COMMENTARY | Watch out, Teddy. The Washington Nationals are adding a fifth contender to their wildly popular Presidents Race.
William Howard Taft may not be as well-known as the Mount Rushmore foursome who have made up the field since the in-game promotion's inception -- but the nation's 27th president has significant, historical ties to the game of baseball. Taft's literally larger-than-life figure promises to make him stand out from the field.
Maybe the January announcement of a tweak to a team promotional event shouldn't generate this much attention. But the Racing Presidents have rapidly become a tradition that's captured the hearts and minds of Washington baseball fans.
Until the breakthrough 2012 season, Nats fans had precious little to cheer -- the team hadn't completed a winning season since its arrival in D.C. But that's not to say the fans weren't focused on the field at RFK Stadium and now Nationals Park. For better or worse, the flood of attention came during a break in the action each home game after the top of the fourth inning.
It can't be considered an original concept, but somehow the race among these historical figures with their giant, over-sized heads has captured the imagination of Nationals fans, just as other cities could cheer for sprinting sausages or pierogies. The Washington version originated in 2006, the Nats' second season in D.C. Since then, in the nation's capital, presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are known intimately -- but respectfully -- as George, Tom, Abe and Teddy.
It's a relatively new tradition, but fans look forward to it each game. Following a video introduction showing the presidents frolicking around D.C., the "real-life" characters burst from the center field gate, veer around the warning track to the right field corner, and head down the first base foul line toward the finish in front of the Nats dugout.
Let Teddy Win
And all along, Teddy never won. His inexplicable losing streak -- stunning considering the actual president's athletic reputation -- persisted for years, producing an earnest "Let Teddy Win" campaign and eventually garnering national attention.
The suspense mercifully ended at the Nats' final regular-season home game this past year with Teddy triumphantly crossing the finish line, finally breaking the tape, arms raised to the heavens. It was a fitting conclusion to the Nationals' division-winning season, and it was precisely the sendoff to the playoffs that fans had clamored for.
With his new-found momentum, Teddy was perfect in three Presidents Races through the Nats' three home playoff games. But the momentum failed to carry over to the team as the Nats bowed out in the first round in heartbreaking fashion. As the offseason began, hot stove discussions focused on what's next for the Racing Presidents as much as what's next for the baseball team.
The Big Chief
The organization responded, tapping President Taft as its latest draft pick. Was a new competitor necessary? Of course not. But Taft might just be the perfect, if surprising, choice -- the right man for the job.
Unlike the four incumbents, Taft brings a checkered political record to the table. Unable to navigate the era's difficult political environment, Taft suffered through a disastrous feud with his predecessor and former ally, none other than Teddy Roosevelt. Taft departed the White House as a defeated one-termer, although he later served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
He was very much a political heavyweight in another, more literal, sense. Taft is remembered for being morbidly obese at more than 300 pounds. Perhaps Taft is best known for famously getting stuck in the White House bathtub, resulting in the installation of a new, specially-sized tub for the president.
But besides the potential for providing a striking figure on the field, Taft played a memorable role in baseball history in real life. The president is credited with introducing a pair of 100-year-old baseball traditions that are still very much part of the game's fabric today:
The ceremonial first pitch - On April 14, 1910, President Taft attended opening day at Griffith Stadium in D.C., a game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics. From his front-row seat in the stands, the president kicked off the game and the season by throwing a strike to Senators ace Walter Johnson.
The seventh inning stretch - This origin story is subject to more historical debate but reputedly at the same game, Taft grew uncomfortable in his chair and opted to stand up and stretch his legs in the middle of the seventh inning. Out of respect, the audience rose with him and the game paused until the president retook his seat.
Fast forward to 2013, and the nation's capital again has a baseball team, and the White House has been home to a series of baseball fans. The Nats even have an on-field product that can compete with anything else going on at the ballpark -- pregame, fourth inning, or seventh inning.
But the offseason buzz about the team centers on the Racing Presidents as much as the acquisition of a new, star closer or the re-signing of the first baseman. And once again, it's President Taft casting a large shadow on baseball in D.C. Watch your back, Teddy.
KW Rosenfeld is an award-winning writer and longtime resident of Northern Virginia. He visited every major league ballpark in the summer of 1991, and he's still thankful that baseball has returned to D.C.
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