ST. LOUIS – There was no umpire behind the plate to call it, but it was a strike. No doubt about it.
President Bush strode confidently to the Busch Stadium pitcher’s mound, waving to the crowd all the way and taking care not to step on the first base line, in keeping with an old baseball superstition, and wasted no time throwing a strike over the inside corner.
No bounces. Mike Matheny, the St. Louis Cardinals catcher, didn’t have to stretch for it. The pitch was on the money.
That’s the best way to describe the most anticipated pitch of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Opening Day.
“He threw it right there,” Matheny said. “It was a nice pitch. He’s got baseball in his blood, so I expected that.”
Bush delivered the ceremonial first pitch before the Cardinals’ opening day game, an 8-6 loss against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday, in a move that was likely made in part because Missouri is a much-needed swing state in the November presidential election.
The bulk of the sellout crowd of 49,149 rose to its feet long before the president took the field, growing increasingly restless while an enormous American flag was unfurled in center field and waiting through the national anthem before getting a glimpse of Bush.
When Bush finally emerged from the Cardinals’ dugout sporting a red Cardinals jacket, the crowd greeted him with a mixture of cheers and boos, but when he fired a strike to Matheny, the cheers won out.
The cheers grew louder when Bush stepped off the mound, shook Matheny’s hand and made a beeline for Cardinals legends Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock. Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A,” soon followed, while Bush stood in front of the Cardinals’ dugout for an interview with Fox Sports Net.
The cheers for Bush weren’t the loudest of the day, though. When left fielder Ray Lankford strode to the plate for his first at-bat in a Cardinals uniform since being traded to San Diego in July 2001, the deafening cheers might have made Lankford think about running for office. First baseman Albert Pujols received a comparable ovation before his first at-bat.
Bush, who was once a co-owner of the Texas Rangers, hung around for the first five innings, munching on nachos in a private box and taking in a perfect day at the ballpark, an unorthodox campaign stop and a welcomed break from criticisms of the United States’ situation in Iraq.
Bush joined Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon in the booth during the fifth inning, recalling his days with the Rangers, his first game at the Polo Grounds in New York and the pitch.
“I was a little shaky out there,” Bush said.
Bush’s pitch didn’t show his shakiness, though, and the slugfest that ensued indicated the Cardinals could have used Bush for a couple of innings of relief work. The Cardinals’ called on the bullpen after starter Matt Morris gave up seven runs in six innings.
Three Cardinals relievers provided three innings of solid pitching, but the absence of incident provided even greater relief. The president’s visit went off without a hitch thanks to staunch security. Snipers were interspersed around the top of Busch Stadium, and there were enough Secret Service agents on hand to field several teams of their own. The elevators were locked down, and fans lined up for more than an hour to get into the stadium through one of two open gates.
In St. Louis, the overarching idea was to forget about politics and war for one day. This day was about baseball.