Watching a game with the First Fan

President Obama makes a surprise appearance at a baseball game

AP Photo

On Thursday, June 17, 2010, I was having lunch in a restaurant near my home in Manhattan with Bill Marovitz, a friend from Chicago, where I was born and raised. Marovitz, of medium build and with a thick thatch of sandy hair, is a former Illinois State Senator and possesses a broad smile that surely helped him get elected several times in his Gold Coast district of lakefront Chicago. Marovitz is friends with Jerry Reinsdorf, principal owner of the Chicago White Sox, and the Chicago Bulls. When Marovitz was in the State Senate, in 1988, he co-sponsored a bill to keep the White Sox in Chicago rather than, as team ownership threatened, to have the franchise moved to Tampa-St. Petersburg unless it would get a tax break on building a new ballpark. Marovitz was the political face of the bill, appearing on television on numerous occasions and being quoted in newspapers with, “Let’s keep the White Sox where they belong, in Chicago. What’s it say about a city that can’t keep a valuable franchise like this big-league ballclub.”

And Marovitz meant it. He is a fervent sports fan, especially when it comes to the White Sox. (He had even been known to attend a play in a downtown theater while listening to a Sox game with a transistor radio ear-piece glued to his ear.) And the bill allowing the use of public funds passed, narrowly, enabling the White Sox to build and finance their present ballpark, U.S. Cellular Field, across 35th Street from old Comiskey Park (now a parking lot). The passing of that bill most surely had something to do with Reinsdorf later smiling when Marovitz would come into his view. And they became very friendly.

“I’m going to D.C. tomorrow,” Marovitz was now saying to me, “Strasburg is pitching against the White Sox tomorrow night and Jerry’ll be there in a suite.” Stephen Strasburg was the new pitching phenom for the Washington Nationals. “Why don’t you join us? It’ll be great.”

“He invited you?” I said.

“Sure.”

“I’d love to see Strasburg pitch, but if I’m going to sit in Reinsdorf’s box, maybe you should ask him if it’s okay. If it’s not I still have my Lifetime Baseball Writer’s card. I’ll go down with you and sit in the press box. Been there before.”

“No, I’ll call Jerry. It’ll be fine. I’ll let him know you’re coming with me.”

In my 26 years as a sports columnist for The New York Times (retired in 2007), a writer for the paper wouldn’t want to be caught dead – even worse, alive – in the suite or box of an owner of a team you were covering. It would have the odor of non-objectivity, of being bought off for a chance to hobnob with the swells, something that one could never be accused of while ensconced in the press box. A stringent policy against cozying up – or appearing to cozy up – to Movers and Shakers had been laid down for years by Times editors. I’d been gone from the paper for three years now, and, yes, career experiences are hard to shake, but I considered myself a free agent, and decided to take up Reinsdorf’s – and Bill’s – offer.

I had known Jerry Reinsdorf for 30 years, and had a good journalistic relationship with him. As for Strasburg, this would be only his third game in the Major Leagues. In the previous two games, starting both, he had struck out a total of 22 batters – a record start for a pitcher. Some baseball pundits were calling him the next Bob Feller or Bob Gibson, Hall of Fame fire-ballers. June 18 would be his second start in a home game. Like most baseball fans, Reinsdorf  — who would be given a suite and adjoining box by the Nationals as is a league courtesy to a visiting team’s owner — was surely eager to see the 21-year-old Strasburg pitch – and now the heralded rookie was going up against his team.

On the morning of June 18, Bill Marovitz and I met at Penn Station on Seventh Avenue and we took the Acela train to Washington, checking the newspapers for late news on the game and on Strasburg – and the weather. We had no need for rain.

As the train whizzed along through the New Jersey countryside and past towns that emerged however briefly outside the car window, I’m sure we talked about the previous two outings of Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the major league draft of 2009, who was a pitching marvel at San Diego State and in a brief minor-league career. In his major-league debut on June 8, 10 days before Bill and I boarded our train to Washington, Strasburg had struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates – including every batter in the starting lineup – only one strikeout short of the record for a rookie debut. His fastball was clocked as high as an astounding 100 mph. Strasburg’s second outing five days earlier, against Cleveland, was only a bit less impressive, eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. His won-lost record was now 2-0. “He was,” wrote Sports Illustrated, “the most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in Major League history.” Perhaps an exaggeration, but name one pitcher more hyped and more closely watched. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:

“Doc Gooden of the Mets?” said Bill.

