WASHINGTON - While NFL teams are looking ahead to a new season, President Bush gave the Baltimore Ravens another chance yesterday to savor this year's Super Bowl triumph, offering them a presidential pat on the back at the White House.
Bush appeared with the team in the elegant East Room, where the six-footer looked tiny next to the towering athletes. Defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, who looks close to 400 pounds these days, gave Bush a formidable handshake that had to hurt.
"It's been 30 years since the Lombardi Trophy rested in Baltimore, Maryland," the president said, glancing at team owner Art Modell. "It is clear that by bringing it home, Art, you have indelibly etched your team, your style and your team culture on the hearts of everybody."
The Ravens displayed more gold jewelry than average White House visitors and the players whooped and cheered when Bush mentioned his $1.35 trillion tax cut, from which they should benefit generously, considering their salaries.
Focusing on defense
It might have been a stretch, but Bush used the occasion to talk policy. He said that skeptics of his proposal for a missile defense system should take note of how a team with a superb defense - the Ravens set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season - won the Super Bowl. Next week, the president will visit Europe, where many leaders oppose his missile defense plans.
"One of the discussions over in Europe will be about defense," Bush said. "Our allies need to take a look at the Baltimore Ravens. They'll realize good defense wins. A good defense is one which adjusts to the times. A good defense is modern. A good defense is clear.
"If Secretary Rumsfeld gets tired of his job, Secretary Marvin Lewis sounds pretty good," Bush said, pairing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld with the Ravens' defensive coordinator.
The president shook hands with the players, including Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis, the anchor of the Ravens defense, but did not mention any by name in his remarks.
The players offered Bush an au- tographed football and a Ravens' jersey - with the letter W, the president's middle initial and nickname, on the back.
Most players were dressed in suits and ties, though the imposing Siragusa wore a black T-shirt, untucked, and did not appear at all uncomfortable with his choice of attire. The boisterous lineman roamed the East Room before the ceremony and appeared delighted to come upon a throng of reporters.
"Which one of you called me fat in the paper?" he asked with a half-joking glare.
There was no response.
Siragusa said later that he enjoyed the White House event.`"It was cool, man," he said. "I was depressed that they didn't have the buffet ready."
The Ravens are the latest in a string of sports teams to benefit from a baseball owner-turned-president who seems to relish photo opportunities with athletes. Not five months into office, Bush has held nearly 20 sports-related events at the White House. Most have been to honor collegiate or professional championship teams, but Bush also was host to 47 Hall of Fame baseball greats for lunch, Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken for dinner and first- and second-graders for Sunday T-ball games on the South Lawn.
Bush is believed to be the first chief executive to welcome an NCAA women's volleyball team, the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. Players were at the White House last month. The University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, the NCAA women's hockey champs last season, are expected to visit in a few weeks.
President Bill Clinton held five sports-related events during his first five months in office.
Bush seemed to envy Modell yesterday. The Texas Rangers, after all, never won the World Series while the president was a part-owner, or ever for that matter. "I've never had the thrill of raising a trophy up like you and your family have done," Bush lamented.
Many of the Ravens chewed gum during the ceremony and seemed to see no reason to shed the pro-athlete image, even though they were at the White House. But others appeared awe-struck by the day.
"This is something special," said Coach Brian Billick. "And in the day of the jaded athlete, you think they're not interested in this. But they were into it today."
Ravens kicker Matt Stover acted like a tourist, capturing as much of the festivities as he could on a video camera.
"I had to get a picture with a fellow Texan," he said of Bush.
Outside linebacker Peter Boulware added that Bush "is the most influential person in the world, and we had a chance to meet him."
Receiver Brandon Stokley said the White House "was just awesome to see."
A few people were noticeably absent yesterday. Trent Dilfer, who was not re-signed by the Ravens after quarterbacking the team to its 34-7 Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants, did not make the trip. Tight end Shannon Sharpe was also among a handful of no-shows.
The team arrived after a frantic trip. The Ravens were forced to arrange a caravan of buses, with a police escort, after train service between Baltimore and Washington was shut down for two-to-three hours yesterday afternoon because of a downed electrical line near Bowie.(Siragusa, who gets bus sick easily, made the trip in one of the police cars.)
During the ceremony, Billick framed the ceremony as tagging a final exclamation point onto a memorable season.
"This is a special moment for us," he said. "Now, we can truly move on and, hopefully, be here next year."
For those unfamiliar with the Baltimore team, its monster defense and its Super season, the Bush administration distributed some background information that said it all.
"The 2000 Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV on January 28, 2001, in Tampa," the brief statement read.
"The Ravens overcame an offensive slump in October, when they did not score a touchdown. The team held together to finish as World Champions. The Ravens became the third wild-card team to win the Super Bowl."
The president moves on to another sport today, though not at the White House. He's flying to Omaha for the College World Series.
Sun staff writer Brent Jones contributed to this article.