Bigly at the bat
It’s Opening Day Monday, but don’t expect to see President Trump waving to the crowd from the mound at Nationals Park, not far from the White House, prior to the game between the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins. In yet another dubious move, Trump declined the home team’s invitation to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. It’s a tradition dating back to 1910 when William Howard Taft became the first president, before a Washington Senators game, to toss a pitch.
Ever since, every president has participated. And all since Ronald Reagan have done so in their first year in office. The Trump White House cited a scheduling conflict.
As presidential duties go, throwing a symbolic pitch at a baseball game seems like one of the more innocuous ones. But there’s any number of reasons why Trump would choose to avoid it. By now, everyone knows how much the president loves golf, especially when played, at great taxpayer expense, on the manicured greens of his private Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago. Maybe the national pastime just isn’t his favorite sport.
Perhaps Trump, obsessed with promoting himself as the biggest and best in everything he does, is afraid his throw would dribble limply to the plate as if tossed by a toddler. Or, in trying too hard, he’d throw a pitch that would sail wide and straight into the backstop. (He would later tweet-blame the catcher.)
Among pitches from Trump’s recent predecessors, Barack Obama’s could have used GPS to find home plate, but at least he delivered it bounce-free. George W. Bush threw six Opening Day pitches during his eight years as president with an ease one would expect from someone who pitched for his college team. Even fictional politicians like Frank Underwood on Netflix’s “House of Cards” fret over that first pitch. While practicing with a Secret Service man acting as his catcher, Underwood recalled an incident when, while he was pitching, the ball slipped out of his hand and conked him on the head. “The whole stadium burst a gut laughing,” he said.
Trump could be wary of a similar mishap, but he’s no first-pitch novice. In 2006, he threw out the ceremonial pitch before a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park. It’s far more likely that he’s skipping the hardball honor because, now that he’s president, he fears a cascade of boos from his disgruntled constituents.
After slightly more than two months on the job, Trump isn’t just an unpopular president; he’s a historically unpopular one. According to a Gallup daily tracking poll last week, his job approval rating hit a new low of 35 percent. During the same period in his presidency, Obama enjoyed an approval rating in the low 60s.
If Trump’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act had succeeded, he might have used the Opening Day ritual as a kind of victory lap. Instead, he’s finding nothing to celebrate, what with judicial smackdowns, policy stillbirths, and investigations into possible ties between Trump associates and Russia.
This must be hard for Trump, who loves being the center of attention in a crowd. That’s why he keeps having campaign-style rallies, where he acts like a social activity director on a cruise ship, even as his administration is listing like the Titanic. Yet he always wants a crowd he can tightly control, one filled only with his most devoted supporters. As a man who fussed for weeks about the historic sizes of his Electoral College win and inauguration crowd (both far smaller than he claimed) and would rather be popular than competent, Trump would never put himself in a position to be jeered by thousands, especially in a city that he lost by more than 80 percent.
Oh, he’d have his fans as well, and those who think it’s disrespectful to boo any president. But the disapproving noises would resound in the stadium and on television in a way that would be undeniable. Polls are one thing, but gifs, memes, and videos of those catcalls on social media would outlast his years in the White House.
With more than three years left in what already feels like an interminable presidency, Trump will likely have other opportunities for first pitches. Yet unless his political fortunes change, don’t expect to see him anywhere near a mound anytime soon. For this upcoming Opening Day, Trump has opted to bench himself, far from the roar of an unpredictable crowd.
Correction: This column has been updated to note that Donald Trump is not the first president to decline to throw out a ceremonial pitch on Opening Day. Barack Obama declined to do so in 2009. (He accepted in 2010.)