The genius of the ceremonial first pitch is that it concisely combines things that Americans love:
2) Failure (known on the Internet as FAIL)
3) Celebrity FAIL
The ceremonial first pitch is one of the few ceremonial sports events that grab me every time. As a kid, I remembered making sure I was watching NBC at least five minutes before the Bulls tipped off in the Finals, because in the Finals, they always showed the starting lineups with that Allan Parsons Project song and the announcer that called Luc Longley “the man in the middle.”
I used to imagine being Bulls player and how fired up I would be after that. I did not consider that, for example, Scottie Pippen went through that routine roughly 460 times in his career, not including the playoffs, or that he was a grown man, and I was an 11-year-old boy. It probably affected him a little less than it affected me.
Nonetheless, I still find pregame introductions interesting. But that’s about it. I don’t care about coin flips or commemorations or jersey retirements.
But the ceremonial first pitch is something I can get behind. It always feels like it reveals something about the pitcher. There’s something so honest about it. You can’t fake anything with the first pitch. In their element, these celebrities and politicians are so smooth, so orchestrated, sometimes contrived. They have PR guys and publicists and agents. They reveal only what they want to reveal. They spin things. They brand themselves.
And then they step out there on the mound, and it’s all gone. There is no hiding. Either you can accurately throw a baseball 60 feet or you cannot. When Mark Wahlberg girls one up there, doesn’t that change your opinion of him just a little? Obviously, the result of the first pitch is entirely inconsequential. But that doesn’t stop it from feeling meaningful. Maybe this is a stupid thing for me to think, but I think you can tell a lot about a person by the way they throw a baseball. You can tell if they’re confident or insecure. You can tell if they’re rugged or pampered. If they’ve never played a sport in their life, you can definitely tell that.
Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory:
What you can tell: Mallory has never thrown a baseball to anybody before. He might not have ever thrown anything, period.
What you can tell: Mangino used to play baseball. Good form. Accurate throw. Didn’t bloop it. But not standing on the rubber indicates he wasn’t completely sure he wasn’t going to mess it up.
And then there’s this link to the worst seven first pitches off all time, which demonstrates, among other things, that Carl Lewis has some kind of pathological need to humiliate himself in public.
Which brings us to George W. Bush vs. Barack Obama®. Now, as we sit here waiting for Change© and worrying about what the Swiss think of us, we’ll make little comment on the success or failure of the two men’s presidencies, but only on their ceremonial first pitches.
Obviously, Bush is the better baseball player, which shouldn’t be surprising. I think Bush would defeat almost any other President in U.S. history (except Teddy Rosevelt, obviously) in any feat of Americana. I mean, is there any doubt Bush can shoot skeet better than anybody you know? How many times during his presidency did someone walk into the Oval Office and find him arm wrestling with Donald Rumsfeld? Of course he can throw a baseball.
But I think it’s important to note how much pressure he was under. This was the first game played in New York after September 11. He’s in Yankee Stadium and everybody is just dying for something inspirational to happen. It’s easy to forget this, now, but people were looking for anything at that point. Nothing was normal. I think the confusion and despair was best expressed, actually, by David Letterman in a painful monologue six days after the attacks.
So that’s how fresh everything still was. One day after that, Bush is standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium wearing more kevlar than 50 Cent. And they hand him the ball. And he’s the leader of the free world. And his country, for all anyone knows, could be headed into World War III. And 40,000 New Yorkers are desperate for something to cheer about. He absolutely cannot bury one in the dirt.
And he didn’t. Shot one right down the middle. And the 40,000 desperate New Yorkers started chanting “USA! USA!”
As with all ceremonial first pitches, the outcome was of no real consequence, yet it still felt meaningful, didn’t it? It’s too bad he didn’t handle the next seven years as masterfully as he did that pitch at Yankee Stadium. Which is why we shouldn’t draw any conclusions, even metaphorical ones, about Obama’s pitch.
Still, it sure would have been nice to seem him get it there.