Politics & Government

When the batter's box meets the ballot box

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wears two hats.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wears two hats. Chris Ware / Lexington Herald-Leader

For tens of millions of normal Americans, the start of the baseball playoffs in the crisp autumn air is a joyous time to cheer for their favorite team.

Not for some politicians, however.

For a calculating politician, the various matchups offer not a chance to root, root, root for the home team, but a minefield of conflicting constituencies, an ominous time when choosing the wrong side might offend someone on the other side.

Consider poor Hillary Clinton.

Reared in a northwestern suburb of Chicago, she grew up a Cubs fan.

But when she moved to New York to run for the Senate, she revealed she'd always rooted for the Yankees as her favorite in the other league.

That was easy enough. Until now. The Cubs are in the National League playoffs and the Yankees are in the American League playoffs. There's a chance they could face each other in the World Series.

What, oh what, would Clinton do?

"I'd be really in trouble," she said with a laugh when asked about just such a doomsday scenario during a recent presidential debate."I would probably have to alternate sides."

So after the Series, she could say she was for the Cubs before she was against them.

She's not alone. A lot of presidential candidates tend to discover their fondness for the Boston Red Sox as they start campaigning for the New Hampshire primary deep in Red Sox territory, especially if given a choice between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Not all politicians bend in the wind with the latest pennant. Real fans have it easier.

"I was raised in Scranton, Pa.," said Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. "If you weren't a Yankees fan, you didn't eat."

"I'm a White Sox fan all the way," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

There is, of course, the possibility that those who struggle with baseball are not so much calculating as they are covering up the fact that they're not real baseball fans.

Baseball is so ingrained in the American tradition and so closely tied to presidents that it would take more than courage for a candidate to simply say they don't really follow the sport.

After all, presidents since William Howard Taft have gone to throw out the first pitch of the baseball season, eager to be identified with the sport. How many have gone to kick off the first ball of the football season? How many have dropped the first puck of the opening face-off of the hockey season?

But faced with a question about baseball, all politicians feel compelled to choose sides - even if they haven't a clue.

Take the 2000 campaign, when reporters for Newsday asked Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore which team they'd root for in the World Series - the New York Yankees or New York Mets. Both answered: The New York team.

Yet when asked to say what they thought of baseball's designated hitter rule - always certain to ignite passions at your neighborhood sports bar - the candidates offered very different responses.

"I'm for wooden bats, natural grass and no DH," said Bush, a lifelong baseball fan and former co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

"Well, I haven't really given it a lot of considered thought," the long-winded Gore said after a long pause to ponder the question in all-too-characteristic fashion.

"I'm tempted to take the purist view that it's, you know, a dilution of the pure game. But I don't know enough about the reasons for it to make a harsh critique. Based on what I know at this point, I'm not in favor of it."