Presidents and Baseball are an American Tradition

Today is President’s Day, or Washington’s birthday as it is also known, here in the United States of America.

While originally the holiday was thought of as a way to recognize the two presidents with birthdays in February, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, President’s Day has grown to include a time to honor all of the men, and most likely some day women, who have served in the nation’s highest office.

Today we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Photo R. Anderson
Today we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
Photo R. Anderson

Through the years President’s Day has also become a time to buy furniture, appliances and cars at unheard of savings as many companies have sought to capitalize on people with the day off of work.. While the founding fathers wanted us to enjoy various freedoms, I doubt they had no interest financing on washers and dryers in mind. Then again maybe they did.

So for our purposes let us not focus on the retail aspects of the day but let us try to focus on the office of the President and what that entails.

To date, 44 men have served as President of the United States from Washington to Obama. While there are often disagreements between the Legislative and Executive branches of government it is important to remember that by and large the system of government that we enjoy is for the most part stable and allows each of us to enjoy freedoms that we would not otherwise have under certain other governmental systems.

And of course there is still that whole area of no interest financing. I really need to stop watching television on holiday weekends.

Campaign bumper sticker for the 1992 campaign of Bill Clinton.  Clinton defeated George Bush to become the 42nd President of the united States.
Campaign bumper sticker for the 1992 campaign of Bill Clinton. Clinton defeated George Bush to become the 42nd President of the United States.

I was fortunate enough to come face to face with two of the men who would go on to become president although I was only old enough to remember one of them

I have been told by my mother that my first encounter with a future President was during a rally for Jimmy Carter.

Of course at the time of that rally I would have been perhaps just turning 1 so needless to say I do not recall meeting him but I am sure it was a lovely time for all.

As for the encounter with a Commander in Chief that I do recall, in 1992 I met Bill Clinton at a campaign event in Orlando, FL. While the election was still months away, and Governor Clinton had not yet become President Clinton, there was still something cool about meeting someone on the campaign trail.

I am far from the most politically active of people and part of that was by choice. I felt a reporter should be impartial and not let their political leanings show so I always tried to use that mantra as my guide.

Years later though, meeting candidate Clinton is still one of the more memorable moments of my journalistic career. I am sure that reporters that cover the Presidents on a daily basis lose some of the wow factor at some point but there always needs to be a respect for the office at some level.

So on this presidential holiday let us not focus on the civics behind the position, or the red state versus blue state leanings.

Let us not even focus on the plethora of sales that will end tonight at midnight.

Instead, let us focus on one of the many perks of residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C.; the ceremonial first pitch.

President William Howard Taft started a tradition in 1910 that has linked the Commander in Chief with the National Pastime ever since when he threw out the first pitch on Opening Day.

The first presidential first pitch occurred on April 14, 1910, at National Park in Washington, DC. during a game between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics with Taft connecting on the pitch to Walter Johnson.

The Senators moved to Minnesota to become the Twins and the Athletics packed up and headed west to Oakland but the one constant for 103 years has been presidents and baseball.

From 1910 to 1971 the President traveled to the home ballpark of the Washington Senators to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day.

To put that streak into perspective it stretched from Taft to Richard Nixon.

While Presidents had thrown out first pitches at the World Series as well President Nixon became the first president to throw out an Opening Day pitch outside of Washington D.C. in 1972 when he threw out the pitch in Anaheim, California since there was no longer a team in Washington.

Various other ballparks were used for Opening Day after 1972 but Baltimore and Washington D.C. were the most widely used due to proximity to the White House.

While the first pitch did not occur until 1910 the link between Presidents and baseball actually goes back to post Civil War America when Andrew Johnson invited the first team of professional ballplayers to the White House. Other teams were invited as well in the years to follow by other presidents.

Campaign buttons From George H.W. Bush's 1988 Presidential campaign. Bush, was a former college baseball player. Photo R. Anderson
Campaign buttons From George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign. Bush, was a former college baseball player and can often be seen at Minute Maid park watching the Astros play.
Photo R. Anderson

The Presidential links to baseball are not limited to first pitches alone however. Both President Bush 41 and President Bush 43 also have deep baseball roots.

George H.W. Bush was a baseball player in college at Yale and can often be seen behind home plate at Houston Astros games.

It is also a given that if both President Bush and his wife, Barbara, are seated together they will end up on the stadium kiss cam.

