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Baseball 'held a special place' in Bush's life

Outpouring of affection follows former President's death at 94
MLB.com @RichardJustice

HOUSTON -- Once when George and Barbara Bush were taking in a game in what became their regular seats behind home plate at Minute Maid Park, Drayton McLane, who owned the Astros at the time, threw out a question.

"George," he asked, "what was your favorite day at the White House?"

HOUSTON -- Once when George and Barbara Bush were taking in a game in what became their regular seats behind home plate at Minute Maid Park, Drayton McLane, who owned the Astros at the time, threw out a question.

"George," he asked, "what was your favorite day at the White House?"

Bush smiled and said he wasn't sure there'd been a single one. However, a couple days later, McLane received a package.

Inside was a large framed photograph of Bush standing between Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams in the Rose Garden. The photo was autographed by all three men, and Bush had attached a note:

Drayton,

You asked about my favorite day at the White House. This was it.

-- George

McLane cherishes that photograph because he believes it -- and the story behind it -- speak volumes about the 41st president of the United States.

"Here's what's amazing about that," McLane said. "President Bush said he was so nervous the day those two guys visited the White House."

It was 1991, and Bush had invited the two Hall of Famers to Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Williams hitting .406.

"Here's George Bush, the most powerful man in the world, a former director of the CIA, a man who had seen and done everything in his life," McLane said.

"And yet, baseball -- and Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams -- held a special place in his life."

George H.W. Bush's love of baseball -- and all sports -- was woven throughout all 94 years of his remarkable life, and his death on Friday prompted an outpouring of love and affection from the hundreds of players, coaches, managers and team executives he met through the years.

Video: WS2017 Gm5: Former presidents throw first pitch

"He was one of the nicest people you could ever meet," Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio said in a 2017 interview. "Almost everyone who ever met him can tell you a story of some act of kindness President Bush did."

Here's Biggio's.

One of his closest friends, Monsignor James Jamail, was in the final weeks of his fight against cancer in 1992. Biggio telephoned Bush one day and ask if he could bring Jamail for a visit.

"I'll never forget it," Biggio said. "We spent about an hour and a half up in his office, and he made my friend feel like the greatest human being ever."

Bush had a special relationship with the Astros after moving back to Houston in 1993.

"When they started coming to games in the Astrodome, we didn't introduce him in any way," McLane said, "but people would see him and pretty soon [everyone in the] stadium was standing and clapping.

"He was back home, and our fans were letting him know the love and respect we have for him and Barbara."

Astros owner Jim Crane realeased a statement Saturday morning on the passing of President Bush.

"President Bush was a great American who devoted his life to serving his country. He epitomized class and dignity and was a true patriot," the statement said.

"The Houston Astros had the great privilege of hosting President Bush and his wife, Barbara, at Astros games for many years. As loyal fans, they stuck with us through the challenging years and were there to celebrate Houston's first World Series championship in 2017. Game 5 of last year's World Series is considered the most memorable and dramatic game in Astros history. What made it even more special was that President George H.W. Bush and his son, President George W. Bush, were on the field that night taking part in the first pitch ceremony. 
 
"As our nation mourns his passing, our entire Astros organization sends heartfelt condolences to the Bush family. We will greatly miss him."

Bush annually invited the Astros for lunch and baseball talk at his office.

"He'd have picnic tables set up and red-and-white check tablecloths," former Astros manager Phil Garner said, "and we'd have pizza and sit around and talk. It was as perfect a time as you could have.

"And whenever something good happened -- like us making the playoffs or winning the pennant -- I'd get a handwritten letter from him. Those are things you cherish forever. He had a way of making you feel important."

Garner's daughter, Bethany, attended Texas A&M, and when the Bush Library opened there in 1997, she was part of a welcoming party for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

"When they get there, Barbara Bush says she wants to say hello to the students who were helping with the event," Garner remembered.

"Here they come down the receiving line, and Bethany is panicked and doesn't know what you say to the former president of the United States. She's looking at the floor as he approaches, and out of nowhere, she sees his boots and says, `Those are great looking boots, Mr. President.'

"He says, `I bought these boots especially for this occasion, and nobody has noticed until now. Thank you very much.' He immediately picked up on how nervous she was and tried to make her feel at ease. Regardless of your politics, he's a great man."

Former Astros and Phillies general manager Ed Wade remembered the spring of 2010, when McLane brought George and Barbara to Spring Training in Kissimmee, Fla.

"Over those three days, I had the privilege of eating pregame hot dogs with them, sitting with them at games and escorting the president over to the Minor League complex and explaining the entire Spring Training process," Wade wrote in an email.

When Wade returned to his office at Minute Maid Park a few weeks later, he found a package from Bush.

"When I opened it, I found a personal note from the president, thanking me for spending time with him in Kissimmee," Wade wrote. "And, accompanying the note was an inscribed mahogany box in which was a sterling silver coin commemorating the christening of the Aircraft Carrier George H.W. Bush. It's one of the great treasures of my life."

Bush became a favorite son of Texas A&M and made frequent appearances at Aggie games. And some at the school believe Bush played a significant role in the women's basketball team winning the 2011 National Championship.

"Here's the story," former A&M athletics director Bill Byrne said. "President Bush and Barbara would sometimes sit in a small suite I had at our home football games.

"It was not long after we'd hired Gary Blair to be our women's basketball coach, and Gary was obsessed with recruiting a player named La Toya Micheaux from the Houston area.

"Gary was trying to get her away from LSU and asked if he could bring her by my booth before a game."

