“You aren’t throwing strikes,” a coach once told me, “because you don’t want to throw strikes. You’re scared they’re going to hit them.” The subtext was that you can only drill so many 9-year-olds in the head. After the 10th beaning, you have to drag that dream behind the barn and shoot it. But 24 years later, the central wisdom is what shines through: Pitching is mental.
Which might make you wonder about the mentality of No. 44. The view from the centerfield seats at Nationals Park on April 5 didn’t reveal anything the cameras missed: the president’s Opening Day first pitch was, per the Bob Uecker in your head, juuuuuust a bit outside. Garrett Mock heaved a sigh of relief as any hopes the Nationals had of finding a new fifth starter vanished.
It wasn’t a total disaster. He threw from the rubber, which is a show of strength to the baseball-loving dictators of the world. He sported a White Sox cap, and loyalty breeds respect. (To baseball teams, at least. I’m looking at you, secretary of State.) He upheld a 100-year-old presidential tradition, harking back to our most ball-shaped president, William Howard Taft.
But essentially, we saw a physical specimen in his late 40s—negative for Steve Blass disease at his last physical—unable to throw a baseball 60 feet in a straight line. It’s harder than it looks, but somehow my dad, in his mid 60s with 43 bulging disks and two bad knees, manages to do it, sometimes while smoking. Admittedly, my dad doesn’t do it in front of 40,000 fans and a national television audience, but then again, my dad never got to work on stage fright issues by speaking to 200,000 screaming Germans. Objectively speaking, the president honked it.
Worse, he honked it playing baseball, which was invented by Alexander Cartwright in 1845 primarily for use as a metaphor. Obama balked three times, was way left of center and higher than expected. The pop you heard wasn’t the ball hitting the glove. It was the heads of 5,000 conservative bloggers simultaneously exploding in delight. For the love of Mitch Williams, why won’t the president throw strikes?
Well, probably because he doesn’t want to.
Some presidents do. At James K. Polk’s ancestral Tennessee home, they bill him as the only POTUS to fulfill all his campaign promises: tacking Oregon, Texas and California onto America; something about banking; and making middle initials and mullets fashionable for all. He pledged to serve just one term, so figurative strikes were necessary—"Said what he intended to do and did it," noted Harry Truman, because you can’t start and finish a war with Mexico in four years throwing eephus pitches to the outside. He dropped dead about 100 days after leaving office, because throwing strikes can be exhausting.
There are classic power pitchers. FDR was practically Sidd Finch in the first 100 days of his presidency; LBJ had similar success with the Great Society. They had clear visions and the GOP equivalents of Mario Mendoza at the plate, so why not put some mustard on it? With that kind of strength, make all your pitches right down the middle— demand exactly what you want—and you’ll probably win.
Without a favorable matchup, though, throwing strikes can be a disaster for the pitcher. Woodrow “Doc” Wilson was an avid fan of the Washington Senators, as they were the only Senators who didn’t cause him a crippling stroke. Wilson refused to compromise his vision for the League of Nations, thinking it a moral issue; he threw the exact same hittable strike at a tough, Republican-controlled U.S. Senate over and over. He lost the game (the United States never joined), he lost the public, and his intense effort probably caused his brain to get caught in a rundown in late 1919.
There are competing dilemmas here. If you telegraph your pitches, any half-decent opponent is going to make you pay for it. But throw anything other than what you promised, and your voters—the foaming Little League parents who ferried you to the game in their minivan—go ballistic. “Throw strikes,” they’ll scream. “No ice cream if you don’t throw strikes!” And then they’ll try to choke some other dad who’s whispering by the snack bar that you throw like a girl. That’s a lot of pressure.
The best you can do is play to the situation. George W. Bush stepped to the mound in Yankee Stadium in 2001, before the third game of the first post-9/11 World Series. In a truly electric moment, he rifled a strike—exactly what you’d expect from a guy who owned a baseball team, but also from a president who went on to stake his reputation on pitches right down Broadway. This is what I want, and I’m gonna try to blow it right by you. He wanted to throw strikes, literally and figuratively, so he did.
After some initial successes, he got shellacked. As Obama was waiting for his moment April 5, clips of Bush throwing textbook first pitches played on the scoreboard. Most of Nationals Park booed.
You have to think that No. 44, even with all his grand promises, takes that stuff to heart. Remember Hillarycare? A mid-70s fastball right down the chute. It got crushed. Obamacare was an excruciating sequence of slop pitches and foul balls. The target kept moving with the circumstances. Love it or hate it, it’s law. Mentally, he’s calculating that strikes would be a mistake, and it’s carrying over to his physical game.
Or maybe he’s just a spaz, but that’s only a two-minute conversation. And turning a two-minute conversation into a two-hour conversation—shoehorning universal truths into the flimsiest evidence—is what baseball and politics are all about. Play ball.