George W. Bush also has a baseball pedigree. Before becoming governor of Texas en route to the White House, the younger President Bush served as the owner of the Texas Rangers who, as one may or not know were once the expansion team that replaced the first version of the Washington Senators who left town to become the Minnesota Twins. It is sort of a neat bow to tie it all together.

So on this day that we honor our Presidents let us not forget that soon it will once again be Opening Day and when the President steps onto the mound to throw that first pitch he will be continuing a long standing tradition that honors both the past, present and future of both the Oval Office and the game of baseball itself.

Now if you’ll excuse me I think I need to practice my pitching just in case I am ever called on to throw out a first pitch. After all, no one wants to be the person that bounces it a few times on the way to the catcher.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson

Time for Chocolate Hearts and Baseball

Today, February 14th, marks the arrival of Valentine’s Day.

While it is often joked about that Valentine’s Day is a made up holiday by greeting card companies, candy companies and florists, there is actually a historical reason behind St. Valentine’s Day.

While the actual origin story varies depending on who is telling it, one common version is that the day is based on one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus, or Valentine to you and me.

The common legend goes that Valentine was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire.

While imprisoned, legend goes on to state that Valentine befriended the daughter of his jailer and before his execution he wrote “from your Valentine” as a farewell to her.

How much of that really happened, and how much was added throughout the centuries as the tale was told and told again, is certainly up for debate.

After all, legends tend to grow the further out they are from the source material. But as far as legends go I guess if one were so romantically inclined there are worse things to believe in.

So whether the origin totally occurred as written or not the celebrations were tweaked through the generations and flourished during the romantic period as one might expect until at long last we reached the 21st century version of St. Valentine’s Day.

Nothing says, "I love you" quite like a box of chocolates. Put those chocolates in a heart shaped box and she is putty in your hands. At least that is what the marketing people want us to believe.  photo R. Anderson
Nothing says, “I love you” quite like a box of chocolates. Put those chocolates in a heart shaped box and she is putty in your hands. At least that is what the marketing people want us to believe.
photo R. Anderson

Decades ago when I was a younger version of myself Valentine’s Day meant that we used construction paper and other means to make our Valentine “mailbox” to stick at the end of our desks.

Once our mailboxes were completed we would go around and deliver valentine’s to each of our classmates.

After counting up the bounty one always hoped to not be like Charlie Brown, who was always valentine free, but to have a paper box brimming with tiny cardboard trinkets of affection.

As a rule I always made sure to have enough cards to go around for everyone in the class, but it seemed like not everyone followed that rule.

I am guessing the process still remains mostly the same as from when I was in school based on the amount of valentine’s cards I see at the stores each year, but who knows, maybe students just text each other their well wishes now.

Once in a while I will still have a coworker or two that will give out Valentines but as a rule my days of handing out mass Valentine greetings ended with my last construction paper mailbox.

Aside from the greeting card and valentine printing businesses, this season also marks a busy time for businesses that sell flowers and chocolate as they tend to be part of the more grown up valentine experience.

Turn on the television or radio any time between mid-January to mid-February and one is bound to be bombarded with commercials for suggestions on what makes the perfect valentine’s gift for that special someone.

While the romantic aspects of Valentine’s Day are all well and good, the season also marks a time for professional baseball players to await messages of “Be Mine” and “I Choo Choo Choose You” as competition begins for one of those coveted spots on the 40 man Major League roster.

Much like those cardboard valentines of old, a spot on the roster says to the player that someone values them and in this case values them enough that they have a future with the club.

Of course, roster placement alone does not guarantee success and several factors are involved in the aspect of who stays and goes from a major league roster.

But, the fact remains that players on the roster tend to feel better about their future than players who are not on the roster.

With up to 75 players vying for 40 roster spots Spring Training uniforms tend to use numbers more often seen on the football field. Photo R. Anderson
With up to 75 players vying for 40 roster spots Spring Training uniforms tend to use numbers more often seen on the football field.
Photo R. Anderson

For most teams the roster is mostly set at the start of spring training with a few positions here and there up for grabs through head to head competition.

As for the Houston Astros, this year their roster is less wide open than it was this time last season.

While last season was an every position is up for grabs kind of year heading into Spring Training, there seems to be a bit more stability heading into Osceola County Stadium this spring.

The biggest competition for the Astros appears to be at first base where former start Brett Wallace will try once more to prove that he belongs on a Major League Baseball Opening Day roster.

