For fan in chief Obama, a Chicago champion caps his own record run
The Obama presidential library might need a special wing for all the memorabilia sports teams have given him, but by his own assessment, no team has delivered the sort of mementos the Chicago Cubs did Monday.
Among the tributes: a “midnight pardon” for a Chicago sports fan whose baseball loyalties are for that city’s other baseball team, the White Sox. Add to that a “44” tile from the historic Wrigley Field scoreboard, an all-access pass to the ballpark, a “W” flag signed by the team and a pair of jerseys which, like the tile, were emblazoned with his presidential number.
“Best swag I’ve gotten as president,” Obama said.
When the Cubs ended their historic championship drought last fall, Obama quickly invited the team to visit him at the White House before he left office. The Cubs arrived with just days to spare.
The visit added to another bit of history for Obama: He has honored more teams than any modern commander in chief — 86, more than doubling the number of athletes President George W. Bush hosted.
Playing host to athletes is part of the job Obama, an avid sports fan known to prefer ESPN commentary to cable news pundits, clearly relishes.
Bush had 40 such events in his eight years in office. Obama hosted nine teams in his first six months on the job and only slightly slowed the pace since.
He’s paid homage to teams of both genders. He’s hosted Little League champions. He offered tribute to teams from the current day as well as those from years past, including the Miami Dolphins for their historic undefeated season of 1972.
Obama has bestowed a dozen Presidential Medal of Freedom awards on athletes — most recently Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan, and Dodgers announcer Vin Scully.
The president has worked his love of sports into events with no athletic tie-in: When he announced Sonia Sotomayor as his first Supreme Court nominee, for example, he noted that she was a lifelong New York Yankees fan.
He’s even taken his fandom to foreign soil. On one of his first trips abroad, Obama thanked the Russians for Washington Capitals hockey star Alex Ovechkin, then the league MVP. When he visited Cuba in a historic visit in 2016, he sat behind home plate with President Raul Castro for an exhibition game between the Tampa Rays and Cuba’s national team.
This is someone who knows his players, their techniques and personalities. His March Madness NCAA basketball bracket has become a feature on ESPN, filled out on camera in the same White House Map Room where President Franklin D. Roosevelt reviewed strategy during World War II.
Over the years Obama has waded into hot-button sports issues, from calling for a playoff system for college football to telling the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles that Michael Vick deserved a second chance following his association with an illegal dogfighting ring. Jason Collins, who became the first openly gay player in professional sports, was a presidential guest at one of Obama’s State of the Union addresses.
The White House has issued detailed readouts of conversations Obama has held with coaches, some longer than statements sent out following discussions with foreign leaders. In 2009, he phoned then-Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, expressing “interest in the Lakers’ innovative triangle offense,” according to the official White House statement about the call.
Though no modern president has been quite so open and voluble on the topic, sports have long been a staple at the White House.
Bush was a part owner in the Texas Rangers franchise and would go to games and talk about his passion for baseball.
President Richard M. Nixon would send Redskins Coach George Allen suggestions for plays. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, by contrast, rarely engaged in sports tributes beyond photo opportunities although both, like Obama, were avid golfers.
Herbert Hoover played medicine ball on the White House South Lawn with members of his Cabinet, members of the Supreme Court and even reporters many mornings. President Teddy Roosevelt was an avid athlete — from hunting and tennis to wrestling and jujitsu.
As for President-elect Donald Trump, his love of sport appears to rival Obama’s, although with different styles.
Trump once owned a professional team as part of the now-defunct United States Football League. His endorsement from Bobby Knight became a staple of his campaign rhetoric. He’s got a spot in the celebrity wing of the professional wrestling hall of fame and boasts Don King and Mike Tyson as friends.
In the past, Trump has talked about buying the New York Mets and the Buffalo Bills. He’s had a lot to say about Alex Rodriguez.
Obama and Trump also have a love of golf in common. It’s not clear if Trump will frequent the courses at military bases in the Washington, D.C., area, where Obama devoted many of his fair-weather weekends, or if he’ll prefer to hit the links that bear his own name.
As for Obama, his most consistent sports trait is his deep Chicago loyalty — from the Bulls and the Bears to his beloved White Sox.
His cross-town support for the Southside baseball team was a running joke Monday. But he noted that First Lady Michelle Obama has been a lifelong Cubs fan. As the team toured the White House before the public East Room event, Obama said his wife spoke movingly of her memories of watching the team with her late father.
He also addressed other divided loyalties: the role baseball can play as a unifying force at a time when so much has divided the country.
He also noted the role sports has played throughout American history in “changing hearts,” referring to the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.
“There’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here,” he said.
For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.
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