A Race for the Giants of History

Behind the Scenes With the Big-Headed Presidents

Posted July 6, 2007 at 2:45pm

It’s precisely 8:34 Monday night and out of the right field corner comes a speedy Teddy Roosevelt. On his heels are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Roosevelt is holding a Washington bobblehead and he slows and turns around to taunt our nation’s first president. Jefferson and Lincoln approach and hold T.R. while George snatches the bobblehead and sprints to victory.

This is the Presidents Race at RFK Stadium, which takes place during the fourth inning of every Washington Nationals home game.

The Nationals granted Roll Call the opportunity last week to witness a night in the life of the presidents, on the condition that their real names not be used and they only be photographed in costume. This is their story.

Professional Racers

If you think it’s high school kids who had a choice between flipping burgers at McDonald’s or running the race for the Nats, you’re mistaken. The crew of roughly 15 presidents who take turns entertaining fans at RFK are adults, 9-to-5 employees who take on the second job because they love baseball and love entertaining kids.

On this night, the presidents are a teacher (George), an unspecified government employee (Abe), a “member of the legal community” (Teddy) and a government IT worker (Tom).

Call time for the presidents for a night game is at 5. They meet in the bowels of the stadium, in a room beneath the right field stands that also is home to Screech, the team’s eagle mascot, and the Natpack, the group that tosses T-shirts into the crowd and handles entertainment for the game’s other eight innings.

All the entertainers have a pregame meeting with Tom Davis, the Nationals’ entertainment coordinator.

Two presidents then suit up and head to the gates to greet fans. By 6:30, all four presidents are back in their right field headquarters.

Sadly, this season the Presidents Race has been run with the cellar-dwelling Nationals trailing more often than not. Tonight is no exception. First pitch is at 7:05, and within minutes the Chicago Cubs are up 2-0.

At 7:40, it is 3-0 Chicago in the middle of the second inning, and George is suited up. The presidents are to be fully dressed and in the right field corner at the end of the third inning, but George says he always is the first one ready, even though the costumes run a few degrees hot.

The other presidents wait until the top of the third to put on their suits, which weigh about 50 pounds. Visibility in the costumes is sketchy — “Tom has a wider view; Lincoln can usually see,” Teddy says — and running is harder than it looks.

“I’m always close to falling down,” Tom said. “If you bend down and catch the wind … it’s a physics exercise. If you start falling forward, you’re probably going down.”

(The only fall of the season came the previous week. It was Jefferson, though the racer was not the same as tonight’s. “It was pretty funny,” Davis says. “The next day we put a fake sling on him and showed the replay on the scoreboard. The crowd loved it.”)

Waiting Game

At 8:12, the fourth inning begins, and the presidents are in the right field tunnel, next to an ambulance and just out of view of fans. Unfortunately, they are in for a long wait.

Nats starter Jason Simontacchi was lifted after three innings and Billy Traber has come on with the Cubs up 5-0. It is Alfonso Soriano’s return to Washington, D.C. — he left the Nats for a $136 million contract from the Cubs in the offseason — and he leads off the inning with a single.

Two runs and 22 minutes later — including a delay while trainers attended to Traber after he was hit in the leg by a line drive — the inning mercifully ends with the Nationals down 7-0.

It is the presidents’ time to shine.

The inspiration for tonight’s race theatrics is a promotional George Washington bobblehead that is to be given to fans on July Fourth.

While tonight’s race is scripted, the presidents said it is often a real race where pride is on the line for Abe, Tom and George (through tonight, Teddy had lost all 71 runnings of the race since its debut in 2006, a streak they didn’t expect to see snapped any time soon).

George’s victory gives him 14 on the season, two short of Tom and five ahead of Abe.

Night Not Over

After the race, the presidents leave the field near the first-base dugout and move through the stands to the concourse, where they pose for pictures with children for an inning or two. Tonight Geico is sponsoring the photos, so the Geico Gecko joins them.

During the seventh-inning stretch they join Screech on top of the dugouts to lead fans in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

At this point, two presidents — normally the two who didn’t greet fans pregame — will head to the gates to wave goodbye to fans leaving early. The other two are free to leave, though depending on the score of the game they sometimes change and watch the last few innings from their staging room or the stands.

Tonight it is 7-1 Chicago after seven innings in a game the Cubs would win 7-2. Not much reason to stick around.

By 9:40, George is heading home, the other presidents soon to follow.

For Love of the Kids

So why, with steady, full-time jobs, do the presidents do what they do?

“Abe does it because he loves baseball. He does it for the fans,” Abe says. “He likes to make little kids smile and laugh. I think all the presidents like that.”

“Part of being in D.C. is being a part of the community — this isn’t New York,” Teddy says. “I can’t think of anything more quintessential of what people in D.C. get up for than doing something fun like this.”

Last season the presidents were a hodgepodge of friends of front office staff, but this year Davis hired a regular staff. About 50 people tried out at the beginning of the season, with around 15 accepted.

“It’s nice to have consistency,” Davis says. “I know these people, I hired them, and they know what they’re supposed to be doing.”

He said the presidents are a pleasure to work with.

“They really generally enjoy it,” Davis says. “Nobody comes to work saying, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta do this again?’ It’s also good to have a crew of this size so it never really gets old.”

Since tonight’s top of the fourth was so long — George was suited up for 54 minutes before the race began — Davis let the presidents leave after only about an inning of greeting fans at the gates.

“On a night like tonight where they’re dressed for an hour, we’ll go easy on ’em,” he says. “Otherwise they might not be so happy-go-lucky as I described.”

All in all, Davis observes, the race has been a success.

“Our goal is to entertain the fans and do something fun,” he says.

“Milwaukee has the sausage race, Pittsburgh has the pierogi race, but I think the Presidents Race is really the cream of the crop.”