Unlike previous years though Wallace will be trying to make the team as a non roster invitee having lost his coveted spot on the 40-man roster.

Across the other 29 Major League teams other players will be in similar positions of just trying to extend their careers for one more season.

So as you celebrate your Valentine’s Day, in whatever manner you see fit, think of the baseball players who at this very moment are hanging their virtual Valentine mailbox on their lockers at spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona.

And with Valentine’s day behind us stores are quick to remind us that Easter is just around the corner as the chocolate hearts have been replaced on the shelves by chocolate bunnies. In some cases the chocolate bunnies were already up next to the display of chocolate covered Valentine strawberries.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish my Easter shopping before the Chocolate bunnies are replaced by Fourth of July decorations.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson

Berkman and Oswalt to Retire as Astros

As the Houston Astros approach the 1oth anniversary of their last trip to the postseason two members of their 2005 World Series team have announced their retirement.

While Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman were each traded from the Astros years ago as the team entered a youth movement, both men will be given the chance to be Astros for at least one more day in a sign and retire ceremony on April 5.

Over the past few years it has been commonplace for teams to hold these ceremonial retirements as a way for players and teams to reunite and allow the player to officially retire as a member of the organization where they spent the bulk of their careers.

The ceremonies also give a chance for the fans of the players to say one final good bye to players that they used to root for. And as a special treat the Astros have announced that a commemorative item will be given out at the gate to recognize the event.

Over the years I attended many games that Oswalt and Berkman played in and of the two I was a bigger fan of Berkman’s.

Even after he was traded I would still cheer for Berkman when he would visit Minute Maid Park and bat for the opposing team. Of course there were fans that would boo him as well which I never really understood.

Lance Berkman, who spent last season with the Texas Rangers, will sign a one day contract to retire as a Houston Astro on April 5 along with former teammate Roy Oswalt. Photo R. Anderson
Lance Berkman, who spent last season with the Texas Rangers, will sign a one day contract to retire as a Houston Astro on April 5 along with former teammate Roy Oswalt.
Photo R. Anderson

If you like a player it should not matter what color his jersey is since he is still the same player you once cheered for under it and many players do not get the choice of where they are traded to.

Speaking of trades, I was actually at Minute Maid Park on the day that Lance was traded to the New York Yankees.

This was the start of the Astros trading away all of their players to get younger but for some reason it felt like Berkman would be safe. After all he was a hometown player who went to the local university and had played his whole career with the Astros.

But on that day as the texts started rolling in, and the whispers that he had been traded turned to screams of disbelief it was apparent that the Astros were entering a new era where no player, no matter how popular, was safe.

It was also the day when the college kids who spent every game dressed up in their puma suits in honor of Berkman’s nickname, the “Big Puma,” took them off for the last time and tried to make sense of what had happened.

I had envisioned Berkamn getting to be like Cal Ripken Jr. who grew up in Maryland and played his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles before retiring on his own terms.

Of course, Ripken was a first ballot Hall of Famer from a generation of players that we just won’t see repeated.

In fact Derek Jeter, who has spent his entire career with the New York Yankees, very well could be the last player to spend his entire career with a single organization.

Baseball is a changed game and even players with dedicated fans who dress up in puma suits are not spared the trade deadline ax.

Of course on April 5 those puma suits can be dusted off as the “Big Puma” comes home for one last time.

They will be honoring a player in Berkman who after graduating from Rice University, played a dozen seasons in Houston before spending the final three years of his career with the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers.

Of course getting traded away from the Astros was not a completely bad thing as Berkman earned a World Series ring during his time in St. Louis but something tells me he would have preferred winning it with the home town team.

Berkman was voted to the All-Star Game six-times and hit .296 with 326 home runs and 1,090 RBIs over his 12 seasons with the Astros. He led the National League in doubles in 2001 and again in ’08, while also leading the NL in RBIs in ’02, when he finished third in NL MVP voting.

As for the all-time Astros records Berkman ranks first in slugging percentage (.549), second in home runs, third in RBIs, walks and runs scored, and fourth in games played.

Sharing the retirement stage with Berkamn will be Roy Oswalt who was the ace of the pitching staff for the Astros for many years and had the honor of being the de facto Opening Day starter for most of his years with the club.

I never really followed Oswalt in the same way that I followed Berkman and will admit that his being traded did not affect me in the same way. But, I am sure that for many Astros fans at the time there was a great sadness felt when the announcement of Oswalt being shipped to the Phillies was made.

