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THE PORTSIDER

Tricky Dick's Double Switch
By Staff Writer

Presidents have been throwing out first pitches since William Howard "Tubby" Taft delivered some high cheese back in 1910. They used to do it for fun; now it's a campaign event. Bush tosses out some first balls in battleground states; Kerry throws a dying moth at Fenway; pundits, get ready to take your potshots.

This summer of political ball throwing brought back a distant and painful memory for me. I don't know if I can bring myself to tell the story. On second thought, maybe I can. When you've got as little left in the gas tank as I have, sometimes you just floor your Pinto and hope for the best.

It was the summer of 1974. I was a player/coach, emphasis on the coach, for the Bull Run Yankees. Yes, it was an odd concept, but Sperlington Angus was an odd owner. He idolized President Nixon and believed fervently in the only-Nixon-could-go-to-China theory. He applied it to anything important in his life. Sperl was a deeply conservative Southern Baptist, so he attended a Unitarian church. His idea, you see, was not to open himself up to the Unitarian doctrine ("I'm-okay-you'd-be-okay-too-if-we-could-only-dialogue"). No, he thought, "Nixon went to Peking to pull China into the world of capitalism. I'll go to this Unitarian church and they'll all end up Southern Baptists."

It didn't quite work out that way, but Sperl was never one to be easily discouraged. In the same spirit, he bought a minor league team in Bull Run and named it the Yankees. He figured northerners from Pennsylvania and New Jersey would come down to Bull Run for the warmth and baseball, see the error of their ways, and become true sons of the South. A little convoluted, but like I say, the guy adored Nixon.

So, anyway, it was the summer of '74. You may remember some difficulties RN found himself in about that time. Sperl thought the perfect thing to perk up the Prez would be to come to Bull Run, awash in American history, and throw out the first pitch at a Yankee game. He was a big donor, he had direct access, and the son of a gun pulled it off: Nixon was going to come. But the White House had a problem.

There were a lot of crazy people in America back then, calling for Nixon's skin. The Secret Service insisted that if the president walked out onto the baseball field alone, he'd leave himself vulnerable to any nutcase with a shotgun. In Bull Run, Virginia, that definition included every man over the age of sixteen. So they were looking for a body double. Someone who could impersonate the president.

Is it a disgrace to bear a remarkable resemblance to a president? Should I be chagrined that the fickle finger of fate pointed directly at me? Because that's what happened. The Secret Service sent a guy to Bull Run to scope out the joint. I was pitching batting practice and this guy in a black suit stepped up onto the mound. He studied me closely.

He asked, "How often do you shave?"

"Well . . . when I get up in the morning, of course. Then, if I'm not pitching, I'll usually do a little touch-up after my afternoon nap. And sometimes I'll run the Norelco over the chin before bedtime. The stubble catches on the pillow."

"You're perfect."

I didn't know what he was talking about until another guy in another black suit brought me inside the clubhouse and had me try on some pinstripes. Not Yankee pinstripes; Brooks Brothers pinstripes. There was a little guy with a big swoop of black hair in the room. His name was Ron. Ron was pleased. "A perfect match. Remember not to shave tomorrow afternoon." Then they broke the news: I was going to go out there and throw out the first pitch. As President Nixon. I figured somebody had to tell them, so I spoke up: "There's a problem. I'm a lefty." Ron's face turned to stone. "Goddamn commies show up wherever you turn."

"That's not what I mean, Ron. I mean I'm a portsider. A southpaw. I throw left-handed."

"Oh." He paused. "Well, the president's not supposed to be a great ballplayer. Just use your right hand and do the best you can. And one more thing—let's keep this under our hats."

"Got it. Under the hat."

So it was that the next night I came to the ballpark and slipped a garment bag with a pinstripe suit into my locker. There was a big crowd, and the place was filled with reporters, but no sign of Nixon. We warmed up—somebody else threw batting practice because I was trying to get in some practice throwing righty. I figured the least I could do for the man was not throw like a girl. Game time got closer and closer and still no Nixon. We had our clubhouse meeting, and they called both teams onto the field. Then we got word to sit still—he was on his way.

I sneaked back into the clubhouse to put on the suit. As I was slipping into that hot wool suit, I heard the sound of a helicopter. A big chopper, landing in our parking lot. I was slicking my hair back and wishing I'd put on more antiperspirant when the clubhouse door was flung open and half a dozen of those guys in black suits and earpieces stalked through the clubhouse, poking into lockers, checking the laundry bag, looking into the stalls of the john. Finally they seemed to be satisfied and they opened the door again. In walked Nixon. He looked tired. He needed a shave. He had big bags under his eyes. He was wearing the same suit I had on. He extended his hand.

"Dick Nixon."

I shook it.

"Pleased to meet you."

"So, you're going to do the honors for me tonight?"

"Yes, sir. I hope somebody told you I'm not usually a righty."

"I don't care what you believe, as long as you throw a strike."

He was smiling in a weary way. He didn't really want to get into anything political. I could see the thing this guy wanted most in his life was to take a nice long nap.

"Mr. President, I'll do my level best."

"Thank you. I appreciate that." He looked at my features, studied them. "Am I really that ugly?"

"Well—" I didn't know quite how to respond, but I didn't have to. Nixon had turned away and was looking around the clubhouse. "Funny . . . growing up in Whittier, the other boys were always off playing baseball. Me . . . I guess I didn't have the knack. I tried hard. Couldn't have tried harder. But, well—you either have talent or you don't, right?"

"The Good Lord giveth and He taketh away," I said.

Nixon shot a glance at me.

