WASHINGTON – For college baseball’s dream team, the dream continued Friday as the national champion Wichita State Shockers were honored at the White House, then played catch with the president of the United States.
Less than a week after winning the College World Series, the Shocker baseball team was lauded in a warm-hearted speech by that veteran southpaw and former college ballplayer, George Bush.
“A writer once observed, ‘The Kansas spirit is the American spirit double-distilled,’ ” Bush told the team and its cheering fans in the White House Rose Garden. “And my friends, you embody that spirit. It and you have made the Shockers No. 1.”
Then, to the crowd’s delight, the president drafted WSU catcher Eric Wedge for a spirited game of catch. Wedge was expecting an easy toss or two, but Bush seemed to catch baseball fever and soon began firing away.
“He tried to get fancy on me, trying to catch one behind his back,” Wedge said with a laugh afterward. “And then he tells me to put a little more stuff on it, so I threw him a couple of knuckleballs. It was a lot of fun. He made everybody feel right at home.”
Shocker coach Gene Stephenson even offered this scouting report on the president: “He looked like he has some ability. I think we may be able to get him back and get him some eligibility.”
That sort of good humor was evident all day, starting with the outdoor ceremony in the Rose Garden. The ceremony was attended by most of the Kansas congressional delegation, Vice President Dan Quayle, first lady Barbara Bush and some of the Bush grandchildren – in fact, most of the Bush household except the famous puppies.
In his prepared remarks, the president first told of his college baseball career – he played in the 1947 and 1948 College World Series – and then mentioned by name several Shocker ballplayers. Among them was first baseman Bryant Winslow, who was so badly injured in the championship game that he attended the ceremonies in a wheelchair.
“In that final game, Bryant Winslow had to leave because of the stress fracture in his right leg, one of four major injuries to hit this ball club,” Bush said. “He had, as we all would, tears in our eyes at a difficult situation like that. He didn’t want to leave. But he led his teammates from the bench.”
Bush also mentioned Pat Meares’ championship-clinching home run – joking that he had “called NASA this morning, and that ball’s still in orbit.”
Shocker pitcher Greg Brummett gave the president a Wichita State University jersey, emblazoned with Bush’s name and the number 1.
“President Bush played in the world series, the first College World Series, and his number was No. 2,” Brummett said. “But like the Shockers, we like to think of him as No. 1.”
After the Rose Garden ceremony, the Shockers took a road trip to the U.S. Capitol for a Kansas delegation reception in the ornate office of Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, which for the occasion was decorated with cardboard cutouts of the university’s missing mascot, WuShock.
There, team members were praised less for their baseball talent than for their human qualities: their likability, their determination and their courage.
“They represent the very best in amateur athletes today,” Stephenson said. “We have great students, who’ve done a tremendous job under extreme adversity in the classroom because of the pressure that’s put on them on the playing field. I am so proud of their achievements.”
Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, wearing black and gold and sporting a WSU champs T- shirt, said, “Kansas is very proud not only for bringing the championship of the nation in college baseball, but what you represent.”
The senator did slip by referring to “Coach Smithson – oh, Stephenson!” which brought giggles and “oooohs” from the festive crowd of Shocker fans who remember exiled basketball coach Gene Smithson.
Both Dole and Rep. Dan Glickman presented team members with copies of the Congressional Record containing each player’s name. Returning the favor, the team presented Dole, Kassebaum and Glickman with WSU baseball caps, championship T-shirts and autographed baseballs used in the NCAA finals.
“I didn’t expect anything,” Dole quipped. “I’ll have to report this to the ethics committee.”
The whole day was particularly sweet for a team that overcame injuries to win the title, and one that plays for a university that sometimes feels a bit slighted when it comes to national respect and attention.
“This was outstanding,” Stephenson said just minutes after meeting the president. “This was the pinnacle of all respect, as far as I’m concerned.”