Of course the Phillies was not Oswalt’s last stop of his career. After spending his first 10 big league seasons with the Astros, Oswalt spent the last four years bouncing around with stints with the Phillies, Rangers and Rockies.

Roy Oswalt helped guide the Houston Astros to the World Series in 2005, earning National League Championship Series MVP honors after going 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in the six-game series victory over the Cardinals. That performance also earned Oswalt the gift of a bulldozer from then team owner Drayton McLane. Oswalt will make one more appearance at Minute Maid Park before calling it a career. Photo R. Anderson
Roy Oswalt helped guide the Houston Astros to the World Series in 2005, earning National League Championship Series MVP honors after going 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in the six-game series victory over the Cardinals. That performance also earned Oswalt the gift of a bulldozer from then team owner Drayton McLane. Oswalt will make one more appearance at Minute Maid Park before calling it a career.
Photo R. Anderson

Oswalt finished in the top five of the National League Cy Young Award voting during five of his 10 seasons with the Astros.

Oswalt recorded back-to-back 20-win seasons in 2004-05 and finished 143-82 with a 3.24 ERA during his time with the Astros.

As for that last trip to the postseason for the Astros, Oswalt helped guide Houston to the World Series in 2005, earning National League Championship Series MVP honors after going 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in the six-game series victory over the Cardinals. That performance also earned Oswalt the gift of a bulldozer from then team owner Drayton McLane.

Oswalt finishes his career as the Astros’ all-time leader in win percentage (.636) and ranks second in both wins and strikeouts.

There is little doubt that the time for both men to retire has come. One could probably make the case that they should have retired at least a season or two ago as injuries turned both men into a shell of their former selves where performance at the plate and velocity on the mound just wasn’t what it used to be.

Of course it is hard to decide when to hang up the glove for good when playing baseball is all one has ever known.

As for their post baseball lives Oswalt is going to work for his agent as a vice president and Berkman has been mentioned as a possible successor to Rice Owls coach Wayne Graham.

In the meantime there is one more plate appearance at Minute Maid Park awaiting both men so that their careers can end where they began. Chances are there won’t be a dry puma eye in the house.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get some tickets for the farewell to Berkman and Oswalt game.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson

Tinker Field’s Fate Likely Sealed by Progress

The other day I learned some troubling news about an old friend.

Growing up this friend and I shared many adventures during the spring and summer months with family and friends.

Sadly time and neglect have finally taken their toll on my good friend, Tinker Field, and at the ripe age of 91 years old he is facing extinction.

Tinker Field, my good friend, is a ballpark in Orlando, FL that I have written about many times.

It was at Tinker Field that I saw most of my professional baseball games during the 20th Century.

From Spring Training for Major League Baseball, to full seasons of Minor League Baseball, the quaint little ballpark in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl was a unique venue where a who’s who of baseball players played.

In the late 80's and early 90's I saw quite a few Southern League games at historic Tinker Field. Photo R. Anderson
In the late 80’s and early 90’s I saw quite a few Southern League games at historic Tinker Field.
Photo R. Anderson

Think of almost any baseball player from the 20th Century and odds are pretty good that they stepped foot on the infield grass of Tinker Field at one time or another.

The last professional affiliated baseball at Tinker Field occurred in 1999 with the Orlando Rays who were the Double-A farm team for the Tampa Bay Rays.

While the Orlando Rays were the last of the Southern League teams to call Tinker Field home they certainly weren’t the only ones.

The Orlando Twins, Orlando Cubs and Orlando Sun Rays were among the many teams to call Tinker Field home.

The Orlando Juice of the Senior Professional Baseball Association even spent a season in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl.

Eventually it was the shadowy neighbor looming over right field that signed Tinker Field’s death warrant.

A massive expansion is planned for the Citrus Bowl that will greatly widen its footprint. Unfortunately this widening will creep into right field to the point that Tinker Field can no longer function as a baseball field due to an outfield depth that would make a Little Leaguer feel like Barry Bonds sending everything he hits over the fence.

So, despite being declared a national historic site Tinker Field will likely soon meet the fate of many ballparks before it and be torn down in the name of progress.

There is still a small glimmer of hope that the ballpark structure can be saved. There are petitions and social media campaigns already in full swing.

