," Mr. Thomas said, "They gave 110 percent."

When asked to name their favorite player, several of the T-ballers listed Jackie Robinson, who broke the major leaguer color barrier in 1947.

Inasmuch as baseball is built on statistics and history, it should be noted that the man who hired Mr. Robinson – Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey – is also credited with inventing the batting tee.

Applications are flooding in from across the country for upcoming T-ball contests.

Bush adviser Karen Hughes said the games are reminders that the Bushes are temporary occupants of the White House, which she said "belongs to the people."

"This is a way of opening it to the people in a way that celebrates family and celebrates teamwork and sports," Ms. Hughes said.

And besides, "in T-ball, you don't break any windows."