Every 9/11, I watch George W. Bush throw out the first pitch of game three of the 2001 World Series. In the moments before the pitch, the president practiced warm-up throws in Yankee Stadium's basement, where Derek Jeter paid him a visit and let him know that if he pitched in front of the mound or if the ball failed to reach the plate, the crowd would boo.
Beyond the fickle nature of New York City crowds, this pitch was of extreme national importance. It had been less than two months after 9/11, and we were gripped by fear. The symbol of American power in our greatest city had been reduced to rubble. The pedestal on which we had placed ourselves had wobbled.
In the months following the attack, we feared that Al-Qaeda might attack again and a World Series Game hosted in the legendary Yankee stadium seemed, to many, to be the perfect opportunity for tragedy to strike. President Bush could have excused himself from throwing the first pitch for safety concerns, but he did not.
Wearing a bullet-proof vest underneath an FDNY fleece, the President jogged up the dugout steps, walked past the shortened mound and marched straight for the regulation distance strip of rubber. He acknowledged the tens of thousands of cheering fans, wound up and delivered a perfect strike.
The crowd roared as we swelled with national pride.
Bush's matter-of-fact response to his pitch only heightened the most important symbolic gesture of his presidency. The first pitch of a World Series Game in Yankee stadium is among the most American of traditions and how that pitch went was a barometer of the state of our nation.
The president needed to show us that despite the attacks, America could not be swayed. We cheered because the emotional wiring of the entire nation frayed in the face of the worst terrorist attack in our history, but our president still throws a perfect strike.
A thrown ball should not create a lump in our throats, but it did, because baseball, despite its recent faded popularity, remains to be the quintessential American sport. A father and son picking out the first glove, oiling it and putting it under the bed is a right of passage.
Even though most of us stop playing baseball after we become teenagers, one would be hard-pressed to find a home in the United States without two gloves and a ball. It is the common denominator of so many Americans.
George W. Bush is, by some metrics, one of our worst-ever presidents. He started two morally ambiguous wars, widened the gap between rich and poor and caused our foreign popularity to plummet. They won't be rearranging Mount Rushmore in his honor and history books will probably treat him unkindly.
However, for that moment in Yankee Stadium, George W. Bush did his job as perfectly as possible.
Our political system gives the president a fairly diluted amount of power, but the one job the president can and must do is to set the emotional tone for our country. He is the chief communicator of the direction in which we are headed.
When we were shaking with fear, we needed his hand to be steady. We needed to feed off of his strength and courage. We needed him to stay cool in the face of danger because if he could expose himself on one of the most vulnerable and visible stages in the world, and not show fear, then we could, too.
If baseball could carry on, then we could, too.
He was far from perfect, but when we needed him most, George W. Bush freaking nailed it.
Photo Courtesy: George Bush Library