CLINTON TAKES A SWING FROM THE HEART

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- It's not as if he didn't have enough things on his desk already -- after all, it took him an hour and 21 minutes just to list them in his State of the Union speech. But now President Clinton has added the baseball strike to his portfolio.

"The First Fan weighs in!" said Paul Begala, a political adviser to the president -- and Orioles season-ticket holder.

"He must really have liked throwing out the first ball," quipped another aide.

Mr. Clinton's passion is not baseball. It is not even the Super Bowl. The president loves college basketball. But he grew up as a St. Louis Cardinals fan and can talk more knowledgeably about baseball lore than most people realize. And in 1993, Mr. Clinton admitted that he did indeed enjoy throwing out the first ball on Opening Day at Camden Yards.

In an interview that day with The Sun, the president even confided that he practiced his pitching under the stadium beforehand because he was nervous about throwing the ball into the dirt.

And last year, even though his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks were in the finals of the NCAA college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Clinton detoured Air Force One to Cleveland on his way to the game -- so he could be the first to throw out the first ball in the Indians' new stadium.

"It was quite a sports day," recalled White House aide Arthur Jones. "He was in hog heaven."

On the spot

But now, the president has put himself on the spot.

If spring training gets under way next month and if major-league baseball's season begins as scheduled on April 2, millions of Americans will owe a debt of gratitude to the president who jump-started the negotiations.

But if the strike lingers, disgusted voters will have one more grievance against Mr. Clinton -- and baseball fans will have one more name to cuss in addition to acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig and their least favorite $3 million-a-year .200 hitter.

"It's quite a risk," said one prominent Democratic strategist. "If baseball doesn't start on time, now people will say: 'He even screwed up the baseball strike. He wasn't content to screw up Bosnia or the budget, now he's messing with baseball!' "

Not everyone agrees.

Peter Yang, vice president for Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm that has surveyed fan attitudes for Orioles owner Peter Angelos, says people will credit him for at least trying.

"Look, if he helps settle the strike, he's a hero," Mr. Yang said. "If he doesn't, people will say, 'Well, he made a good-faith effort.' They will say that there were larger forces at work . . . like money."

Enough to worry about

At the White House, the prevailing view has been that Mr. Clinton certainly has enough to worry about already, and his top advisers have nudged him away from this issue.

Last summer, when Leon E. Panetta assumed the job of Mr. Clinton's chief of staff, the understanding was that Mr. Clinton needed to be more discriminating in deciding which issues to tackle. Wading into an intractable squabble between millionaire players and multimillionaire owners didn't seem the best way of demonstrating a sharper focus.

But who imagined that they would actually cancel the World Series?

In Ring Lardner's classic baseball book "You Know Me, Al," the protagonist is a hick just up from the bush leagues. In letters home, he refers to the October classic as the "World Serious." This was a spoof, but not much of one. In truth, America had come to rely on the Series as one of life's few constants in a swiftly changing world.

World War I didn't stop the World Series. Neither did the Black Sox scandal. The World Series wasn't stopped by the Great Depression, by World War II, by Korea or Vietnam -- or even by the earthquake that shook San Francisco's Candlestick Park moments before a game was to start in 1989, setting parts of the city ablaze.

The 1980s, which Mr. Clinton and other Democrats have derided the "decade of greed," didn't stop the World Series. It was in 1994 that organized baseball ignored the notion of the greater national good. It was last year that the phrase "for the good of the game" became to most fans a cruel joke.

And Bill Clinton was president.

Eager to wade in

Aides said he's wanted to wade into this mess from the start.

"This is coming from the heart," said Mr. Begala. "I'm one of his political advisers, and I can tell you: This is way beyond politics. He is a sports fan, and he feels the rage every fan feels."

And so, on Thursday, Mr. Clinton directed federal mediator William J. Usery to bring both sides back to the bargaining table and to report to him by Feb. 6 -- the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's birth in Baltimore.

"It struck me as a good day to settle the baseball strike," Mr. Clinton told a group of mayors yesterday.

If nothing is happening, the president said, he will ask Mr. Usery to propose a solution.

"I hope it doesn't come to that," Mr. Clinton said in language that sounded to the parties involved like: "Play ball -- or else!"

"I don't know what the 'or else' is," said Donald Fehr, head of the players union. "I hope we never have to get there. Obviously, we have no pride. We'll take whatever help we can get."

Mr. Fehr met yesterday for an hour with senior White House aide Bruce Lindsey, who helped Mr. Clinton intercede in the American Airlines strike in 1993.

Even Mr. Selig, the oft-reviled acting commissioner, issued a statement welcoming the president's action.

First sign of hope

But the nation's fans -- and the thousands of people who have a vested interest in the return of major-league baseball -- have little confidence in the statements of either side. For many, the president's act this week was the first sign of hope.

"I'm glad," said Steve Sander, a Denver advertising executive who is working on marketing the Colorado Rockies. "We're trying to market a beautiful new stadium, and though we've got 30,000 season tickets sold, we don't know if we'll have major-league baseball. We'd just like it settled, and anything the president does to help is welcome."

"The outcome of the 1996 elections [does] not rest on this, but it's worth a try," said Dayton Duncan, a veteran of Democratic politics who worked with Ken Burns on last year's nine-part documentary "Baseball."

"I don't think people expect a baseball miracle from the %o president," Mr. Duncan added. "Nor do they believe this should be at the top of his list of priorities. It's not as important as getting Newt Gingrich and the Democrats to talk to each other. It's not as important as getting a nuclear disarmament agreement. But it may be more difficult."

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