“Not quite like this in his first games, I don’t think,” I said.

“Bob Feller?”

“No TV in his day. And he played for Cleveland, not a big national newspaper story, either.”

“Christy Mathewson?”

“Hardly even radio in his time. And the telegraph wouldn’t have done the trick. When was the Pony Express, anyway?”

And thus the train rattled on to D.C. Trenton came and went. So did Philadelphia and Wilmington.

“Do you think Obama might show up for the game?” Bill mused. “He’s a great White Sox fan, and a great baseball fan.”

“Great sports fan. He loves basketball, still plays. I have friends who played with him at the East Bank Club.”

“I worked out there with him – in the weight room! When he was in the Illinois Senate.”

“Well, in basketball, a friend who has played with him there said that they close off the court and if you guard him too closely the Secret Service guys run out and push you back.”

“Hadn’t heard that,” said Marovitz, with a chuckle. “Funny thing, when Obama was asked to throw out the first ball at the All-Star Game in St. Louis last year, MLB wanted him to wear a Cardinals’ jacket. He refused.”

“Refused?”

“Yeah, he insisted on wearing a White Sox jacket. And that’s what he wore.”

“I remember him wearing the jacket.”

“He threw out the first pitch at the Nationals’ opener in April, and wore the Nationals jacket – but he wore his White Sox cap – he had hid it in his glove.”

“Doesn’t give up.”

“But I’ll bet he’s as curious about Strasburg as everyone else,” said Bill. “Hey, Reinsdorf‘s even coming in from Chicago for the game.”

“So?”

“So if Obama’s in town I’d bet he’d give it serious thought. Jerry told me that he invited him to the game but doesn’t know if he’d come.”

“But he is kinda busy these days – dealing with the world. …”

“You never know,” said Marovitz.

“That would be something,” I said. Years later, I learned that Secret Service had checked out the stadium a week prior to the game just in case the President was able to make it.

Bill had known Obama for several years. Besides having worked out with him, he had also organized a fundraiser for him at the Park West concert hall in Chicago when Obama was running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, in 2004, and elicited entertainers like Stevie Wonder and Robin Williams to perform. Marovitz acted as master of ceremonies for the event.

We rumbled out of a stop in Baltimore and very soon we were at Union Station, D.C. Bill and I made our way through the throngs, caught a cab to our hotel, dropped off our stuff, freshened up, and at around 4:30 caught the Metro subway Green Line to Nationals Park and the first pitch of the game, which would be with Strasburg on the mound in the top of the first inning, scheduled for 7:05.

As we emerged from the train station, it was still rather early for the game but we saw despite that that traffic was heavy around the park. It was a beautiful, balmy night. In the twilight of a clear sky, with only a hint of twinkling stars, the stadium lights glowed in the distance. Bill and I flowed into the mostly shirt-sleeve crowd of fans, some topped by cherry red Nationals caps with the letter “W” scripted on the front and others with cameras looped about their necks. There was a palpable anticipation. I imagine it’s that way with aficionados in Madrid streaming to the Plaza de Toros to see the new hot toreador, or, in Medieval times in England, a crush of nobles and vassals in sight of the castle battlements to check out the latest, greatest jousting knight. We walked the long block along Half Street to our destination.

As we got closer, a bright red sign on the façade came into view: “Nationals Park.” Beyond it, a portion of the blue-seat upper decks seemed beckoning. To the left was the center-field scoreboard, a kind of colossus. Bill and I turned left on N Street to the Will Call window, and picked up our tickets, the tops of which read “Natstown,” and below that, under “Row,” it stated “ Lincoln Suite II.” I still carried my Baseball Writer’s card in my pocket just in case there was a problem, and I’d simply repair to the press box, if need be.

