WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- --Later, the video replay would confirm it: Indeed, Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Ronny Paulino had just made a face that had only been made once before in the history of mankind -- about three seconds earlier, in fact. It was only by virtue of baseball geography that first baseman Adam LaRoche managed to make the face first.
In either case, the look was undeniable, the contorted features, confused eyes and maybe even a hint of fear. It was as if neither man had ever seen a 10-foot tall dead president barreling down on him before.
To be fair, I was a bit lost and confused, too. That was me, dressed in the Abraham Lincoln costume, participating in the Presidents Race at a recent Washington Nationals game. Actually, "participate" is too kind a word. The truth -- as attested to by more than 22,000 perplexed fans and a few angry front-office executives -- is that I had run drastically off course.
"Geez, do you have any idea what you just did?" were the first words I heard from a Nationals official when it was over.
No, I didn't, and honestly, the entire experience was hardly what I'd expected when I proposed suiting up for the popular race.
The Presidents Race features the Muppet-like likenesses of the four men featured on Mount Rushmore. Each mascot stands about 10 feet tall, with cartoonish features and heads large enough to make even the most committed steroid apologist want to check George Washington's hat size. Though most stadiums feature scoreboard races, these presidents actually come through a wall in right field in the middle of the fourth inning and scamper toward a finish line near the plate.
Since debuting last season, the race has become the most anticipated part of Nationals games and the coolest in-game promotion in baseball.
Shortly after the game began, I was escorted to the official mascot dressing room, where, as if out of some twisted John Wilkes Booth fantasy, presidents' heads littered the floor. There was never any doubt which mascot head I would wear. My athletic abilities would barely qualify me for a preschool volleyball team; I knew I had little shot of winning.
"I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true," Lincoln once said, which gave me a built-in excuse for any post-race news conferences.
My fate as an also-ran was further sealed when I met the Nationals staffers who would compete as Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.
They were built like comic book heroes, in better shape than most of the Nationals infielders.
As long as I beat Teddy, I figured.
Teddy has developed quite the cult following. In more than 70 tries, he's winless, the ideal hapless hero for a hapless team.
"He's just absent-minded really," said Nationals entertainment coordinator Thomas Davis, who's essentially the Karl Rove of the Presidents Race.
"Teddy's easily distracted. He's out to have a good time. I hope some day he gets that 'W,' but right now, it's tough to say what's going on with him."
Nationals officials insist the fix isn't in, but it's worth noting Teddy has been disqualified for using a mini-motorbike and for flying from the roof on a zip line. He gets distracted by players, fans and ballgirls, and has, on occasion, stopped to pull out a map or paused mid-race to dance to "Singin' in the Rain."
I wasn't going to lose to this clown.
As we dressed, the other performers tried giving me advice ("just keep running") and assuage my greatest fear -- a mid-race fall ("The president is down! I repeat: The president is down!").
The costume itself is four pieces: presidential stockings, presidential pants, presidential jacket and presidential head. The head is more than 5 feet tall and weighs about 50 pounds. It's worn similarly to a backpack, with straps wrapping around the waist and chest for support.
Inside the costume, it's approximately 640 degrees, and instantly I could feel beads of sweat attempting to turn every tiny crevice of my body into a community pool.
I'd anticipated the weight and size of Abe's head to be a problem, and though it was certainly difficult to balance and keep my back straight, the biggest obstacle was my vision. Abe's stupid beard rendered me nearly blind.
His eyes were about 3 feet higher than my own, so I had to peek out a mesh opening in his neck. Because of the beard, my vision was limited to the area around my feet, which meant I couldn't see anything that was actually in front of me. This would prove to be my undoing.
The third out in the top of the fourth caught us by surprise, and Davis was shouting "Go! Go! Go!" as we raced from the dressing room.
All four of us burst through a door in the outfield wall. My plan was to keep the scrambling feet of my foes within my sightline, so I wouldn't get lost.
Instead, I got lost.
As soon as George, Thomas and Teddy were out of sight, I panicked.
I could remember only something that Davis had told me earlier, "Follow the white line." In retrospect, he was probably referring to the start of the race, which is why all four of us began by racing down the foul line. But the three seasoned veterans knew when to veer left, and continued through foul territory.
I stayed on the white line. A groundskeeper, I'd later learn, watched the presidents fork and said, "Who in the hell is in Abe today?"
I'm not sure who was more surprised, Nationals officials or the Pirates players who were warming up, preparing for the bottom of the fourth.
As the presidents sprinted for the finish line, I saw first base from my mesh opening -- and the bottom half of LaRoche.
Looking back, I feel much worse about surprising Paulino behind the plate. He had to pop to his feet and raise his hands, signaling his pitcher, Shawn Chacon, to halt his pitches because the 16th president had inadvertently emancipated himself from the race path.
But LaRoche, he kind of had it coming. First base for the Pirates is a position formerly occupied by Randall Simon, whose mug appears on most-wanted posters hanging in every mascot dressing room in baseball.
In 2003, Simon spoiled the Milwaukee Brewers' Sausage Race by poking his bat where it didn't belong. Similar to the Presidents Race, the Brewers dress people in sausage costumes and send them sprinting.
Simon thought it was funny to lean over the railing and tap the Italian sausage, which took a tumble and scraped a knee.
But I do feel bad for the Nationals' bosses, who had no idea I'd be a worse performer than the ballplayers on their payroll.
While players, umpires and team officials started cursing one of America's greatest presidents, most fans, I think, were focused on the other three racers. On the television broadcast, analyst Don Sutton declared the race "one of the best this year," as Jefferson seemed to set a moving screen, blocking Teddy and giving Washington space to barely win.
"I'm smelling a left-wing conspiracy here," announcer Bob Carpenter said. "It wasn't a fast conspiracy, but anything to get George in there ahead of Teddy, who's still winless."
I was grabbed by a team employee and ushered through the stands, where I high-fived children. Because all I'd seen were my own feet, a foul line, a base and home plate, I honestly thought I might have won the race. Overheard in Section 310, though: "What's wrong with Abe today? He seems somewhat melancholy."
And maybe I was. After all, I besmirched the name of a great American.
Four scores and a couple of innings ago, I had a chance at presidential history. As the real Lincoln had said, I didn't win, but I did remain true. I truly stunk.