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First Pitch

By Russ Smith | Posted 2/14/2007

Remember when Al Gore, trailing George W. Bush in most of the presidential polls prior to the 2000 Democratic National Convention, suddenly took off like the second coming of FDR after a lengthy smooch with wife Tipper after accepting his party's nomination?

Instantaneously, Gore was seen as a passionate and devoted family man--helping to shed some of Bill Clinton's personal baggage--and, for a time, was no longer caricatured as The Wizard of Oz's Tin Man. As it turned out, the incumbent vice president squandered that likable (and perhaps calculated) sheen with his inexplicably rambling and condescending debate performances later in the fall, but The Kiss demonstrated how an ostensibly trivial moment could bolster a national candidate's election chances.

All of the 2008 White House aspirants have had the opportunity in the past several weeks to win points with a broad base of voters who may be Democrats or Republicans but are more loyal to another institution: baseball. They number in the millions, and Major League Baseball is set to announce an exclusive agreement with DirecTV to carry the "Extra Innings" premium, a $179 per season feature that since 2002 has been available on cable as well as the Dish Network and DirecTV satellite setups. Known colloquially as "the package," Extra Innings allows consumers to view up to 10 MLB games daily, so that an Orioles fan who lives in Texas, for example, could still follow the Birds on the tube and listen to Jim Palmer tell Earl Weaver stories in between correcting Jim Hunter's play-by-play miscues.

The number of people who subscribed to Extra Innings last year was just 500,000, but with ESPN planning cutbacks on nationally televised games and rising ticket prices, the symbolism of restricting fans from cheap television entertainment ought not be lost on politicians.

The DirecTV deal will shut out those people who either can't receive a satellite signal because of where they live or don't want to abandon a cable company like Comcast, which is far more reliable during bad weather and has superior programming other than sports. MLB is, of course, a huge business and can do whatever it believes is in its best financial interests. In the wake of protests from a small but ardent band of bloggers and sportswriters, it's been suggested that displaced fanatics can always pay on and "watch" games on their computers.

Personally, this is causing a big headache in our household. My younger son Booker and I, in addition to attending about 20 games a year at Camden Yards, spend a good part of the season at night following the Red Sox's NESN broadcasts, as well as flipping to other games during commercials or when the Sox aren't playing. In fairness to my wife and older son, who don't give a whit about baseball, we won't make the change to DirecTV, fearful that if a rambunctious hummingbird knocks into the dish on the roof--let alone a thunderstorm--service will be interrupted for several days.

This regression of television choices is comically trivial compared to life and death issues abroad, employment numbers, and the constant threat of another terrorist attack in the United States. Yet early presidential politics is all about image. So it matters when Barack Obama attracts thousands of curiosity seekers to a book signing or campaign rally; it matters if John McCain, a cancer survivor and the oldest candidate, appears chipper (or haggard) at televised functions; and it matters if John Edwards can successfully navigate the protests of outraged Christians after two of his "netroots" advisers posted offensive material on their web sites.

This MLB dustup is a Made-for-Rudy-Giuliani moment. The former New York mayor, who's leading McCain and Mitt Romney in early national polls among Republicans but is anathema to some social conservatives because of his checkered personal life--three marriages--and views on issues like abortion and gay rights, could use a symbolic David vs. Goliath gesture to help win over fence-sitters in the GOP. It's probably too late, but had "America's Mayor" lashed out against the "greed" of MLB--hey, the concept of Big Business "greed" is trendy now--and how it's putting revenue ahead of the average baseball fan, his mug would be in every sports section in the country. That kind of coverage, devoid of partisan politics, reaches an entirely different kind of voter and would be a lift to his campaign.

I happen to prefer McCain to any other candidate, mostly because he understands that the conflict in the Middle East in particular, and Iraq specifically, is not a fleeting concern (as opposed to the feckless Hillary Clinton, who has demanded that Bush end the war before another president takes office), and because he isn't likely to damage the economy with class-war tax hikes.

And as a resident of New York during Giuliani's tenure as mayor, I have mixed feelings about the man. I didn't care for his grandstanding as a special prosecutor in the 1980s, when he nailed some crooks on Wall Street but also ruined the careers of many innocent "guilt by association" financiers. He was generally a tough mayor, and left the city a far better place to live than under his predecessors, but his penchant for demagoguery gives me pause about Rudy in the White House.

Nevertheless, Giuliani, as fervent a Yankees fan as you'll find, could at least partially win over the sports-crazed electoral base with a strong stand in favor of fans over the lords of Major League Baseball.

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