At the elevator the luxury suites we ran into Jerry Reinsdorf, waiting to ascend. Reinsdorf seemed pleased to see us. “Great night for a game,” he said greeting us, his voice gentle, though a bit raspy. His graying hair was combed in a boyish wavelet at the top of his high forehead, his eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses were direct. He carried a slight paunch. Reinsdorf had been a powerful voice among the owners, most notably in toppling then Commissioner Fay Vincent and elevating Bud Selig to the post. Reinsdorf can be sentimental to his roots, which are in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  Though he left Brooklyn to attend Northwestern University Law School and remained in Chicago and amassed a fortune in real estate, he has hung on the walls of his Chicago office photographs of Flatbush’s long-gone Ebbets Field. Reinsdorf also can be self-deprecating: Some 20 years earlier we had gone to dinner in Chicago and went to his private club. I had insisted on paying, since The Times’ policy was to foot the bill at all times, if possible, but this was his private club and he would just sign the bill, so I’d have to take a rain check on buying him dinner. He hadn’t made a reservation and asked the tuxedoed maître d’ if he had a table. “Of course, sir,” the man said, “right this way.” “It’s amazing,” Reinsdorf whispered to me as we walked, “the influence you can have if you happen to know Michael Jordan.” Reinsdorf, after all, was the owner of the basketball team in Chicago that Air Jordan played for.

Both Reinsdorf and Marovitz wore sport jackets with shirts open at the collars. I wore just a long-sleeve shirt, no jacket, and so was, for a sportswriter, even a former one, under-dressed, I felt, though not quite as rumpled as, say, the Odd Couple’s “Oscar Madison.”

At the door to the second-tier suite, we were met by two well-built men in business suits who were checking IDs, and with a list of names on clipboards. “Odd, they aren’t your conventional ushers,” I thought. “Is this how suites work?” Inside were hot plates with a variety of food and drinks and an assortment of people as well, including the mustachioed David Axelrod, the senior adviser to President Obama, and who was friendly with Reinsdorf and obviously now a guest of his. I had met Axelrod several months earlier, when my wife and I were invited to his office in the White House, following an exchange of emails. We had a Chicago political connection of sorts – he being a political consultant in the city and I was the son of a former Chicago precinct captain under the first Mayor Daley. We had a newspaper connection, as well, since he had been a political columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He was also a baseball fan, a season-ticket holder with the Cubs, but he also followed the White Sox and was a basketball fan, like his boss in the Oval Office. On a shelf in his office Axelrod proudly displayed a basketball signed by Bill Russell who rarely signed autographs, but did for Axelrod when the former Boston Celtic great had been honored at the White House. This autograph read simply, “Yo David. Bill Russell”.

There was some small talk: I remember Axelrod asking Reinsdsorf if the Bulls had a chance to land LeBron James, then a free-agent from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Reinsdorf said that he and a few members of the Bulls had gone to Akron, LeBron’s home town, to try to lure him to Chicago. “I don’t think we persuaded him,” said Reinsdorf. I was about to say something when Axelrod put his hand on my arm. “Wait,” he said, with a smile, “this might be breaking news!” Reinsdorf continued, “But I think he’s going to stay with the Cavs.”  It turned out that Reinsdorf was only half right about LeBron – no Bulls and no Cavs, either; James, of course, signed with the Miami Heat.

It was getting close to game-time. Most of us walked out from a door of the glass-enclosed suite and into the box. Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, and Janet Napolitano, then the Homeland Security Secretary, remained in the suite for much of the game, as I recall. Reinsdorf did as well – and almost never sat down while nervously rooting for his team.

Rendell, Reinsdorf and Napolitano were talking about sports broadcasters. “All they do is talk about the obvious, work a few hours and then are off,” said Reinsdorf, with a laugh.

“Gee, sounds like a great job,” said Napolitano, “how can I get a job like that?”

Axelrod; a man named Eric Whitaker, a long-time friend of Axelrod’s; Ken Williams, White Sox general manager; Marovitz and I took our seats, which were located on the third-base side of the field. All of us were surely guests of the owner, and baseball fans. For whatever reason, I thought nothing more of it. There were two rows of cushioned seats, 14 in each row. We all sat in the second row. Axelrod sat to my left and Marovitz to my right, at the left side of the row of seats, with several seats empty to the right. Just below us over the railing was the grandstand, now mostly filled with the  baseball fans nestling into their seats – attendance would be listed at 40,325, nearly capacity — only soon to stand again for the national anthem (Jerry Krause, the former general manager of Reinsdorf’s Bulls, once told me that if he were to write a book of his experiences, he’d title it “Ten Thousand National Anthems”).

