WASHINGTON – As he took the podium last week in the White House briefing room, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was a familiar Washington figure – a former congressman and D.C. transplant who cheers for the team that calls Capitol Hill home.
“I did want to come out here with my Nationals hat on, but they told me that that would violate some type of rule, so I couldn’t do that,” Mulvaney said. “I was also going to wear my Montreal Expos hat, and then they said that would be foreign interference in the World Series, so I can’t do that either.”
The joke fell flat, and many were shocked by the bizarre news conference that followed, in which Mulvaney acknowledged a quid pro quo involving military aid to Ukraine. But nobody questioned Mulvaney’s Nationals fandom, even though he grew up in North Carolina and represented South Carolina in Congress – Atlanta Braves territory.
From members of Congress to city leaders, Supreme Court justices to TV pundits, cheering for the Nationals is one thing Washington politicos can agree on. Nationals Park, 1 1/2 miles south of the Capitol, has long been considered a bipartisan oasis where Republicans and Democrats can set aside their differences while dissecting the manager’s bullpen moves. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic predecessor, Harry Reid, have said the Nationals were one subject they could discuss without things getting heated.
“I think it’s the only safe haven in D.C. that’s a politics-free zone,” said Tom Davis, a Republican former congressman from northern Virginia and a season ticket holder. “Everybody’s sitting there rooting for the same team, unless you’re from Houston.”
That bipartisan comity could be tested on Sunday by President Donald Trump, who faces an impeachment inquiry to determine whether he violated his oath of office by asking Ukraine to investigate a political opponent.
Trump has announced he plans to attend Game 5 of the World Series between Washington and Houston, should the series last that long. The Nationals lead the Astros 2-0 and could close out the Series on Saturday night, giving the capital city its first World Series title since 1924.
If Trump does attend, it would be his first visit to Nationals Park since he took office. He is the only president in more than 80 years not to visit the ballpark or toss a ceremonial first ball when Washington had a team.
Franklin D. Roosevelt threw out the first pitch in Game 3 of the 1933 World Series at Griffith Stadium, the last World Series in Washington. Richard Nixon was an enthusiastic Washington Senators booster until the franchise left town for the second time after the 1971 season. And George W. Bush and Barack Obama revived the tradition after the Expos moved to Washington in 2005, becoming the Nationals.
Trump, however, will not throw out the first pitch. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said the president will arrive after the game starts and leave before the final out, in hopes of making his visit less disruptive to fans.
The Nationals announced Friday that Washington-based celebrity chef Jose Andres, a Trump critic who has repeatedly opposed Trump’s immigration policies and his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, will perform the honors for Sunday’s game.
By avoiding pregame pageantry, Trump will spare himself a likely hostile reception.
“I’ve seen them boo mayors and everybody else there,” Davis said. “For politicians, throwing out the first ball has gotten riskier. It’s been risky, pre-Trump, and this is a city that gave him 4% of the vote, so it’s probably not his strongest base city.”
The Nationals don’t often feature elected officials or famous-in-D.C. types on the in-stadium video screens, allowing polarizing figures like McConnell and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to enjoy the games in peace. Davis said he’s never seen anyone harassed in the stands, and he said overt political displays wouldn’t be welcome.
Red hats with a curly “W” are everywhere; red hats that say “Make America Great Again” are hard to find.
There are other signs that the impeachment drama is taking lawmakers’ minds off baseball.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was wounded in a 2017 mass shooting while practicing with fellow Republicans for their annual charity baseball game against Democrats, spoke to The Associated Press last year about how meaningful the ballpark is to him. It’s been a place where he can bond with Democrats and the site of milestones in his recovery – he threw out the first pitch at a 2017 playoff game and returned to the field in the Congressional baseball game last year.
But Scalise’s spokeswoman said by email Wednesday his schedule was too packed this week to talk baseball, and at the time she wrote, Scalise was among the roughly two dozen GOP congressmen who were crashing a closed-door impeachment deposition.
Perhaps a visit to the ballpark could again provide some solace from a rough week at the office.
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