It’s two hours before the first pitch on a sweltering late June afternoon at Nationals Park. Temperatures in Washington, D.C., are in the mid-90s with a heat index in the low 100s. The Nationals warm up for the second of three games against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Fans hustle from ticket gates into the shade, looking for something cold to drink and some time in front of the strategically-placed fans blowing a cool mist.
But in an instant, everyone pauses. The Nationals’ Racing Presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt — have just emerged from a nearby elevator. The goal has become: Get a photo with the 11-foot-tall icons.
“They do know how to stop traffic,” one fan says to no one in particular, a smile as wide as the Potomac stretched across his face.
The Racing Presidents have been a mainstay in Washington since the Nationals’ first game in 2005. Over the last decade, these larger-than-life characters with huge personalities have become some of the most recognizable, beloved mascots in Major League Baseball.
On the Main Concourse, in brutal heat, the giant heads of state mingle with fans for nearly an hour. They bend down to tease, then high five wide-eyed toddlers in Pirates gear, pose for group photos with rowdy college students, and pretend to steal a promo Toyota parked by the concession stands. Every President is swarmed with fans, but Teddy is mobbed immediately. After years of never winning a race, the Bull Moose has become the clear fan favorite. (He finally got a win on Oct. 3, 2012, and has won 62 races as of September 24. Abe leads all Presidents with 284 victories.)
This is all a warm up, though. The main event — the Presidents Race — is still four innings away. And there’s work to be done.
Below Nationals Park, the Presidents cool down as Teddy, members of the Presidents’ Secret Service, and Potato Pete, one of the Pirates’ six racing pierogies, coordinate the finale of the day’s race. It involves a table, a Pierogie attack, and some quick thinking on the part of the Secret Service. Teddy, Pete, and the Secret Service rehearse over and over again. Tom Davis, the Nationals’ Senior Manager, Entertainment, makes some tweaks — Pete should jump from the table here, the Secret Service should stand there — and in no time everyone’s comfortable with the move.
With about an inning and a half to go, everyone heads down the tunnel toward the field. This includes William Howard Taft, the fifth Racing President, who had been off on official business earlier in the day. (A sixth President, Calvin Coolidge, has since been added to the lineup.) Three Pierogies break off toward the bullpen, Pete heads for first base. The other two follow the Presidents to the left-field starting gate. “Crush it,” Davis tells the Piergoies as they peel off. “You got it? Crush it!”
After a quick pep talk, the race is on — and it comes off without a hitch. The Presidents dash along the warning track, and two Pierogies try to tackle them from behind. They’re stopped immediately by the Secret Service. Three more Pierogies emerge from the bullpen. They’re subdued, too.
Finally, it’s the big moment. Teddy sprints down the first base line, Pete jumps on a folding chair, then the table, and lunges for Teddy. He’s caught in mid-air by the Secret Service, arms and legs flailing desperately as he’s dumped onto a hapless Buccos fan in the first row.
Teddy crosses the finish line. The crowd goes wild. And everyone involved with the race is pumped. “I don’t know if it could’ve been done better,” Davis says when they’re back in the tunnel. “If there’s one thing I would’ve changed…” He waits a beat. “It would’ve been nothing!” Presidents and Pierogies and the Secret Service all celebrate.
The Pierogies’ day is done, but not the Presidents’. They head back up to the concourse for a photo op with fans. And just as it was earlier, wide-eyed kids and excited adults line up for a chance to rub shoulders with some of history’s biggest personalities.
“This is fantastic,” says Bob Decker, a history buff beaming after meeting the Presidents. “[They’re] far better than hot dogs or racing lizards and all of those things you see around the league.”
Click the image below for a slideshow of the Racing Presidents on — and off — the field!
Photos: Mitchell Layton for Sports Illustrated