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Patrick Hruby

Hail to the Chiefs

The nation's capital has two obsessions: The race for the White House and the race for the NL pennant

Sports on Earth
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The question caught Wolf Blitzer off guard.

Which, at this point, is no small thing.

Over four decades as a reporter and television anchor, Blitzer has visited KGB headquarters. Served as a backchannel during Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations. Covered the Constitutional-cum-dry-cleaning debacle of MonicaGate. Moderated presidential debates featuring Rick Perry and Herman Cain. Invited Twitter shock and awe with his recent adoption of hipster glasses.

In short, if the 64-year-old newsman hasn’t seen it all, he has come awfully close.

Last week, however, he found himself at dinner, sitting next to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. At the same time, the Washington Nationals were playing the second game of a doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers, closing in on a postseason berth. Now, Blitzer is a fan. A serious fan. A guy who makes non-schmoozing use of the CNN suite at Nationals Park, who has given the club on-air shoutouts, who went to Florida for the first day of spring training, who has producers feed him Stephen Strasburg updates in his “Situation Room” earpiece. And so he was thumbing his Blackberry, getting a quick fix, assuming that his table companions had other, more important things to worry about -- like, for instance, being the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Out of the blue, Sibelius spoke up.

“She asks me, ‘Hey, what’s the Nationals score?’” Blitzer says, incredulous. “Here I am, sitting next to a cabinet secretary, the former governor of Kansas, and I’m looking up what’s going on in the top of the fifth.”

Blitzer laughs.

“It only goes to show you that people in this town love a winner.”

Every town loves a successful sports franchise. Washington self-identifies with them. After all, this is a city of former class presidents. Of climbers and strivers. A place -- to paraphrase Sean Connery in “The Rock” -- where losers whine about their backstabbing campaign managers and winners go home to the White House. Every four years, the nation’s capital is consumed by the race for the presidency. For the first time since 1933, the Nationals have given journalists, pundits and politicians alike a second pennant chase to obsess over.

Washington is finally experiencing meaningful late-season baseball. In fact, with the Nationals already in the playoffs and attempting to hold off late-charging Atlanta for an actual division title, locals have some new and unexpected choices to make.

CNN … or ESPN?

Politico … or The Washington Post and Times sports pages?

Wake up and check the latest tracking polls … or pour some coffee and check the standings?

“It used to be that in late August and September, you wouldn’t find anyone at Nationals Park on the weekend because people were watching college football and the NFL,” says Luke Russert, a Nationals fan and Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News. “But it’s amazing how the Nationals have gripped the town. Everyone is watching. It’s a bipartisan success story.

“It’s funny looking over my October schedule. A lot of it was made a few months ago, never expecting that I would ever have to move things around for a NLCS. That’s usually when we go out and cover Congressional races. I think you’ll see a lot of political reporters trying to cover things in Virginia this time around.”

Two nights before the start of the recent Democratic National Convention, Democratic strategists Paul Begala and James Carville met Bloomberg News Washington bureau chief Al Hunt for dinner in Charlotte. Drinks were plentiful. Conversation flowed. Late became later.

The trio -- campaign junkies to the core -- barely discussed the upcoming election.

“There was much more talk of Strasburg, [Bryce] Harper and Gio [Gonzalez] than of [Presidents] Obama and Clinton,” Hunt says. “I’ve lived in Washington for a long time. And this is a pretty new experience. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s a totally new experience. I bet I’ve been to 20 regular-season games this year. I’ll go to all of the playoff games.”

Hold up. All of them? Isn’t October, um, kind of a busy political month?

“If we get in the World Series, and there’s a presidential debate one night, do I go to the World Series game or watch the debate?” Hunt says.

“That will be a real moral challenge.”

* * *

A little less than two weeks ago, Hunt faced a different sort of challenge. The Nationals had just been swept by the Braves, trimming their division lead to 5 ½ games.

Hunt lives and dies with the team. Calls himself a nut. A wacko. He moved to the District in 1969. The Washington Senators moved to Texas in 1972. He spent three decades pining for a team, nearly gave up hope. He was there for Strasburg’s 14-strikeout big league debut, a night he dubs “magical.” On mornings after a loss, Hunt won’t read the Post sports section. Can’t bear to look at it. Once, while moderating a political panel -- Hunt won’t name the participants, probably because they might get mad -- he started playing around with his iPhone.

Afterward, one of the panelists approached him.