In the event that cries from the Tinker fans fall on deaf ears, a halfhearted attempt to appease fans who will miss the ballpark by creating a new Tinker Field a few hundred yards away on the site of a current softball field has been floated by local officials.

Still despite calling the new ballpark Tinker Field, there will never be another Tinker Field and every effort should be made to preserve the historic grandstand and related facilities.

If the wrecking ball does come, Tinker Field will become the third ballpark I attended games at to be torn down. Despite missing Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and Baseball City Stadium in Haines City, Florida the loss of Tinker Field hits the hardest.

Tinker Field was where my mom and I spent many afternoons and evenings together watching games despite it being in a part of town where one did not want to really venture too far away from the safety of the ballpark lights.

This ticket stub allowed me to meet one of my baseball heroes, Earl Weaver, along the third base line of Tinker Field.
This ticket stub allowed me to meet one of my baseball heroes, Earl Weaver, along the third base line of Tinker Field.

Tinker Field was also where I met the late Earl Weaver on the third base line.

I met many other players at Tinker Field through the years with some of them making it to the Majors and others relegated to a career of being bused from game to game in the Minor Leagues.

While I saw numerous Spring Training games at Tinker Field it was Minor League Baseball that really grabbed my attention and stoked the desires of younger me to work in sports promotions at a ballpark.

During our trips to Tinker Field my mom and I were often joined for a few innings by team president Pat Williams, who was also the General Manager of the Orlando Magic at the time, and I used to think how cool it would be to be a team executive getting paid to watch baseball.

I have yet to fully realize that dream of spending all of my summer nights as a Minor League Baseball employee but I may yet before all is said and done and when I do it will be because of those nights at Tinker Field.

I last visited Tinker Field in 1999 during a University of Central Florida football game. At the time UCF played at the Citrus Bowl since it did not have a stadium of its own yet.

During a pregame tailgate I learned that the souvenir stand at Tinker Field was open since the Rays were moving to a ballpark at Walt Disney World and the team was selling all of their merchandise to avoid moving it to the new facility.

During my last visit to Tinker Field in 1999 I was fitted by sight for this hat. Sadly, the hat no longer fits but the memory of getting it remains as vivid as ever. Photo R. Anderson
During my last visit to Tinker Field in 1999 I was fitted by sight for this hat. Sadly, the hat no longer fits but the memory of getting it remains as vivid as ever.
Photo R. Anderson

I ended up getting an Orlando Rays fitted cap. To this day I am amazed that the seasoned ballpark employee correctly guessed my hat size just by looking at me. I am also amazed that in the years since my already large head grew to the point where I can no longer comfortably wear the fitted wool cap.

I am sure the cap vendor had done the same thing thousands of times but it was fascinating to me that he had that skill. I don’t know what happened to that vendor but I like to think he lived out his remaining years comfortably after his days at the ballpark were over randomly telling people on the street how big their heads were.

In the end the Orlando Rays’ time at Walt Disney World was short lived and the team moved to Montgomery, Alabama and became known as the Biscuits.

To this day there are still no Minor League Baseball teams in Orlando making the decision to tear down a nearly 100 year old Ballpark an easier pill to swallow for some.

Others point to the peeling paint and overworked plumbing as reasons that it is best to raze the ballpark instead of spending money to preserve it and bring it up to current code.

I knew that the day would come when Tinker Field would be torn down in the name of progress. I had hoped that the day was further into the future but knew deep down that people in government do not seem to always value their history and often times the bulldozer wins out over preserving the past.

In Houston people are dealing with a similar potential loss of a treasured sports fixture as the pending demolition of the Astrodome seems all but certain.

In Atlanta fans of the Braves of preparing for the loss of 20-year-old Turner Field in the name of progress.

A few years back even Yankee Stadium, of Babe Ruth fame, was torn down so I know that the loss of Tinker Field is not totally out of line with the rest of the world of sports but it is still sad day.

While the Astrodome, Yankee Stadium, and Turner Field cannot compete with the intimacy of Tinker Field fans of those venues are justified in feeling their loss.

But as I have said before the loss of the physical building, while difficult, does not take away the memories that occurred in those facilities.

I can close my eyes and still picture Tinker Field the way I remember it. I prefer to think of it like it was and not like the neglected facility it became.

I guess the morale of the story is to treasure your brick and mortar ballparks while you can while building up memories that can last long after the ballparks are gone.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some ballpark preservation petitions to sign.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson