Sports is one of the things that is woven into the fabric of everything we are as Americans. Football is king; no sport in our country gets better ratings and is followed by as many people. But there’s a reason why baseball is still considered our country’s pastime. When times get tough and we need to be reminded about what makes us so great as a country, baseball is always the first sport to be back to the forefront of our beings.
I had the pleasure of attending an exclusive event with my wife last evening at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the premiere of a new 30 for 30 short from ESPN titled First Pitch. Executive Produced by Jim Gray and directed by Academy Award Winner Angus Wall, the short tells the story of the ceremonial first pitch thrown by Bush prior to Game Three of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium.
It was more than a sitting president throwing out a first pitch; that’s been done many times. No, this was different.
America was hurting. The attacks on 9/11 were only a few weeks old and the terrorist threat of another possible attack was as high as ever. But, similar to World War II when Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Major League Baseball to keep playing, America needed the sport to give us “normalcy” and a distraction from things weighing heavily on everyone’s minds.
Baseball missed one week of play after the 9/11 attacks. God Bless America was inserted into the seventh inning stretch and ballpark crowds across MLB sang along. That tradition continues today, though now it’s played on Sundays, holidays, special occasions and even every game in the case of two teams, the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Believe it or not, many non-Yankee fans across the country in 2001 were actually rooting for New York to win, considering how the country’s most iconic city was seen as the barometer for America. We were not going to be defeated by the terrorists; this is the greatest country in the world, and New Yorkers lead the way.
Then the Yankees were matched up with the NL Champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series. President Bush received a request from Major League Baseball to throw out the first pitch in Game One in Arizona. He balked, however. If there’s a first pitch to be thrown out in this World Series, it had to be done at Yankee Stadium.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said it best (though we learned after the film that this part ended up on the cutting room floor) when she said that her most impactful moments in sports that she has witnessed were (in no order), the first Alabama football game after segregation was mandated, the sheer dominance of Secretariat, the Miracle on Ice in 1980, and the President Bush World Series first pitch.
The film takes you behind the scenes as to what the president and his staff were thinking back in 2001, including some very interesting interviews with brass from the Secret Service and CIA.
Of course, the actual sport of baseball is a huge part of it as well. Ceremonial pitches are thrown every day in the sport. Most are tossed from in front of the mound, and many end up landing nowhere near the plate, or are bounced in (something Bush and his father have been guilty of as sitting presidents). Even Derek Jeter joked with the president before he headed out. “Throw it off the mound, or they’ll boo you,” he said. “But don’t bounce it either, cause they’ll boo you.”
No pressure. Actually, President Bush admitted he had never felt as much nervous pressure as that moment throughout his entire presidency. His Q&A session afterwards with Wall and moderator Kevin Sullivan in front of the standing-room-only crowd was a thrill, just to hear the president expound on his thoughts about the event and what it meant.
It’s a great short, as most 30 for 30’s are. Gray addressed the crowd before the short aired and said that he hoped his efforts to make the film could be something that generations of school kids could enjoy for years and years and be a piece of history that captured a very important era in our country’s history.
I believe he achieved just that. First Pitch debuts on ESPN, fittingly, on September 11. Tune in or set your DVR.