Beyond those fans just below us was the lush green and clean tan of the ball field, the stark white bases seemingly popping up like mushrooms on the base paths, the ballplayers trotting out to take their positions, and beyond that the bleachers and the hulking center-field scoreboard that nearly seemed out of place in this otherwise serene setting.

On the mound now taking his warmup tosses was the swiftly acclaimed rookie Strasburg, a strapping 6-foot-4 right-hander, throwing in a sweeping overhand motion, and looking quite cool as his pitches popped into the catcher’s mitt. His red cap was tugged low, his red jersey top bore the number “37,” his white knickers were tucked just below his knee and thus showed his long red stirrup socks. From my vantage point, I could also make out a clump, as it were, of facial hair clinging to his chin – perhaps a proud symbol of maturity for someone who was not considerably past voting age.

The White Sox, however, seemed not as altogether taken with Strasburg as was the local fandom, to say nothing of the rest of the country. Juan Pierre, the Sox speedy leadoff batter, managed a slow-roller to the first baseman, with Strasburg a little slow coming off the mound to cover first base for the toss. Base hit. Pierre was followed in the lineup by shortstop Omar Vizquel, who – a right-handed batter swinging late on a sizzling fastball– promptly lifted a bloop to right that wound up a double. Pierre stopped at third. Strasburg tugged again at his cap, kicked a little dirt around the mound in apparent slight frustration, and then got Alex Rios, next up, to ground out weakly to first, but Pierre scored. Vizquel made it to third, but went no farther as Strasburg struck out the next two batters. The crowd clamorously expressed its approval. However, despite no solid blows by Chicago, Strasburg’s team was behind 1-0 before it even came to the plate. On first sight, though – and in the first inning — it certainly appeared that Stephen Strasburg had a million-dollar arm – actually, $2 million, which was his salary for the 2010 season.

It was around this time that there was a sudden murmur in our box and we looked up to see coming through the door and down the few steps a tall, light-skinned black man in a black-and-white White Sox cap, a white short-sleeve shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers – followed by two young girls. It was the President of the United States and his daughters, 11-year-old Malia and 9-year-old Sasha.

The President was all smiles, and energetic, fairly bounding down the stairs, though not too bounding since he had a plastic cup of beer in his hand. It was as though, at least on this gentle night, and in only his 16th month as “The Leader of the Free World,” and commander in chief, the burdens for the 48-year-old President — from Congressional obstacles for his economic programs to the Mideast to say nothing of crumbling bridges and rutted roads  — seemed cast aside. He gave Bill a warm greeting, and shortly after, the President came to me.

“I’m Ira Berkow,” I said. He shook my hand firmly and said, “I know who you are. You wrote a lot of Knick columns with The Times, and you wrote ‘Rockin’ Steady’ with Clyde.”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I bought the book when I was…. “ (He paused, as though searching his memory.) “…I was 12 years old. I loved all the fashion stuff and how to catch flies with your bare hands.”

I smiled. “Some memory,” I said. Not only did he recall specifics in the book, he referred familiarly to my co-author, Walt Frazier, as “Clyde,” the former star Knick guard’s basketball nickname. At the compliment, Obama smiled with all his bright white teeth – a smile that editorial cartoonists love to depict — adding an incandescence to the box.

“’Rockin’ Steady’ is being reissued in hardcover in October,” I added. “I’ll be happy to send you a copy.”

“Why don’t you and Clyde come to the White House and give me an autographed copy?”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said.