Hey, Al, is something big going on politically?

“I said, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Hunt recalls. “Bull[expletive]. I was checking the Nats score.”

So … the Atlanta series. Hunt was despondent. Afraid that Washington would blow the division. He has faith in Nationals manager Davey Johnson. But he also grew up in Philadelphia, and has never, ever gotten over the 1964 Phillies, whose epochal gag job -- blowing a 6 ½ game lead with 12 games to play by losing 10 straight -- remains fresh. Still painful. A haunting nightmare, he calls it.

Seeking solace, Hunt rang up a friend, Walter.

“He told me, ‘You pretend that we were only 2 ½ games up, and then we went to Atlanta and swept the series,’” Hunt says.

Walter is a fellow nut. He also is Walter Dellinger, the former Solicitor General of the United States, a man who argues cases before the Supreme Court for a living.

Washington long has been slagged for being a front-running sports town, full of transient fans and sunshine patriots. The reputation is somewhat deserved: See President Obama, tossing out a ceremonial first pitch for Washington’s 2010 home opener, wearing a Nationals jacket and a Chicago White Sox cap. No. No. A thousand times no. Not the kind of bipartisanship the electorate was looking for. Still, Hunt and Dellinger are hardly outliers. The Nationals have genuine fans, many of them political movers and shakers.

This season alone, Nationals Park has hosted Vice President Joe Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, eight cabinet secretaries and five Supreme Court justices. (Not among them? Justice Samuel Alito, who according to sources is a devoted Phillies fan.) Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) is a Nationals supporter, as is Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT). Among the Beltway press, backers include NBC’s Russert and David Gregory, CNN’s Begala and Carville (the latter even threw out a first pitch), Politico’s Mike Allen and ABC News senior political correspondent Jon Karl, and syndicated columnists Charles Krauthammer and George Will. Before his 2009 death, conservative commentator Bob Novak -- charmingly referred to as “The Prince of Darkness,” a nickname he later appropriated for the title of his autobiography -- used to attend games at RFK Stadium his wife, Geraldine. She kept score by hand.

“You know who is a real secret fan and goes incognito to games?” Hunt says. “Ben Bernanke. He goes to a bunch of games, in a baseball cap and jeans. You can barely recognize him.”

Bernanke isn’t the first Chairman of the Federal Reserve to enjoy baseball. His predecessor, Alan Greenspan, is a fan. The former economic oracle is good friends with Hunt, too, so much so that their respective families sometimes spend Christmas together. A few years ago, Hunt gave his son, Benjamin, a painting of Willie Mays making his famous over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series. The boy was 8 years old. He turned to Greenspan.

“What was the greatest catch?” the boy asked.

Greenspan pondered the question.

“The greatest catch was Mays in the ’54 World Series,” he replied. “But you have to understand that equipment is better now. So you’d have to call Mays’ catch ‘equipmentally adjusted.’”

“My son looks at Greenspan like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” Hunt recalls. “But that’s Alan. He talks in Greenspan-ese.”

The Senate Finance Committee undoubtedly can relate.

“I took Alan to a game at RFK once,” Hunt says. “Good seats. Behind third base. Some drunk guy was sitting behind us.”

Hunt laughs.

“So, Greenspan is the Chairman of the Fed, in charge of interest rates, and the guy behind us isn’t even paying attention to the game. He’s just yelling, “keep ‘em low, Alan! Keep ‘em low!”

* * *

George Will is on the phone, talking about the Nationals. And also writing a column. And also watching a game, the Detroit Tigers against the White Sox.

This, he says, is par for the course.

“Following politics doesn’t get in the way of following the Nats,” says Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist and the author of two best-selling books about baseball. “I only write about politics to support my baseball habit. If you can’t multitask, give up the politics.”

With baseball and politics both in high gear, Washington fans are becoming adept at dealing with more than one thing at once. At the Republican and Democratic conventions, Blitzer anchored his network’s coverage from 4 p.m. to midnight. Commercial breaks were 2 ½ minutes long -- just enough time to check scores on his laptop. And sometimes go to the bathroom. Krauthammer appears on Bret Baier’s nightly Fox News Channel show from 6-7 p.m. According to Will, the commentator then “hops in his van” and drives down South Capitol Street to Nationals Park. “He’s there by the middle of the second inning,” Will says. “He’s going to games a lot.” Russert didn’t cover the Democratic convention, so he went to a concurrent Nationals home stand against the Chicago Cubs.

