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At last – something Obama cannot do well

Posted on 16 July 2009 | 10:07am

Lesser mortals among the fraternity known as ‘world leaders’ may take a little comfort from the fact that finally, Barack Obama has been found wanting.

Luckily for the President, who can make fly-swatting look like an act of relaxed statesmanship, his chink has been exposed not on matters war and peace, life and death, or even in questions of domestic policy, but on the baseball mound.

To be fair, his pitch, which I have just watched, was not terrible, terrible, terrible. It just wasn’t very good. He looked great of course. Unlike other leaders I could mention (see The Blair Years, various points pages 1-757) Obama does great casual gear.

So on he walks, to the rapturous welcome that he must by now think is part of the soundtrack of life, wearing a supercool Chicago White Sox jacket, well-cut denims, white socks and trainers. Up to the point when he reaches the mound, he looks his usual, totally in command self. But there are hints of nerves as he coils back to pitch the ball towards St Louis Cardinals’ hitter Albert Pujols.

His pitch was more a toss than a pitch and had Pujols not been quick off the mark, leaning forward to catch the ball, it would have landed short of the plate, 60 feet from Obama.

He admitted to nerves afterwards, and said he had been better when practising in the White House garden. In sport, as in oratory, you can practise all you want, but a crowd makes a difference to the event.

I think it is going over the top, as some commentators have, to describe the pitch as ‘sissy,’ and the crowd clearly loved him just as much as he left the field as when he arrived.

George Bush, unfavourably compared with Obama on most counts, is widely acknowledged as having done the best Presidential first pitch, not long after September 11.

TB’s greatest sporting moment was probably the photocall we did with former England manager Kevin Keegan at the Labour conference in 1994, when they headed the ball to each other 28 times. People were stunned at TB’s footballing prowess, but think about it – to someone like Keegan, heading the ball is no different to throwing it, so he was able to land it on TB’s head pretty much every time, as though it was being lobbed to him.

Then there was the famous ‘bike race’ of European leaders at the EU summit in Holland, which he won, helped by the fact that Helmut Kohl refused to get on the bike for fear he would fall off. I sensed some of the other leaders were a little annoyed that TB sped off. You see, they are competitive types these politicians. Which is why I bet I’m not alone in political circles in having taking a peek at Obama’s pitch.

All that being said, I think all political leaders, and all politics, stand to benefit from Obama doing well on the stuff that really matters. As if he does not have enough riding on his back already, if he can deliver the change he has promised, and continue to provide the leadership on offer so far, he will cement not only his own reputation, but help the standing of politics around the world.

There are plenty of others who can pitch a baseball.

  • Stuart Tarrant

    Haven’t seen the pitch but after your post I will go searching. One ‘sporting moment’ that made me cringe even more than TB at tennis, was John Major donning protective cricket gear for a few throw-downs at Lords. Pin stripe suit trousers hastily crimped into cricket pads, I think that triggered the beginning of the end!

  • Jane A

    Not as if he needs any greater popularity buzz, but I would think people would warm to him having the odd burst of imperfection and human error here and there. Same with the lovely Mrs O – she’s not an emaciated skeleton of a woman as the magazines would have us believe we should all aspire to – she looks curvy and normal. And always amazing.

  • Ian Eastwood

    Reading your blog reminds me of the old adage, stick to what you’re good at. It’s very dangerous territory in front of a crowd or the cameras doing anything out of your comfort zone. Even walking with your wife on the beach. Aka Neil Kinnock

  • Charlie Battle

    ‘ … the rapturous welcome that he must by mow think is part of the soundtrack of life ..’ Nice.

  • Harry H

    I see Cameron was playing football at Lilian Baylis school (the one Letwin said he would rather die than send his kids to) Cameron looked in ok shape but no matter how hard he tries to get down with the kids, in sports gear he looks like he ought to be on a polo field saying ‘yaaah’ a lot

  • Marion

    Do leading politicians get the same smell of fresh paint everywhere they go like the queen?

    Why do politicians want to be all things to all people? I prefer understanding of politics/economics, compassion and honesty… who gives a sh*t if they can play football or run marathons. A bit more focus on why they were elected would not go amiss. One thing I disliked TB for was how much partying he did with popstars and other glitterati

  • Alina Palimaru

    I find it outrageous that Fox News and Co. are so consumed with the scene, the camera angles, and the pitch. Give it a break, it’s just for fun and rather irrelevant to the issues that President Obama must grapple with. Fox’s claims that the Obama team asked them not to shoot the trajectory of the ball, just in case he missed completely, are ludicrous. Even is that were the case… it merely begs the question: So what?!

  • Katharine T.

    The whole thing is fatuous and unnecessary. If world leaders spent half as much time doing the job of running their respective countries instead of prancing around and playing with balls, or pulling ridiculous stunts for some inane photo op, then we would all be in a better place.

  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire


    Sure, I see your point (your blog, 16 July, paragraph 9, on “TB’s greatest sporting moment” – Labour Conference in 1994)

    Yes, former England manager, Kevin Keegan, can land a football on a pinhead, no question. He’s that accurate

    All Tony Blair had to do was stand there, watch the ball coming, bob his head abit whenever the ball arrived. Simple

    But, worth remembering that even the most gifted make everything look that effortlessly easy – including heading footballs during photocalls

    Maybe I just misinterpreted your observation as an unnecessarily low-punch, an impertinent swipe at the modestness of, what you refer to as, “TB’s footballing

    As if it needed only Keegan’s fine judgement and precision placement. That alone allowed TB to clock up such an impressive tally of 28 bonked headers, back and forth. And TB himself only needed, well, everything but talent

    Unconvinced, I’m remaining unconvinced. I’ll continue to applaud TB’s footie achievement, regardless

    But your explanation of how he’d achieved it, did remind me of another occasion, the same year, when a young Prince William, accompanying his mother, Diana, was overheard to comment to her that the exhibition paintings on display they were both admiring, looked nearly as good as the visual art William’s father, the Prince of Wales, created

    Poor William’s moment of pride in his father’s talent proved short-lived. (Because his mum was in the middle of another “anti-Charles offensive” leading up to divorce)

    Whereupon dear Diana stuck the boot in, the straight put-down. And William’s harmless praise earned his mother’s gentle reprimand – the sharpish rebuttal ” … Ah, yes, but you must always promise me you’ll remember your Papa’s had ALOT of help from other people, doing his art stuff, alot … ”

    As if Diana’s husband, plus his etchings and daubings, would all be trashcan fodder, but for groups of talented, visual artists visiting him at Highgrove. Presumably practically painting the pictures on His Royal Highness’ behalf

    Always feels base and shameful when couples stoop to this level of bitchiness and one-upmanship, I think

    Which also made me wonder how many items of kitchen crockery is your partner, Fiona Millar, forced to bounce off your own forehead, before you see the sense of admitting she’s been right all along, after all?

    Right – TWENTY-EIGHT times again, bonk, bonk, bonk. There, political coincidence, eh? Boy, I bet your blog’s only telling us half the real story. So far, at least

    Trevor Malcolm