I knew, of course, that he was a great basketball fan, and when he was 12 he was probably thinking of making the Punahou High School basketball team in a few years (he was sixth man on its Hawaiian state championship team), and “Rockin’ Steady,” an off-beat coffee-table basketball instructional book, was popular, especially with fans of Clyde. Besides how to dribble and shoot, the book also highlighted Clyde’s unusual, if not sometimes weird, wardrobe, along with diagrams of Clyde demonstrating his quick hands by catching flies both in the air and in a standing position. (I neglected to ask the President how his fly-catching was these days, though a year before he was shown killing a pesky fly in the Oval office during a televised interview – he watched, waited, and then when the buzzing fly to landed on Obama’s left hand he then swifly, with cupped right hand, swatted down and it was curtains for the intruder  – impressive, but not quite the same thing, alas, though maybe “Rockin’ Steady” served as inspiration. Retrieving a napkin after the TV interview, Obama neatly picked up the deceased fly from the carpet.)

The President asked me what I thought of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, in which the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics, played the night before. I said I thought it was exciting, if not artistic. He nodded, and then his attention was diverted to say hello to someone else, and moved on, though not too far, since it was a small box.

While the Presidential kids took a seat in the first row with two men not identified to me, I assumed they were Secret Service, Obama eventually took a seat to the right of Marovitz in the second row. Shortly before, I had overheard Bill asking Axelrod, “What should I call him? Barack or Mr. President?” He hadn’t called him anything yet.

Since the two were sitting essentially inches from me, I leaned over, as a participant in the conversation.

Bill said, “Mr. President, the Mideast, and peace, that has to be a tough thing to deal with.”

“I’m doing the best I can for peace over there. Not easy,” said Obama. Indeed, one of his first actions in office was to send Sen. George Mitchell to Israel and Palestine. Mitchell had recently negotiated a peace in Northern Ireland and Obama hoped he could some of the same there. “I want to ensure security for Israel, and have sovereignty for the Palestinians. But I keep running into roadblocks.”

“Netanyahu?” said Bill, referring to the Israeli prime minister.

“To a certain extent,” replied Obama. “Yes, it’s frustrating.”

Bill said, “So tell me, how do you handle all the critics, the criticism coming at you all the time?”

“Keep doing what you feel is right. What’s in your heart.”

Bill said, “You know, just a few short years ago we worked out together at the East Bank club, and then I was in Arizona when you were making a speech, who would have thought it would end up like this, you President of the United States?”

Obama smiled that broad smile. “I would have,” he said evenly.

We talked some baseball. Later Marovitz said, “He exhibited a knowledge about the White Sox that was as great as any ordinary fanatical fan. He was optimistic about the team. He’s an optimistic guy.”

Strasburg struck out another batter in the second inning, and it caught the President’s attention. “He’s the real deal, isn’t he?” he said.

And we talked basketball. Bill raised a question about whether a superstar player like LeBron James can dictate strategy to his coach, as was rumored he had in Cleveland. “The best coaches run the show – Phil Jackson, Popovich, Sloan,” said Obama. “They make certain that they, not the star player, decide the strategy. K. C. Jones told me a story of when he was coaching the Celtics in a playoff game. It was something like 91-91 with 10 seconds to go in the game and the Celtics called time-out. Larry Bird comes back to the team huddle and says, `Give me the ball. I wanna take the last shot.’ Jones says, `You don’t run this team. You don’t tell me what plays to run. Go sit down!’ Then Jones says to the other players, `OK, here’s what we’re going to do. We inbound the ball to Bird and let him take the last shot.’”

Obama told it well and got a genuinely good laugh in response. At about this time Sen. Kent Conrad, a progressive Democrat from North Dakota, came by to greet Obama. The President bade him to take the empty seat to his right. I wasn’t able to catch the conversation, though admittedly I tried (a reporter’s blood continues through my veins, after all). I remembered that Obama grew more intense and spoke quietly with Conrad. While he periodically kept his eye on the ball game, Obama also seemed to focus intently on what Conrad was saying.

A few years later, I had an opportunity to speak with Conrad, and asked him if he remembered the conversation with Obama.

