Walk into George W. Bush's office in Austin, Texas, and you can't miss the baseballs. Nearly 250 of them, collected since Bush was a child, fill two wooden cases along one wall. Each prize rests in its plastic cube displaying a superstar's scrawl. In the collection are bygone greats like pitcher Sandy Koufax and today's stars like Ken Griffey Jr. The light-blue signature of the legendary Stan Musial is barely legible on one dingy yellow ball. Most are bright white, though, including the one signed by both rival sluggers Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. There's a case for the totems offered by today's most popular player. "Best of Luck in 2000. Your friend, Mark McGwire" reads a bat and a ball from the St. Louis home-run king.
Bush had his religious awakening in his 40s. He has been attending the church of baseball his whole life. The son and grandson of Yale baseball-team captains, Bush learned from his mother the special hieroglyphics that aficionados use to keep score. He knows the statistics and anecdotes of the game the way Bill Clinton knows welfare reform. Baseball, it seems, reveals a truth about Bush: when engaged, he plunges in heart and soul.
When he's disengaged, the Texas Governor looks as if he's scrambling around inside his suit. That was true during the primary season's debates, but on the subject of baseball he is at his most confident--part team owner and part Little Leaguer ready to wear his hat backward. In the relaxed milieu of the campaign plane, Bush can seem like any bench jockey spitting out nicknames and wisecracks. He cultivated this part of his personality as a high school and college player as much as in the Yale frat house. It can even inspire a kind of poetry. Explaining the "magical moment" of Nolan Ryan's 5,000th strikeout--an event Bush cut a vacation short to attend--the Governor elegizes the flashbulbs: "It looked like there were fireflies everywhere."
On the campaign trail, baseball is a touchstone. Asked to name a hero, he names Ryan, who played for the Texas Rangers when Bush was the team's co-owner. The toughest challenge the Governor has faced? Firing manager Bobby Valentine. What mistake does he most regret? Trading hitting superstar Sammy Sosa to the Cubs, he said during the primaries, only half in jest. He cites his Rangers experience because it is when his professional career first flowered. "His relationship with the game gives you a big window into what he is all about," says Tom Scheiffer, the Rangers' current managing partner.
Family ties, not surprisingly, have buoyed Bush's baseball career. He corralled investors to buy the team in 1989, stringing together family contacts and his own relationships. Delegating much of the nuts-and-bolts work, Bush became the struggling Rangers' public face, touring Rotary clubs and talking up the team. He avoided the skybox and sat with the fans--chewing sunflower seeds, husk and all. It was the best place to catch the action and evangelize. He'd chat with the players (in English and Spanish), signing bubble-gum cards with his picture on them.