“I left early enough to get home to watch the major speeches, Clinton and President Obama,” he says. “At the games, I was watching the clock. Watching the innings.”

Brian Frederick considers himself lucky. A Nationals fan, he also is the executive director of the Sports Fans Coalition, a Washington-based fan advocacy organization that has lobbied for issues such as instituting a major college football playoff and ending NFL blackouts. “So it’s my job to go to Nationals Park, check things out, see how fans are doing,” Frederick says with a grin.

Alas, Frederick’s work-life flexibility only goes so far. He’ll be marrying his fiancée, Carolyn, in October. Assuming the Nationals win the NL East, their first home playoff game will be on Oct. 9.

Something had to give.

“That’s why we’re getting married on Oct. 6,” he says. “And also why we’re not going on a honeymoon right away. I probably shouldn’t put that in print. But it’s true. My poor fiancée.”

* * *

When it comes to sports, politicians are notorious bandwagon jumpers.

It often shows. While running for the White House, John Kerry once said his favorite Red Sox player was Manny Ortiz, who was either a mangled mashup of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, or a CPU-generated draft pick in an XBox baseball game. Similarly, Boston Mayor Joe Quimby Thomas Menino once referred to the unforgettable moment when Jason Varitek “split the uprights” to give the New England Patriots a Super Bowl victory -- never mind that Varitek played for the Red Sox, presumably alongside Manny Ortiz.

Rep. Steve Cohen would never make such a mistake. A Nationals fan since the team moved here from Montreal in 2005, the Tennessee Congressman comes by his affection for the sport the old-fashioned way -- via a heart-warming, life-altering childhood moment that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney movie.

The year was 1955. Cohen was 5 years old, growing up in Memphis, stricken with Polio and limping around on crutches. The White Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals were in town for a spring exhibition game. Clad in a Chicago T-shirt and cap, Cohen made his way down to the railing above the field. Cardinals pitcher Tom Poholsky handed him a baseball, a gift from White Sox star and former Negro Leagues great Minnie Minoso.

“The reason Minnie didn’t hand me the baseball himself was that he didn’t feel comfortable in a segregated city giving a ball to a white kid,” Cohen says.

Cohen never forgot the gesture -- or the social injustice that surrounded it. When the White Sox returned to Memphis in 1960, Cohen and his father visited Minoso at the city’s Lorraine Motel, the same motel where Martin Luther King later would be assassinated. Cohen was unnerved. Chicago’s other players -- the white White Sox -- were staying at the luxurious Peabody Hotel, while Minoso was confined to the Lorraine, where the rooms had concrete floors with drains.

“That had a major impact on me as a kid,” Cohen says. “A definite impact on my view of the world. It gave me a much greater and earlier concern for civil rights.”

Minoso became Cohen’s favorite player, and the two struck up a friendship. Decades later, they were chatting at the Civil Rights Baseball Game in Memphis. Cohen told a story: His first year in Congress, he tried to pass a resolution honoring Negro League baseball players, a resolution that included a mention of Minoso and asserted that without segregation, he would have been a surefire Hall of Fame player.

Usually, Cohen explained, sports resolutions pass with unanimous consent. The bill sailed through the House of Representatives. But it stalled in the Senate. Apparently, Sen. Jim Bunning -- a former major league pitcher -- objected to the Minoso passage. “He took the language out,” Cohen says. “I thought, ‘Whatever, I’m a freshman, I’m not going to fight this.’”

When Cohen finished his tale, Minoso gave him a look. He told a story of his own. Years earlier, he had faced Bunning in an exhibition game in Cuba. Bunning hit him with a pitch. In his next at-bat, Minoso hit a triple off the wall.

Bunning look at me, Minoso explained. Bunning never forget.

“Minnie was famous for crowding the plate, and Bunning was famous for hitting batters,” Cohen says. “Basically, Bunning held that grudge against Minoso all those years!”

Partisan politics: They’re not just for government.

* * *

Speaking of partisanship, Russert and Hunt agree that a winning Nationals squad -- like a war, or maybe the Kennedy Center Honors -- can help ease some of Washington’s Red-Blue divide. “In a town that sometimes doesn’t have a lot of moorings and is riveted by silly divisions, it can become a glue,” Hunt says. “It gives you a commonality. The Redskins did that when they were good. I think the baseball team can do that, too.”

