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Sports fanatic Richard Nixon liked to telephone NFL head coaches and suggest specific plays.Anonymous/The Associated Press

Richard Nixon was a sports fan. NFL mostly, back when that was a less fashionable pastime.

There is a famous story about the deranged genius, Hunter S. Thompson, being pulled off the media bus during Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. He was asked to ride with the great man himself so that Nixon could talk some football.

The invitation came with a warning – football conversation only.

Thompson had been a sportswriter and knew the game well. He also hated Nixon with something bordering on obsession, and Nixon hated him right back.

In his eventual obit for the disgraced U.S. president, Thompson suggested Nixon be buried in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so that his corpse “could never wash up on American soil in any recognizable form.”

But football they could still talk about. Thompson spent the hour-long limo ride trying to stump the candidate on trivia. He didn’t get far.

Once in office, some of Nixon’s deepest thoughts involved football. He liked to telephone NFL head coaches and suggest specific plays. Miami coach Don Shula got one of these calls before his team played in the Super Bowl in January, 1972.

Nixon’s big idea – throw a basic slant to Paul Warfield, the Dolphins’ leading receiver. Shula told Nixon the thought had already occurred to him.

“Whatever else might be said about Nixon – and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human – he is a goddamn stone fanatic on every fact of pro football,” Thompson conceded.

It is the closest thing to kindness said about Nixon in Thompson’s book about that campaign.

In Washington, there are two kinds of sport – politics and the real thing. Until this weekend, the second one hadn’t mattered so much in a while.

Now the two have entered their championship phase simultaneously. On the one hand, the Washington Nationals will play in the World Series against the Houston Astros. On the other, a president under threat of impeachment.

In the first case, someone will win. In the second, everyone loses. It’s hard to say which outcome is providing more entertainment to locals.

The first pitch became a test of presidential virility

On Thursday, U.S. president Donald Trump announced his intention to attend Sunday’s Game 5 (if necessary) of this World Series.

Because everyone on either team has been given their chance, it was Game 3 starter Anibal Sanchez’s turn to answer the "Whither Trump?' question.

Sanchez, who is Venezuelan, shrugged.

“He’s the president of this country,” he said. “If he wants to come to the game, it’s something that he wants to do.”

Public-relations specialists ought to study that answer like the Talmud. It is a perfect example of how to say nothing when saying anything might get you in trouble.

Trump was asked if he would throw out the first pitch on Sunday.

“I don’t know,” Trump said. “They gotta dress me up in a lot of heavy armour. I’ll look too heavy. I don’t like that.”

The tradition of ceremonial first pitches was started by a president – William Taft. He did it here in Washington on Opening Day 1910.

Initially, the etiquette was that the ball be tossed from a seat in the stands and that the thrower do so while wearing a suit. Nixon was the last to perform the duty in Washington, before the erstwhile Senators moved to Texas.

Ronald Reagan switched things up. He arrived unannounced in Baltimore. He wore team gear. He watched the subsequent game from the dugout. All touches only an actor would think of.

After that, the first pitch became a test of presidential virility. It was no longer enough to be a sports fan. American leaders must also be sporty.

George W. Bush turned the ceremony and the championship stage into a rallying point. He tossed the first ball at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series, a few weeks after 9/11.

Bush came out wearing a New York fire department pullover. He didn’t dawdle over the wind-up as most do. He threw a strike. He let a few “U-S-A” chants wash over him and then quickly departed the field. It may have been the finest political performance of his career.

Trump remains the only sitting U.S. president since Taft who has not thrown out the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game.

MLB is neither a fan of Trump’s, but nor is it a critic. During his presidential campaign, Trump took an online poke at the ownership of the Chicago Cubs, who he said were financing his opponents. That forced baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to reckon with the man for the first time.

“If each and every thing that gets said was the subject of concern or something you should be concerned about, people would be walking around with their heads spinning due to concern,” Manfred said. It sounded both sensible and Steinian. Looking back on it from the perspective of today, it was also delusional.

Trump took office, began warring with baseball figures such as Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora and mucking about with MLB’s deals in Cuba. By early this year, Manfred – a man whose public presentation is not so much sanguine as exsanguinated – was willing to concede that dealing with the current president has been “more challenging.”

That level of concern elevated the other day when MLB umpire Rob Drake wandered into frame.

Drake isn’t officiating at this World Series, a decision baseball surely regrets. Because if he were, he’d have less time for Twitter.

