Bush hosts 'Tee Ball on South Lawn'
Children from around the nation gather to celebrate the game
WASHINGTON -- Everything was perfectly positioned to make John Cloer a nervous wreck on Wednesday afternoon.
After all, the 7-year-old from Sierra Madre, Calif., came across the country to play tee ball -- on the White House lawn, no less -- and do it in front of President Bush, celebrities like Kenny Chesney and ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, and ballplayers like John Smoltz, Kevin Millar, Rick Monday and Ryne Sandberg. That would make many adults shaky. But once John got past some early butterflies, he did just fine.
"I was a little nervous at first," Cloer said afterwards. "I thought there was going to be 159 people there. But once I saw that there weren't that many parents there, then I got over it."
The President hosted "Tee Ball on the South Lawn," the second of three at the White House this year. The event pulls together kids from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Coaches, league presidents, teachers and school principals recommended players, who were eventually selected by a panel from Little League International.
The President and his wife, Laura Bush, also hosted a social dinner to honor baseball Wednesday night. The dinner included administration officials, plus members of Congress, several Major League players, members of the Hall of Fame and various baseball officials, media members and fans.
"We've got 50 players from 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, who have come to show off their great baseball skills," the President said before the afternoon's games. "And we're excited you're here."
Everything made this warm July afternoon feel and look like a special baseball day. A small stadium-like facility was constructed on the White House's South Lawn, not too far from where the President greeted the World Series champion Boston Red Sox just before the start of this season.
There was a field outlined on the grass. In addition, miniature grandstands were built down the left- and right-field lines, plus a set of bleachers in right-center field. The outfield fence -- with yellow topping all around -- made the field look like a miniature stadium. It was 80 feet to the left-field fence and 85 to right, but 110 to straightaway center.
"That's going to take a good poke," Greenberg told the crowd.
Greenberg drew a laugh with that, but he was right as just one ball in the two games played came close to the fence.
The first game pitted the Central versus the Eastern teams. Game Two brought together the Western and the Southern squads. Scores weren't kept, and the kids were encouraged to keep running all the time -- with broadcasters Mike and Mike treating it like a Major League broadcast by giving biographical information about each player when he or she stepped up to the plate and then calling the play like a real game.
Chesney got everyone's attention with his rendition of the National Anthem before the first contest. Then, during the break between the two games, the United States Postal Service unveiled a commemorative stamp for the 100th anniversary of the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," which Chesney then sang for the crowd.
The players also got some help from game commissioner Frank Robinson, filling in for Nolan Ryan, who was sick and couldn't attend. Players also got the chance to talk to base coaches like Smoltz, Millar, Sandberg and Monday.
Smoltz said participating in this event brought back some memories for the Atlanta pitcher, who said he's progressing well in the rehab from the right shoulder surgery that's sidelined him for the season.
"Seeing kids play a game that you do for a living, that I've prospered from and been able to do a lot of things [with], is pretty neat," Smoltz said. "It [makes] me remember my days of tee ball."
Sandberg said he had similar feelings and was impressed with what the event was all about.
"Being here at the White House, and really for what it represented, [it was great] to be part of that. It just speaks very well of what Little League means and how important it is. It was just fun for me to be here," Sandberg said. "They were having a blast. Just to take baseball back to that level and what it means to hit a baseball and to make it to first base -- it's a big deal."
The children clearly had a good time. There were no scores kept, and each team ran through its whole lineup once, and then the other team did the same thing. Everybody hit the ball, some players made some nice plays in the field, and the one thing there was plenty of from start to finish was smiles, just like the one that John Cloer wore when talking to parents and the media afterwards.
"It was really fun," he said.
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.