“I certainly do,” he said. “He seemed kind of down. He was taking heavy criticism for his economic policy. I thought he felt under siege. Wow, he’s trying to pull the country from out of a ditch. I remember saying to him, `There needs to be a narrative, remind people of what you inherited. This country was on the brink of Depression. What was occurring before you took office. Bush would have vetoed any chance for regulation of business practices. We had massive debt.  The stew that was cooked there was hard to choke down. Republicans were against anything and everything he tried to do. I told him, `Stick with your narrative. Gotta keep reminding people. Connect the dots.’ He has a high level of natural intelligence, and he’s no ideologue. He wants what’s best for the country. But I think part of that problem is that because of his makeup he gets bored saying the same thing over and over – in this business you have to. You can’t effectively get bored hearing yourself say the same thing over and over, and still lead. Those of us more pedestrian don’t necessarily get bored that way.”

“I was trying to buck him up,” added Conrad. Strasburg had recorded a few more strikeouts during the conversation, and Conrad remembered Obama saying “Whoa, this guy can bring it!”

When Conrad got up to leave, he gave Obama a manly hug and heard him say, “Stay strong.” Obama thanked him.

Annette Lerner, wife of the Nationals’ owner, Ted Lerner, had left her own box to chat briefly with the President. Then Stan Kasten, the president of the Nationals, and one-time president of the Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball teams, dropped by to say hello to Obama. He asked Obama if he had called Phil Jackson to congratulate him on the NBA championship.

“I spoke to Phil,” said Obama, “and I tried to reach Doc but couldn’t get him.” (He referred to Glenn (Doc) Rivers, coach of the Celtics, which came in second to Jackson’s Lakers.) Kasten said, `Let me try.’” (Rivers used to play for the Hawks and maintained a friendship with Kasten.)

“Hey, Glenn,” said Kasten on his cell phone. “I have the President here, he wants to say hello.” Kasten handed Obama the phone and Obama and Rivers chatted for a few minutes. “Okay,” said Obama, signing off, “talk to you soon,” and returned the phone to Kasten. (Kasten smiled and, when leaving, said quietly to me, “I can get Doc Rivers on the phone and the President of the United States can’t?”)

Periodically, Obama took out his BlackBerry and fiddled with it for messages. Axelrod now suggested that we change seats – he had wanted all of us to have some chance to sit next to the president for a chat. And now it was my turn.

I said to the President, “I saw film clips of you shooting a basketball. Looks like you have a nice shot.”

“I have some game,” he said, with pride.

“Growing up, did you model your game after anyone?” I asked.

“I liked Clyde a lot, but it was Lenny Wilkens. He was a lefty, too.”

“I once did a magazine article on Lenny when he was coaching Seattle,” I said. “Before going out there, I saw Clyde and asked if he had a question for Lenny. He said, `Yes, I always knew he was going left, but I could never stop him. Ask him why.”

“And what did he say?” asked the President, leaning forward in his seat.

“He said, `Clyde always knew I was going left – but he never knew when.”

“That’s like me!” Obama said. “I can still go left against 25-year-olds.They know I’m going left, but don’t know when!”

We laughed. I said, “I was talking one day to Jonathan Alter –“ “He’s a good guy,” said Obama. “Yes, he is,” I continued, “and we were talking about you and he said, `Have you read Obama’s book “Dreams From My Father’? I said I hadn’t. He said it was terrific, beautifully written. He said that when he saw you after reading it, he told you, `You’re ruining it for the rest of us.’ So I did  read it and I agreed all around with Jonathan, ” I said.

Obama smiled. “Thank you,” said Obama.

“Like a lot of people, though, I wondered if you had really written the book yourself,” I said. “I had noticed in the Acknowledgements that Ruth Fecych was one of your editors – “

“She’s a really good editor,” he said, “and I had been with another publisher but didn’t get the manuscript in on time and had to go to her publisher – “

“Yes, she’s a fine editor. She edited two of my books. And I called her and asked if Obama had really written that book himself. I believed I’d get a straight answer from her. And she said, `Yes.’” And I said, with a recollected mutter, “Son of a bitch.” (The essence, which I hoped he caught, was, again, “You’re ruining it for the rest of us”.) He laughed, I’m happy to report.

Malia came by and told her father that there were now desserts in the suite. “Daddy, do you want some cake?” she asked. “No,” he replied, but noticed the rather large chocolate cookie she had. “Can I have a bite?” he asked. Malia handed the cookie to him. He took a generous bite out of it – about half the cookie – and returned it to its owner, who looked with some surprise at the cookie, but said nothing.

