Reds' Opening Day: A powerful magnet for politicians over the years

Apr 5, 2015

Yes, this is a politics column.

That’s why it says “Politically Speaking,” right there in red, white and blue.

But let’s face it – tomorrow is Opening Day in Cincinnati, the beginning of another season of baseball for the game’s oldest professional team; and a holiday for those of us who love the game.

Not a day in this part of the world where your thoughts turn immediately to the ins-and-outs of politics.

Unless, that is, you happen to be running for office.

This is not to say that Cincinnati’s baseball holiday and politics do not intersect. They have, many times over the years.

Big baseball events attract politicians like flies to a picnic basket.

Some just pretend to be fans, because that’s the thing to do in Cincinnati on Opening Day.

Some of the politicians are real fans; people who genuinely love the game. I would place among that group both of Ohio’s U.S. Senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman, along with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who has shared season tickets with friends at both Riverfront Stadium and Great American Ball Park for decades.

Of the recent presidents, you’d have to put George W. Bush in that category. After all, he once headed the ownership group of the Texas Rangers. And he was the only sitting president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Cincinnati Reds Opening Day, on April 3, 2006. 

Bush strolled around through both clubhouses before the game – spending time with the visiting team, the Chicago Cubs, and the Reds.

Dusty Baker, later the Reds manager, was managing the Cubs then; and Bush asked Baker, “This is the year, right?” – a reference to the Cubs’ century of frustration, having not won a World Series since 1908.

In the Reds clubhouse, pitcher Kent Mercker pulled a Bush-Cheney hat out of his locker to show the president; and Ken Griffey Jr. gave Bush one of his bats.

His father, George H.W. Bush, clearly loved the game too – he was a star first baseman as a young man at Yale. The elder Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the first Opening Day game played at Great American Ball Park in 2003.

For some reason, I’ve run into a lot of people who believe that William Howard Taft, the only president from Cincinnati, threw out a ceremonial first pitch at a Reds game and was the first president to do so at a major league game.

Well, “no” to the former and “yes” to the latter.

Taft – who was a mighty fine amateur ballplayer himself growing up in Mount Auburn – never threw out a ceremonial first pitch for his hometown team – on Opening Day or any other time.

Records show that Taft, who was elected in 1908 and defeated in 1912, went to 14 major leagues ball games as president; and only one of them was in Cincinnati – a game between the Reds and the Phillies on May 7, 1912 at brand-new Redland Field, which later became known as Crosley Field. He saw the Reds lose that day, 8-5, but didn’t take part in any pre-game ceremonies.

Taft was, in fact, the first president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. It was on April 14, 1910 in Washington, D.C., a game between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics.

So Bush 43 was, in fact, the first sitting president to throw out the first pitch at a Reds’ Opening Day game. And the only one. Two years before he performed that duty in 2006, his vice president, Dick Cheney, tossed the first pitch; and in between the two of them was Portman, who was then a member of the U.S. House in 2005 – just a few weeks before he resigned his House seat to become Bush’s trade representative.

Bush would have been beaten by 25 years as the first president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Reds’ Opening Day had it not been for a terrible tragedy that took place eight days before the 1981 Opening Day.

President Reagan was scheduled to do it, but, on March 30, he was shot and seriously wounded outside a Washington hotel.

On Opening Day, people wondered who might throw out the first pitch with the president unable to attend. Right before the game started, an announcement came over the public address system at Riverfront Stadium.

“There can really be no appropriate relief pitcher for the president of the United States and we have decided that it is most appropriate in 1981 to have no ceremonial first pitch.”

The announcement was followed by a moment of silence. Then, Tom Seaver of the Reds took the mound to face the Phillies’ line-up and the game was on.

But probably the most memorable ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day by a politician didn’t involve a president, a former president, or a vice president.

It involved a Cincinnati mayor.

On April 2, 2007, before a full house at Great American Ball Park, then-mayor Mark Mallory uncorked this wild pitch, bewildering Reds Hall of Famer Eric Davis, who was nearly hit by the weird and wild throw.

Time magazine’s online edition last week did a story on the 10 worst ceremonial first pitches ever. Mallory made the list, along with the likes of 50 Cent, Mariah Carey and Miss Texas, Monique Evans.

But Mallory was a good sport about it; and has been poking fun at himself over his miscue for eight years now.

Tomorrow, when it comes time for the ceremonial first pitch, there will be no politicians in sight. The job is going to “The Nasty Boys” – Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton, the trifecta of relief pitchers – who helped the Reds win their most recent World Championship 25 years ago.

Something tells me that, even 25 years later, the Nasty Boys will still be able to get the ball up there. No Mallory pitches this year.