Politics and sports: pitching for votes. Bush and Dukakis know the value of a sporting pose and ties to athletes

NINETEEN sixty-nine was the year that baseball's ``Miracle Mets'' finally won the National League pennant and, in the process, helped salvage the political career of New York Mayor John Lindsay. The mayor had stood about as low in the polls as the Mets had finished in previous seasons. The team's pennant helped propel him to a second term. Still, Mayor Lindsay almost missed his moment.

Jimmy Breslin, the columnist, remembers the mayor standing awkwardly at the rear of the Mets' locker room amid the delirium of the pennant victory. So he bodily pushed Lindsay to the front, where a media-savvy Mets pitcher, Tom Seaver, poured champagne over his head. The picture made the evening news and the next day's front pages.

``It was bipartisan,'' Mr. Breslin says. ``It was irresistible.''

Most politicians need little prompting to try to glom onto the glamour and good feelings of big-time sports, and this year's presidential candidates are no exception. Campaign operatives do, after all, read the ratings.

On a recent Saturday, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees drew larger national Nielsen television ratings than the acceptance speeches of either Michael Dukakis or George Bush at their respective conventions. In Boston, a recent Red Sox game drew almost double the audience of Mr. Dukakis's speech.

Politicians want to be on television, and on television, sports are king. The national conventions and presidential debate coverage were fairly awash with sports metaphors. Amid the raucous Bush-bashing in Atlanta, Jim Hightower, the populist Texas agriculture commissioner, said the vice-president was ``born on third base and he thinks he hit a triple.'' Debate commentators kept looking for a ``knockout punch.''

And it is no accident that increasing numbers of athletes are transferring their celebrity to the political arena. New Jersey next year could have the US Senate's first all-athlete delegation: Sen. Bill Bradley, of New York Knicks basketball fame, and Pete Dawkins, the former halfback for Army and Heisman Trophy winner, who is running for the state's other seat.

But for the most part, office-holders and -seekers show up in locker rooms, call the winning manager or coach, throw out the first ball, and in general grab a little free media exposure, while trying to be seen as regular, red-blooded Americans. The results are not always as they hope.

Few were surprised last winter when Dukakis appeared at the Red Sox training camp in Winter Haven, Fla.

``I hope his campaign is better than his swing,'' second baseman Marty Barrett remarked after watching the governor, wing tips and all, take his strokes in the batting cage.

Dukakis enlisted Kevin McHale, the Boston Celtics' all-star forward, to campaign with him last September at the Minnesota State Fair. (Bostonians regard McHale as Hibbing, Minnesota's leading son. Singer Bob Dylan is second.)

The resulting photograph, dispensed proudly by the Dukakis camp on post card-like fliers, illustrates why politicians - especially those standing 5 feet, 8 inches - are well advised to stick to baseball players - or better still, jockeys.

George Bush hasn't fared much better. When the vice-president attended the Super Bowl in Pontiac, Mich., in 1981, his entourage caused such a traffic jam coming in from the airport that many fans were late for the game. Similarly, at the baseball All-Star Game last year in Cincinnati, the vice-presidential brigade commandeered an elevator. ``It was very, very difficult to make your way,'' recalls Ron Rappaport, a sports writer with the Los Angeles News and a commentator for National Public Radio.

Of course, Mr. Bush really was captain of his college baseball team. But that's a little different from playing center field for the Yankees. ``I sometimes wonder whether that works for him,'' Mr. Rappaport says. ``On the one hand he was a ballplayer. On the other hand he played at Yale.''

When Bush exclaimed, ``I'd rather be talking about baseball,'' or words to that effect, in his 1984 debate with Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, it was widely seen as a clumsy pass at the regular-guy vote.

Even Jesse Jackson received a cool reception two years ago when he tried to inject himself into a sports controversy, the uproar that arose when then Dodgers executive Al Campanis said that blacks were not qualified to be major-league managers. The Rev. Mr. Jackson was pushing for a boycott by black players. But one black player, Don Baylor, then of the Red Sox and a man widely respected by his peers, set Jackson straight.

``I thought I should remind Rev. Jackson that we have contracts to honor, with penalties and restrictions,'' Baylor said, after talking with Jackson before a game. ``He should see a lot of guys and see how they feel.''

The campaigns are tapping the sports-media connection in other ways. They are targeting selected advertising messages - Bush on crime, for example - to beer-drinking TV-sports couch potatoes. Both are running ads during the Olympics.

Dukakis, meanwhile, has special reason to keep an eye on the sports pages this fall. His fortunes and those of the hometown Red Sox seem to have been curiously entwined.

In September 1978, the Sox staged their great El Foldo, blowing a 14-game lead to the rival Yankees. That was also the month that then-Governor Dukakis saw a staggering 50-point lead in the polls turn into a humiliating primary defeat to challenger Edward King.

Many saw a connection - if not causal chain - between the two. ``There was a foul mood in Massachusetts that year,'' recalls Michael Segal, a political reporter and co-author of a Dukakis biography.

Dukakis's great redemption came eight years later, in his 1986 reelection with 70 percent of the vote. Coincidentally or not, 1986 was also the Red Sox' almost-golden World Series year. The football Patriots made the Super Bowl to boot.

According to the Red Sox meter, Dukakis's fortunes should be on the rise again. The Sox are currently in first place in their division, largely because of a remarkable streak of 12 straight victories (24 straight at Fenway Park) that came soon after Dukakis himself clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The Red Sox, like the basketball Celtics, have fans throughout the country (in part because so many people go to college in the area). Which means the good feelings would extend far beyond the Bay State.

But then, too, there's New York, home of rivals Yankees and Mets, and 36 crucial electoral votes. Which raises a geopolitical consideration the Sunday pundit shows have somehow missed. If the Red Sox meet the Mets, who have clinched their division, in a rematch of their '86 series, will the Massachusetts governor have to lie low in New York for the duration?

Mike Shalin, a sportswriter for the Boston Herald who used to write in New York, says New Yorkers are less single-minded on the subject than are the Fenway faithful. ``I don't think people in New York think about Boston as much as people in Boston think about New York,'' he says.

But he says there might actually be a problem if the shoe were on the other foot. ``I could see a Mario Cuomo coming into Massachusetts and being affected negatively.''

One individual in the Dukakis camp dismissed the whole subject as ridiculous. Still, in an election in which college grades and a pledge-of-allegiance bill have emerged as major issues, who knows what might count.

``I'll bet it would go through their minds,'' says the L.A. News's Rappaport, speaking of the Red Sox factor and the Dukakis camp. ``They'd have to wonder how to play it.''

Then too, not every politician pines to throw out the first ball. Representing the contrarian school is - not surprisingly - New York Mayor Edward Koch, who has turned his lack of interest in the game into a stand-up schtick. During the 1986 World Series, Mr. Koch boasted to a New York Times reporter that he had sat through a full three innings of a recent game, ``an increase of fully 300 percent'' over his usual appearances.

``I will eat hot dogs, which I love, and I will cheer,'' he said of his World Series plans. When would he cheer? ``When other people cheer.''

Koch described himself as the kind of youngster ``you would choose last'' in sandlot games. ``My mother told me that my brother, Harold, was going to be the athlete in the family, and that I was to go to the corner and learn to be mayor.''

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