At the seventh-inning stretch we all stood up and sang, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The President seemed in good tenor voice. The fans nearby had turned more to the President in his box than to the field itself, and waved and shouted hellos and snapped photos with raised smart phones. Upon seeing the President, whose presence was never announced, those fans had to have been utterly surprised, if not totally shocked.

After seven innings, Strasburg was taken out of the game. He had thrown 85 pitches and the manager, Jim Riggleman, was trying to limit the wear and tear on a young pitcher’s arm. But Strasburg had given the crowd its money’s worth. He allowed just that one run in the first and then shut the White Sox down for the next six innings, striking out 10, to set a major-league record for a pitcher’s first three career starts, with 32 Ks. His control was superb; he walked no one . At one point, he retired 15 batters in a row, and in the sixth he recorded two straight strikeouts, on 90-mph changeups for the third swinging strikes, and the last two outs of the inning. However, Washington could score just one run off the Sox Gavin Floyd, and so Strasburg left the game at 1-1. He would receive a “no decision,” neither a win nor a loss. With Strasburg gone, it seemed Obama rooted more openly for the White Sox, with an occasional whoop, “Let’s go!” and a hand clap.

With the score still tied at the top of the ninth, Obama rose to leave, but first went down to the first row of the box and reached out to shake hands and make small talk and smile for photos with some of the nearby fans. I noticed that one of the Secret Service men standing in the aisle looked on, if not glowering, then eyeing the situation quite closely, like a hotel detective checking out a suspicious character possibly loitering in the lobby.

Reinsdorf, when he invited the President to the game at first got a No, then a Maybe, still wasn’t sure he’d show up — until he did. The President told Reinsdorf at the game that he was not going to stay through nine innings, for the same reason he had come a little late for the start of the game. “He told me that he didn’t want his motorcade to snarl traffic,” said Reinsdorf, which, I’m sure, was appreciated by the non-Presidential motorists around the ballpark.

When Reinsdorf saw that Obama was preparing to leave, he went into the closet to get some presents (just in case he’d come to the game) for Obama’s daughters. They were from Scott Reifert, the Sox publicity director.  Reifert’s daughters and Sasha and Malia were friends from Chicago and Reinsdorf had placed the gifts in the suite closet prior to Obama’s possible arrival. “Just as I reached in to get the presents,” said Reinsdorf, “I saw a leather brief case that hadn’t been there before. I bent to move it out of the way when a very strong hand grabbed my arm and said, `Don’t touch that!’ I guess it was `the football’ and the guy with that grip was Secret Service, or a plain-clothes military aide. As I learned “the football,” carries with it nuclear information, including retaliatory options, and is always near the president’s side, or, as in this case, just a few feet away hidden in a closet.

Obama said farewell to those in the box. When he came to me, I could think of nothing more to say than repeat Sen. Conrad’s good-bye, “Stay strong.” He looked me in the eye and offered a good hand-shake. And then he was gone.

The White Sox went on to win in 11 innings, 2-1. A news report the next day stated that the President left the park at 9:18 and his motorcade arrived back at the White House — which is down the road a piece on Pennsylvania Avenue from Nationals Park — at 9:31, having traversed from southeast Washington to northwest Washington. The last out of the game was made at precisely 10:00, Nationals center fielder Nyjer Morgan grounding out to second base. My guess is that the President, with or without his Sox cap, watched the end of the game from the Lincoln bedroom, or thereabouts, and was pleased with its outcome.

Marovitz and I had planned to catch a cab back to our hotel, but thought we’d have trouble getting one in the crowd. “I imagine Jerry came in a limo,” said Bill. “Do you think I should ask him for a ride back?”

“Why not?” I said. “That’s the least he can do for us.” (When as a young reporter I was once told by an old sportswriter, “When you free-load, bitch, you maintain dignity.”)

Jerry said he came on the team bus and we were welcome to ride back with him and the players, and naturally we accepted. It wasn’t the Presidential motorcade, but it was fine. And the end to a most remarkable night.