The San Diego Chicken goes to Washington

Sunday, kids will descend on the South Lawn for T-ball - and a great photo- op.

Sometime around 1 o'clock Sunday afternoon, Ted Giannoulas will arrive at the White House with a large bag in tow. He will meet with staff - perhaps even the president himself - and discuss strategy. He will walk the White House grounds and ponder his mission.

Then, just before 3 o'clock, he will set about the task at hand. He will open the bag, don the large feathered chicken suit therein, and proceed to dance, clown, and generally have a comedic fit on the South Lawn for somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour. And when it's all done, in some small way, he will have helped restore the American soul.

Or at least that's the idea.

Sunday marks the opening day of the White House South Lawn T-Ball Initiative, an effort launched by President Bush to, as he has said, "help to preserve the best of baseball right here in the house that Washington built."

There can be little doubt of the president's genuine interest in the sport says Mr. Giannoulas, better known as that grandfather of sports mascots, the San Diego Chicken. "I'm just tickled that we have a president who is a real sports fan," says Giannoulas, who knows the president from his days as owner of the Texas Rangers.

At the very least, Mr. Bush's enthusiasm for the game seems to have overcome his general aversion to publicity. Consider: Twenty-three airmen return home from China, and the president gladly surrenders the limelight. But a group of kids bearing bats and gloves show up for T-ball, and a wholesale media event is organized. Along with the Chicken, celebrity broadcaster Bob Costas will be in attendance to announce the game.

Polls of Bush's first 100 days show many people aren't completely aware of the president's positions on the environment or education, but by the end of the weekend they may have a firm grasp of his stand on the designated-hitter rule. It's enough to make cynics believe the president is simply hitching his star to baseball. After all that's a no-lose proposition, right?

If you build it...

Baseball, of course, holds a special currency among sports in America. What other sport gets an exemption from anti-trust law? What other sport could spawn a lengthy PBS documentary miniseries?

To understand the game's hold on the American psyche, look no further than Hollywood. Baseball is the subject of the most sports movies and the best ones - from "The Natural" to "Field of Dreams" to "Bull Durham." And they seem always to be intertwined with a vision of the nation.

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball," says James Earl Jones in "Field of Dreams." "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again."

Overall, baseball fans think it's proper that the president is speaking up for the game.

"I think it's fabulous, and I think it's about time," says Dave Kindred, a columnist for the Sporting News. "It certainly can't hurt the game to have the president saying baseball is a good thing."

Giannoulas says the president's efforts on baseball are for real and notes that Bush was the only team owner who voted against expanding the playoff system to include wild-card teams - the tally was 27 to 1.

"That expansion was going to benefit the owners and everyone knew it. But he didn't want to change the game. He stuck by his principles," Giannoulas says. "He is a true fan, a purist."

Indeed, Bush once told Mr. Costas in an interview that he "peaked in Little League." And even as the 2000 recount battle raged on, Bush reportedly kept his mind at ease by focusing on Richard Ben Cramer's 560-page biography "Joe Dimaggio: The Hero's Life."

President or Commissioner?

But purism and principles aside, there are a few dangers to Bush's full embrace of baseball. His friendship with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, combined with the well-known stories about Bush's desire to be commissioner himself, has given rise to a string of jokes about the president padding his resume for the job he really wants.

And the image of Bush standing amid a crowd of Little Leaguers may fuel late-night comedic monologues about the president playing in the backyard while the grown-ups - Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell - run the country.

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and fan of the game who has written extensively on the economics of baseball, says he has no problem with the T-ball initiative on its own, but wonders about the larger prominence Bush is giving the sport.

"He's had the Hall of Famers to the White House, and now the Yankees are coming by on Friday," he notes. "One wonders if he thinks he's still the owner of the Texas Rangers, who just happens to espouse tax cuts and a missile shield."

And, of course, none of this even takes into consideration the fact that baseball has not been the most positive or stable enterprise in recent years.

Bush's old team, the Rangers, recently raised the ire of fans by signing shortstop Alex Rodriguez to the record sum of $252 million for 10 years. Meanwhile, there is talk of another strike next year.

Even Giannoulas, when pushed, bemoans the current state of the game. "This is my fourth decade in the game, and it's changed," he says. "Many major leaguers start making the money and they feel contempt toward the fans. The Boys of Summer spirit is gone."

Laughing at the same joke

But come Sunday afternoon, Giannoulas will be on the South Lawn in full feathered garb, doing his part to help restore the game. And that's despite the fact that The Chicken is scheduled to appear at a Fresno Grizzlies minor league game the night before.

He says he looks forward to the game on Sunday because, if anything can restore the game, it is the exuberance of T-ballers scrambling around the bases - and, of course, the San Diego Chicken.

"I go out there and clown around and I look up and see everyone, all demographic groups, kids and teens and adults and seniors, and they're all laughing at the same joke," he says. "I reach all of them."

You can call that clowning or "mascoting" or saving the game, but in Washington, that kind of talk has a whole different meaning. It sounds a lot like ... politics.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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