Friday, July 12, 2024

It doesn’t come with a ring, but this week was still special for former First Fan George W. Bush. Nearly three decades after he sold the Texas Rangers, the team that propelled him into politics finally brought home its first World Series title.

Mr. Bush kicked off the series last week by throwing out the first pitch and cheered from home in Dallas on Wednesday when his old team won Game 5 in Phoenix. For the onetime Rangers managing partner, it was an enervating finale to a championship that eluded him when he was signing the checks.

“I think he’s loving it,” said Tom Bernstein, a longtime friend and fellow partner in the Rangers ownership back in the day. Mr. Bush, he said, has always been captivated by baseball. “It just speaks to him. It sounds corny but the rhythm of the whole thing. He’s a student of the game. He’s immersed in it. He always was. Why baseball? It’s a crazy game. But it resonates with him. It’s part of who he is.”

The former president, who generally stays out of the statement-issuing business these days, made an exception, declaring himself “thrilled” by the victory. “I congratulate the owners, the managers and coaching staff, the front office and the entire organization,” he said. “And, of course, I congratulate the players of this awesome team on winning the first World Series in our club’s history. This was baseball at its finest, and Laura and I are proud of this team.”

Baseball has long been the sport of presidents, from the days when Andrew Johnson brought the first players of an organized team to the White House and William Howard Taft became the first commander in chief to throw out the first pitch on opening day. But perhaps none had more direct ties to America’s pastime than Mr. Bush and his father, President George H.W. Bush, a star first baseman at Andover and Yale.

Young George dreamed of becoming another Willie Mays as he played catch in the backyard in Midland, Texas, with his father, who coached his Little League team. Yet while following his father to Andover and Yale, he could not match Poppy’s glory on the diamond. Instead, he was a cheerleader and formed a stickball league, serving as a commissioner called “Tweeds Bush,” a play on Boss Tweed, the old political kingpin.

Baseball “acted as a bonding agent” between the two Bushes, according to Mark K. Updegrove, author of “The Last Republicans,” a book about the presidential pair. Although football dominated the sports culture in Texas, “it was baseball that captured 43’s imagination, just as it had for 41,” Mr. Updegrove added, using their nicknames based on presidential order.

For years, George W. Bush found little success in business or politics, but whatever unspoken competition existed between the two Bushes peaked in 1989 when the son recruited investors to buy the Rangers, finally allowing him to begin edging out of his father’s considerable shadow.

“It may have meant just a little more to 43 that when he finally made something of himself in business after struggling in the oil industry in which his father had succeeded, it was in Major League Baseball, given the family’s reverence for the sport,” Mr. Updegrove said.

It was a sweet deal, too. Mr. Bush put in just $606,000 as his share of the $86 million purchase but as a managing partner was the team’s accessible public face. He sat most nights not in the owner’s box but in Section 109, Row 1, Seat 8, behind the dugout, signing autographs. He printed baseball cards with his face on them and traveled the state giving speeches at Rotary and Kiwanis Club lunches.

Mr. Bush orchestrated a referendum for a temporary tax increase to build a new stadium, and while he traded away Sammy Sosa to his everlasting regret, the Rangers went from losers to winners in seven of the next 10 seasons, while nearly doubling attendance and increasing revenues.

For a political scion with ambition of his own, the turnaround also built a foundation for a campaign for governor in 1994. The ownership success “solved my biggest political problem in Texas,” he once observed. “My problem was, ‘What’s the boy ever done?’” Soon, he moved his collection of autographed baseball cards into the governor’s office, and in 1998, he sold his stake in the Rangers for $14.9 million, a sizable return.

Mr. Bush’s most famous baseball moment, though, came after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he threw the first pitch in Game 3 of the World Series in New York to demonstrate the country’s resolve. Wearing a Kevlar vest, he was nervous before heading out to the field.

Derek Jeter, the Yankees shortstop, razzed him into throwing from the mound: “This is New York. If you throw from the base of the mound, they’re going to boo you.” Mr. Bush’s strike down the middle was roundly cheered.

Mr. Bush reunited with Mr. Jeter on Friday at the Rangers’ ballpark, Globe Life Field in Arlington, before throwing out the first pitch of the team’s opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks. “I’m fired up,” Mr. Bush told him on camera before predicting that the Rangers would “prevail in six games.”

He remembered Mr. Jeter’s taunt 22 years later — “all I thought about on the mound was you!” — but said this time he would pitch from the base of the mound. “Totally different environment,” said Mr. Bush, now 77.

“Well, this is Texas, so if you bounce it, they won’t boo you,” Mr. Jeter replied.

Mr. Bush agreed. The pressure was off. “It doesn’t matter now.”

Wearing a Rangers jacket, Mr. Bush indeed threw a one-bouncer. But the crowd cheered, and Mr. Bush walked off with a huge grin on his face.

His daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, noted afterward that he was still recovering from back surgery, a detail his chief of staff, Freddy Ford, confirmed. “President Bush isn’t one to make excuses, but that’s true — he did have fusion surgery on his lower back early this year,” Mr. Ford said. “He continues to recover well and in fact is looking forward to riding mountain bikes with wounded warriors at his ranch on Veterans Day weekend.”

It has been an exciting few weeks. Mr. Bush maintains ties to the team in the form of Kenneth A. Hersh, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, who is also a minority owner. Roland W. Betts, a Rangers partner from the old days, said that he and Mr. Bush were “emailing each other throughout the postseason” and that the former president was still “a devoted fan of the Rangers.”

It all recalled the night when Mr. Bush first took the pitcher’s mound as a young owner three and a half decades ago. “How cool is this?” he asked that night. Still pretty cool.

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