Case in point? Earlier this season, Cohen was about to drive to a Nationals game when he saw Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn walking out of the Capitol, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a Washington cap. Lamborn is a Republican. An uber-Republican, named by the National Journal in 2010 as the most conservative member of the House. No matter. Cohen gave him a ride, sparing him a hot and sweaty 20-minute walk.

So is baseball the cure for legislative gridlock, for a session of Congress on pace to be the least productive since 1947 -- when the Senators finished second-to-last in the American League?

“I’m not sure,” Cohen says with a laugh. “The divide right now is so great, I’m not sure it could happen through religious miracles, let alone sport. I think the Potomac would have to split open its waters and give a pathway for the two sides to walk down before they could realize the benefits of compromise. But maybe in some small way the Nationals can help.”

If the Nationals are going to function as an instrument of hope and change, they’ll need to build a bigger constituency on both sides of the aisle. Given that the young, dynamic club appears positioned for long-term success, Russert says attracting support won’t be hard.

“Everyone in politics perpetrates fanhood,” he says. “It puts you in touch with your constituents. Put on a baseball hat, grab a beer and a dog. Salute the American flag. You’re just like voters.

“It’s already gotten to the point here where if you don’t have a rooting interest in the NL East, people are receptive to the Nationals. We haven’t converted the Marlins, Mets and Phillies people yet. But even Obama says he’s a Nationals fan now, that they’re the NL team he’s paying attention to.”

Hunt makes a supporting point: For political junkies, following baseball should feel familiar. Like a well-worn fielding glove. Fact is, the two pursuits have much in common. Every day, Hunt says, the presidential campaign produces a winner and a loser, a champion of the news cycle. Romney makes a gaffe. Obama follows suit. The chattering class dissects every move, notes every fluctuation in the polls. Today’s election-altering crisis is tomorrow’s half-remembered trifle. The season keeps moving. Until Nov. 6, there is always another game.

“The one thing you know is that there will be good days and bad days for each candidate,” Hunt says. “That’s how it is in baseball. If the Nats have a great season, they still lose 40 percent of their games. It’s a little bit that way in politics.”

Russert concurs.

“Where are we in the presidential race?” he says. “I’d say around the seventh inning. Every gaffe the candidates make [is] a lot more important. Had that Romney video talking about [not being concerned with 47 percent of voters] come out in May, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal. Same thing with Strasburg being shut down now. Everything magnifies as you get closer to the end.

“The upcoming debates are probably like the playoff games of presidential politics, the moments where every single word you say maters -- just like every single pitch you throw or swing you take matters. Everything you’ve been working for all year can turn on one bad pitch, one bad sentence at the debate. Who is the better closer? Who can come in, final inning, and put it away, be Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard? We’ll find out.”

* * *

So, about those debates. For the Washingtonians already all in on the Nationals, they could pose a problem.

The first presidential debate falls on the same evening as the final day of the regular season. No worries. The Nationals play an afternoon game against the Phillies. But the other three debates -- two presidential, one vice presidential? In the immortal words of Scooby-Doo: Ruh-roh. One coincides with the NL division series, the other two overlap with the NLCS, including a potential Game 7.

“I’ll certainly be watching the games,” Will says. “Whether I’ll be watching the debates is another matter. A pennant race is much more exciting. I’m not saying the presidential races aren’t without surprises. But let’s just say the caliber of play is higher in baseball.”

“I have a very quick finger going back and forth to the last channel,”

Cohen says with a laugh. “I might have two televisions in the same room.”

“I get updates from my four sons,” says Begala. “They’ll text me while I’m on the air.”

“It’s one of those things I don’t want to think about until I have to,” Hunt says.

As for Blitzer? He’s prepared. Won’t be surprised. All of the dates --baseball and political -- already are on his calendar. Not that he needs a reminder; he can recite them from memory. Come October, he’ll be anchoring CNN’s debate coverage. It’s his job.

Still, the Nationals won’t be far from his mind.

“Would I skip a debate and go to a game?” Blitzer says. “The answer is that I can’t. I got to make a living. Put food on the table. Covering the political world and the race for the White House is my passion. I’m thrilled I can cover it. It doesn't get any better.”

Blitzer pauses -- a studied pause, like the ones he makes on television, as if an unseen producer is feeding Strasburg updates into his earpiece.

“But be assured,” he says, “I’ll be checking the scores.”

Read the original article at Sports on Earth