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Pastime's relevance noted by Obama

Pastime's relevance noted by Obama

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ST. LOUIS -- Twenty-five minutes before his first pitch, the United States of America's No. 1 left-hander tapped Albert Pujols on the shoulder and the two retreated to the catacombs of Busch Stadium to work on the pitcher's fastball.

"Keep it high," Pujols offered.

Confident he was ready after a few warmups, the president of the U.S. walked through the National League dugout, onto the field and was poised to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the 80th All-Star Game on Tuesday night.

President Barack Obama was handed the ball by Hall of Famer Stan Musial, waiting in a golf cart after a warm reception from a sellout crowd, and then it was up to the left-hander.

President Obama jogged to the pitcher's mound wearing a Chicago White Sox warmup jacket, blue jeans and white basketball shoes -- but no glove. He looked like just another fan. I guess the leader of the free world can dress like that when his "day job" is finished for a few precious hours.

The pitch was almost a lob. President Obama wound up, grimaced a little, then let go. At first, it looked like a bouncer in front of Pujols, but the catcher said, "No, I scooped it up -- I picked it."

Obama said he tried to practice in the Rose Garden, then worked out with Pujols when he got to St. Louis.

As ceremonial first-pitches at All-Star Games go, this was one of the most entertaining I've seen.

The build-up to Obama's anticipated appearance was marvelous. The video-board messages from the five living presidents, including Obama, provided a tremendous prelude to his appearance in the flesh.

It was all about MLB's "All-Stars Among Us" -- in which everyday people were singled out for public service. Representatives from each of the 30 teams paraded onto the field and were congratulated en masse by the current crop of All-Stars.

But for most of the 46,760 fans at Busch on the humid night, memories of President Obama -- maybe the most athletic president, although I might get arguments that John F. Kennedy was at least an equal -- will not be forgotten.

The first time I saw a sitting president throw out the ceremonial first pitch at an All-Star Game was at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium in 1970, when President Richard Nixon did the honors. It was the first time the Midsummer Classic was at night.

President Gerald Ford was in Philadelphia for the 1976 game at Veterans Stadium.

I interviewed him prior to that game and turned up a fact not generally known about Ford -- he was an outstanding football player at the University of Michigan, but he loved baseball. President Ford said once that his lifelong ambition was to be a professional baseball player.

In 1992, I was invited by President George H.W. Bush to accompany him to the All-Star Game in San Diego aboard Air Force One. He was on the field prior to the game but did not throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

President Obama, who gave a speech earlier Tuesday in Michigan, had Hall of Famer Willie Mays fly to St. Louis with him on Air Force One. Obama began his day by honoring Wimbledon champion Serena Williams at the White House, then went to Michigan for the speech to pick up Mays.

When asked what advice he gave Obama, Mays said, "Follow through."

Obama and Mays walked off Air Force One arm-in-arm and entered the motorcade for the trip to Busch Stadium.

"This is as close to [Chicago] as I've been in a while, and this is the national pastime," President Obama told Joe Buck and Tim McCarver during the FOX telecast. "To go down there [on the field] and meet Stan Musial and Bob Gibson and those guys, it's such a reminder about what's great in this country. You can't beat that, and it's a real treat."

As we were waiting for Obama to appear, I stood in the NL dugout with several of the All-Stars, including Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino.

"We were honored as he walked through the clubhouse, shaking our hands," said Victorino. "Actually, it was pretty quiet in there. We [Phillies] were lucky we got to see him at the White House a few weeks ago."

Victorino is from Hawaii, and President Obama grew up there.

Later -- as Victorino, the last NL player elected to the NL squad by a record fan tally in the 2009 All-Star Game Sprint Final Vote -- singled to right field in the second inning, Obama said: "By the way, since I grew up in Hawaii, this kid, while we were down in the clubhouse, actually gave me some macadamia nuts from back home."

Moments before President Obama walked onto the field, I asked Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt how important it was for the president to be part of the first All-Star Game in St. Louis since 1966.

"It's fantastic," said DeWitt, sitting near the NL dugout. "He walked through the clubhouses and was very gracious, very outgoing. It means so much to baseball and the city to have the president here."

Earlier, Commissioner Bud Selig said: "I wrote President Obama a letter inviting him to the game. What was so wonderful was that they answered in 18-24 hours and were happy for him to come. He's had such a hectic schedule recently, but wanted to be here.

"No matter what anyone thinks politically, this is a big thing. The players will enjoy it and the fans will enjoy it. This is another testament to the meaning of this sport. We are a social institution, we do have an enormous social responsibility and clearly this intrigued the president and the White House.

"Yes, it means a great deal to us and to the sport."

President Obama sat with Selig during the first inning, conducted a FOX interview and left after the fourth inning.

Then, it was back to Air Force One and -- for this tired left-hander -- back to the real world.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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