La Toya is the daughter of a legendary University of Houston men's player, Larry Micheaux, a member of the Phi Slamma Jamma era of UH basketball.

"So here we are, a couple of hours before a game, and Gary nonchalantly sticks his head in the door and sees the Bushes," Byrne remembered.

George and Barbara say hello, and in walks Larry Micheaux behind Gary.

"Larry Micheaux! Phi Slamma Jamma!" Bush shouts. "What a team you guys had."

And then La Toya appears behind her father.

"And you must be Larry's daughter," Bush says. "Barbara and I have been talking about how much we're looking forward to watching you play for the Aggies."

All these years later, Bryne still laughs at the story.

"That was the end of La Toya's recruiting," he said. "There was no chance she was going to go any place else. And she opened doors for us into the Houston area we hadn't been able to open. And from her coming to Texas A&M in 2005 had to have played a role in us winning the National Championship in 2011.

"That championship raised the profile of the school in so many ways, and it's not a stretch to trace it back to George and Barbara Bush making Larry and La Toya feel special."

Byrne has another point to make.

"When the president and Barbara came to a football game, they insisted on arriving early and leaving early," Byrne said. "Because they have Secret Service protection, they didn't want to disrupt traffic.

"There were times when the game was tight in the fourth quarter, and we'd ask them to stay. No, they didn't want to disrupt anyone else from getting home."

Longtime Texas A&M sports information director Alan Cannon was at an Aggie softball game one afternoon when the telephone rang. It was Rod Thornton, a Bush staffer, asking if it would be OK if the former president came over.

And that's how Cannon got to spend an afternoon watching an Aggie softball game with the 41st president. The photo of the two of them is one of his special keepsakes.

"He just wanted to take in any athletic competition he could," Cannon said. "We spent about an hour to 90 minutes just visiting about things here at Texas A&M and talking about family. It seemed like I was just visiting with my grandfather, very enjoyable and down to earth."

Bush played first base at Yale between 1946-48 and was on two teams that made it to the College World Series. He was Yale team captain in '48, and it was during this time -- June 5, 1948 -- that he met Babe Ruth at Yale Field.

Ruth was there to donate the manuscript of "The Babe Ruth Story" to the Yale Library. During a 2015 email exchange with Yale's athletics department, Bush wrote: "I guess playing in the first two College World Series also stands out as being special. We had a wonderful coach in Ethan Allen and some terrific pitching in Frank Quinn and Walt Gratham. I can't say I contributed much on offense, but it was a heck of a ride nonetheless."

During three seasons with the Bulldogs, Bush batted .215, but he was known for superior defense at first. In his senior season, he batted .245 with one home run, one triple, seven doubles and 16 RBIs.

Asked what he took away from his playing career at Yale, Bush wrote, "The importance of teamwork, and working hard together towards a common goal."

Other sports were a passion for the former president as well. He played speed rounds of golf around the country and spent hours on his cigarette boat off Walker's Point at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

When the Washington Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, Bush wanted to do more than honor the hometown team with the traditional Rose Garden ceremony.

So he invited the team to come later in the day and to bring their families and stay over for a cookout and round of horseshoes. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and his players and staff stayed late into the night playing a very loud, very competitive round of horseshoes.

"The horseshoe tournament came down to two players against President Bush and his partner, a Secret Service agent," former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly said.

On the next-to-last throw of the night, one of the players -- possibly linebacker Monte Coleman -- made a leaner, which appeared to have won the tournament.

Video: Justice remembers President George H. W. Bush

Bush had the final throw of the night.

"We're thinking, `Wow, there's some pressure on the president," Casserly said. "Then it hits us what we've just said. Pressure? Are you kidding me? This guy knows what real pressure is."

And?

"President Bush threw a ringer to win the tournament," Casserly said. "No one believes the story, but I was there. It happened."

Gibbs and his wife, Pat, struck up a friendship with George and Barbara during their years in Washington.

"They were great to Pat," Gibbs said. "During the season, they'd invite her to the White House to watch movies and eat popcorn."

Bush did fundraisers for Joe Gibbs' youth home charity through the years and once invited him and his son, Coy, to fly on Air Force One to the Daytona 500.

"He gave us a tour of the airplane and we ended up down below in places I'm pretty sure the Secret Service didn't want him going," Gibbs said. "That's just who he was. His entire family was like that. He's a special guy."

Casserly and Bush connected years later after both moved to Houston. Bush would watch games in Texans owner Bob McNair's booth.

"Before games, he'd want to know what he should look for, what the other team would try to do and that sort of thing," Casserly said. "He was a serious fan and wanted to understand what was happening."

Former Aggie head football coach R.C. Slocum watched college football games with Bush and also traveled with him to golf courses all over the country.

"He loved games, he loved athletes," Slocum said. "He was an athlete. He would ask very specific questions -- and Barbara would, too -- about plays and players. There wasn't a lot of chitchat. He was there to watch the game."

For Slocum, one moment stands out.

"We were at a course in New Jersey having breakfast before going to play," Slocum said. "We were sitting there talking about our game, and you could tell the woman waiting on the table was a little nervous.

"President Bush stopped the conversation and said, `How are you today? We really appreciate you taking the time for us.' He just turned his full attention to her and made her know she was important. I don't know where that woman is now, but I promise you she'll remember President Bush for the rest of her life.

"Of all the people I've met, there's no one who better exemplifies the qualities you'd want in someone -- integrity, kindness, humility, strength. When you're around him for very long, you tend to put aside all that he did for our country, not just in public service, but in the military, and you just see one of the best men you'll ever meet."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice.