WASHINGTON -- A hundred years after President William Howard Taft started a baseball tradition with a low ceremonial first pitch, President Barack Obama went in the other direction Monday, sailing a high, wide toss at the Washington Nationals' home opener against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Just as Taft's toss forced pitcher Walter Johnson to make an athletic play, Obama's required Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to lunge to prevent a wild pitch.
"I was a little disappointed with the pitch. It was high and outside," Obama said during a stint in the booth during the Nationals' television broadcast, joking that he was going for an intentional walk. "Fortunately, Zimmerman has a tall reach."
The president suggested his accuracy would have improved with a longer outing.
"If I had a whole inning, I'm telling you, I would have cleaned up," he said.
Zimmerman was more charitable, calling the pitch "OK. It was a little high and outside, but other than that, he got it there in the air."
He said that after the pitch, the president told him, "I wasn't going to bounce it."
Obama received a loud ovation from the packed crowd, with a few boos scattered in. Earlier, a video montage of presidential pitches in Washington elicited boos when it showed former President George W. Bush.
Obama sported khakis and a Nationals jacket, and when he got to the mound, he donned a cap from his favorite team, the Chicago White Sox.
"Bad touch there," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said.
Commissioner Bud Selig saw the president before the cap came out.
"I said at one point when he had a Nationals jacket, 'I don't think I've ever been at a game when you didn't have a Sox jacket,' and he said 'I've got something coming,' and sure enough out came the White Sox hat," Selig said.
The president has said that he didn't play organized baseball as a kid and some of the sport's moves don't come naturally to him. Obama prepared for the game by throwing practice pitches to aides at the White House, but he looked awkward in his delivery Monday. On the mound, he double-clutched several times before airing out the pitch.
"I said balk right away," quipped Phillies catcher Brian Schneider.
The president was clearly going to err on throwing it too far rather than too short. He might have been overcompensating for his opening toss at last year's All-Star game in St. Louis, when Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols saved him the embarrassment of a short hop by moving up to scoop a pitch inches off the ground.
Taft got the Opening Day tradition started on April 14, 1910, in a game that also pitted Washington against Philadelphia. But those were different teams and a different league -- the old Nationals, aka original Senators, hosting the Athletics in the American League. Washington won the game, 3-0, behind Walter Johnson's 1-hitter.
From then on, every president through Richard Nixon made at least one Opening Day pitch in the nation's capital, until the expansion Senators left town after the 1971 season. Back then, presidents would make the toss from the stands, not the mound.
Obama saw Washington take a quick 1-0 lead, but the Phillies took control with a five-run fourth inning shortly after he left the ballpark. Philadelphia went on to win, 11-1.