"Just talking about fastballs, Mr. President."

"It'd be awfully nice to not think about anything except fastballs. Just sit on a bench with a bunch of guys and be able to chew tobacco and look up in the stands trying to see girls' panties. . . . Awful nice."

"It's a good job, Mr. President."

He nodded, and then a couple of those guys in black suits walked in and said I was on. I took a breath and walked down the cement hallway and through the dugout. I passed my teammates, who stood up. I'd never seen them look at me like that before—with respect. With something approaching a straight face. I suddenly realized how much I really looked like Nixon. Put me in a suit, brush my hair, and even my good pals couldn't tell the difference.

I walked briskly out to the mound. The stands were full of people. Half of them were cheering and half were booing the hell out of me. A typical trip to the mound. I got out there and saw our catcher, Juan, set up for a throw. Seeing him behind the plate, I almost forgot myself and put the ball in my left hand. It was like a muscle memory. Then I checked myself and switched hands. I took a small windup and did my best to not look like a girl. It sailed high and away, but Juan was able to reach up and grab the ball. I raised my arms like I'd seen Nixon do on TV and give the double victory sign. Cameras were flashing like crazy. I suddenly realized I'd sweated through the entire suit. Well, they asked me to imitate the man and maybe I was better than I realized.

I walked off the field—more boos than cheers now, again a typical trip—and through the dugout. I nodded to the players and strode on through to the clubhouse.

There I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. President Nixon had suited up in my uniform. He looked up at me and gave that little grin. "Hope you don't mind, Staff."

"No, sir. It fits you pretty good."

We looked at each other. I circled him; he circled me. We studied each other in the mirror. You know, it was like we were twins.

"Staff . . . if I could have just one evening, just a few hours without the awesome responsibility, the weight of the Free World on my shoulders, why . . . it would be a goddamned excellent thing."

"Mr. President, are you saying—"

"You've got a nice group here. I saw those players. Mostly white, a few Latinos—that's fine. Don't have any Jews, do you?"

"Not that I know of."

He nodded. "Didn't think so. . . . Staff—all you have to do is keep the suit on and ride in the limo back to Washington. They'll let you out at some inconspicuous location and we'll give you cab fare home."

"Mr. President, anything for my country."

So it was that I found myself in the Limo One—I think that's what they called it—riding back to Washington. I was POTUS for a night. Or at least for a limo ride. It was a roomy car. A nice bar in the back. I helped myself to a Scotch. There was a phone in the car—and that was before these things were normal. It rang. Mmmm. Let's see. . . . It rang again. What the hell. I picked it up. An operator said, "Hello, Mr. President?"

"What's shaking?"

"Mr. President, you have a call from Rosemary Woods."

Jesus. Now, this was going to be interesting. She was his secretary. I felt like gambling.

"Put her through."

"Hello . . . Dick?"

"Uh . . . yeah. What's up?"

"Well, I just wanted you to know that it's done."

"Oh. Okay." I paused. Then I had to ask: "What's done?"

"Those eighteen minutes. I did it."

"The eighteen minutes." I couldn't resist. "What about them?"

"You know, the eighteen minutes on the tapes. Where you said you directed the whole operation from the start."

"Oh—that eighteen minutes. And you handled them? You did . . . something with them?"

"That's right."

"Very good."

"Well . . . I just wanted you to know. Goodnight . . . Dick."

"Goodnight . . . uh, Rosey."

About this time the big limo pulled into a parking garage. It was one of those big underground garages in Washington, D.C. The limo slowed to a stop. My door opened. One of those guys in a black suit held it open. I got the message—we're dropping you off, here. He held out a hundred-dollar bill. Sure. Cab fare. I got out of the limo, took the bill, and looked around. I figured I'd better get out of there and find a cab.

I started walking toward an exit sign. It was dark down there, and a little foggy; the kind of parking garage where you can get the creeps.

"Hey."

It was a whisper. A quiet exclamation, an intense whisper, an oxymoron that made my skin crawl. I glanced around. There was a young guy, looked as young as some of my ballplayers. He was holding a note-pad.

"What do you want?"

"Jesus."

The kid looked at me. Stared at me. Couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"You're not Deep Throat."

I glared at the little bastard. "You pervert."

"No, no, no, you don't understand. I want to hear what you have to say. Whatever it is."

"About what?"

"About . . . anything. Your life. What's been going on. The tapes."

"Oh, the tapes. That's all been taken care of. Those eighteen minutes?"

"Yes?"

"They're gone. Done. Nobody will ever know that I knew what I know from the beginning."

I figured that was confusing enough to spin his brain so that I could make an escape. I walked away fast, taking off my jacket and mussing my hair up. When I got up to street level, it took me about ten minutes to hail a cab, and that was ten minutes too long for my taste. But the hundred-dollar bill paid for the ride back, plus a round of beer for my pals.

The next day at the ballpark, the moment I walked into the clubhouse, they started razzing me. "Staff! How many you going for tonight?"

"How many what?"

"Panty sightings! Man, you were on fire last night! Nothing escaped those laser eyes!"

I just smiled and sat down at my locker. I hope RN had a fun night. He deserved a break and I was mighty glad I'd given him one.

—EFQ

 

Until this year, STAFF WRITER had never voted in a presidential election. But even a crusty old ballplayer can be persuaded to do his patriotic duty when the stakes are high enough. Of course, given the wonderful reviews that electronic voting equipment has gotten around the country, he can't be sure that his vote will be counted the way he wants, but that’s a story you’ll have to read in Election Fraud Quarterly, the "other" EFQ.

© 2004 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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