On Tuesday, Drake released his unfiltered thoughts on the impeachment process. He’s not a fan. So much so that he said he planned to buy an assault rifle and prepare himself for the coming “cival war” (sic). He ended the all-caps rocket with “#MAGA2020.”

It is perhaps a telling commentary about the depths of American division that the situation – an MLB employee calling for the End Times – didn’t provoke alarm so much as exhaustion. A deeper commentary about the state of America might be found in the fact that a 50-year-old who has risen to the top of his profession doesn’t know how to spell.

Baseball said it would investigate the matter (that’s about all sports leagues do these days – investigate things). The umpiring union released a statement explaining away Drake’s comment on the basis that he is “a passionate individual.”

Drake apologized, but not really. Mostly, he’s just sorry that you’re sorry. Everyone around here is sorry – for the things they said, for the way you took them, for themselves. But very few people seem sorry for those who could actually use the help.

Baseball never quite caught on

The incident did provide a nice framing for Sunday’s big show. Everyone’s beginning to get a sense of where people stand. Baseball doesn’t like Trump, but understands that his red-state appeal is still key to its own profitability. Unlike the NBA, MLB can’t afford to be seen taking the side of urban hipsters.

Which is the average Washington Nationals fan. Until very recently – like, a week ago – this team was not a big deal in this city. It’s a football town first, though disconsolately. It’s been a hockey town, because at least that team is okay.

But despite a competitive roster and a lovely, modern park set along the river, baseball never quite caught on.

The Nationals lost their biggest star – Bryce Harper – last winter, staggered out of the gate to start the season and attendance went off a cliff. When one of the Democratic candidate debates clashed with the clinching game of the National League Championship Series, local bars showed both. Apparently, more people were interested in the debate.

It was only once they’d won the first two games of the best-of-seven World Series that Washingtonians began to buy in. Somewhere between their long suffering, their happy cynicism and their suspicion that even the best teams will let them down in the end, Washington is, spiritually, a Canadian sports city.

Once you get a few blocks from the stadium – which stands in one of those semi-occupied aspirational neighbourhoods that is all upmarket sports bars and condo construction – you wouldn’t know the World Series was on.

But once Trump was injected into the mix, intermingling the two key Washington news cycles, interest peaked.

In the delicious way of these things, the man who will throw out the first pitch at Game 5 is Jose Andres, a celebrity chef and noted Trump critic.

Andres had agreed to run a restaurant at Trump’s hotel in Washington. When Trump started in on Mexicans to kick off his campaign, Andres quit. Trump sued Andres and Andres sued Trump. The suit was settled while Trump was in the Oval Office. Andres has made an industry of showing Trump up – catering through a non-profit for hurricane victims and giving food vouchers to furloughed government workers during the shutdown.

It is hard not to view the Nationals invite as an attempt to please both sides of the divide.

One can imagine the theatre this will involve. Trump out in a hostile public environs, something he avoids. The inevitable jeers. The reaction from the president. The Tweets. Dear God, think of the Tweets.

The fans will be of two minds, because Game 5 is either going to be the cusp of an historic victory, or the middle of one of the great collapses in World Series history. Which occasion will those in attendance be most focused on – the sporting or the political?

There have been a few sports competitions in history that are so monumental they seem to encompass everything that’s going on in the moment. In retrospect, they become the zeitgeist. Everyone important was there. Things were happening. Games have started wars, or at least announced their inevitability.

Whatever happens with Trump, with the 2020 election, with America, you feel fairly certain that Game 5 of this World Series will be a part of the story. If not a turning point, then a signpost. We’re going to get a sense of where we’re at. Exactly where that is may not become clear for years.

Nixon, the last president forced out of office, never had that moment. The final baseball game he attended in his presidential capacity was in 1973.

Washington no longer had a team. He threw out the first pitch at a California Angels game – the first time a president had done so outside D.C. By the start of the next season, Nixon was in the midst of being consumed by Watergate.

Once in exile, Nixon continued to attend baseball games. During one of them, he was seated with Angels owner Gene Autry and team GM Buzzie Bavasi. Once Nixon had died, Bavasi recalled a moment during the game for a reporter.

An Angels runner was thrown out attempting to make it to third with two out – an absolute no-no in baseball.

“What a terrible mistake,” Bavasi said.

“It wasn’t as bad as the one I made,” Nixon said.

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