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Bush roasts, toasts champions

Email|Print| Text size + By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / February 27, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Red Sox Nation conquered the nation's capital Wednesday as President Bush feted the 2007 World Series Champs in a White House celebration that turned the normally orderly Executive Mansion into a stampede of hero-worshipping Red Sox fans.

The seat of political power, usually unfazed by the proximity of famous personalities, was outright star-struck with the entourage of power hitters, pitchers and all-stars.

Members of Congress, media big-wigs and White House staff -- many with their kids and baseballs in tow -- craned their necks and jostled for a good spot to snap photos and seek out autographs.

"The Mighty Red Sox Nation has stormed the South Lawn," Bush told the roaring crowd gathered in the afternoon chill but clearly more numbed by the prospect of glimpsing their favorite ballplayers up close.

"We appreciate very much members of the administration who are here -- don't linger," Bush quipped before welcoming an eminent group of members of Congress from New England who were clearly enjoying a break from conducting the people's business and weren't bashful about pulling rank to get a good seat.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, his camera in tow, pressed his way through a throng of reporters lined up in the West Wing driveway before the event to get to his front-row seat next to political luminaries such as Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, Rep. William Delahunt of Quincy, and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

The festivities even drew Vice President Dick Cheney, seldom seen at the same public event as Bush and who stood quietly off to the side as the president gave a humorous and folksy tribute to the Red Sox players, coaches and owners.

The World Series Champs, decked out in their Sunday best and accompanied by manager Terry Francona and rest of the coaching staff, were led out of the White House residence to the rhythms of a military band and as slugger David Ortiz carried the World Series trophy.

But the star of the show quickly became Bush, the former owner of the Texas Rangers and fan-in-chief who was clearly enjoying the opportunity to mingle with ballplayers after more substantive meetings earlier in the day with the prime minister of the Czech Republic and a special envoy from the Organization of the Islamic Conference:

Singling out ace hurler Daisuke Matzuzaka, Bush made reference to the large group of Japanese reporters who were on hand, joking, "His press corps is bigger than mine." He then noted another similarity he said he shares with "Dice K": "We both have trouble answering questions in English."

Throughout, Bush was effusive in his praise for the Red Sox franchise.

"I love the fact that you've got some of the game's biggest stars. I mean, 'Big Papi,' the guy lights up the screen," Bush said of Ortiz. "He brings a great personality."

But he couldn't help but note the absence of Manny Ramirez, who also did not attend the first Red Sox visit to the Bush White House after the 2004 World Series.

"I'm sorry [Ortiz'] running mate, Manny Ramirez, isn't here. I guess his grandmother died again," Bush quipped, drawing laughter form he crowd but quickly adding, "Just kidding. Tell Manny I didn't mean it."

"And how about Jonathan Papelbon? The guy pitches almost as well as he dances. And I appreciate the dress code. Thanks for wearing pants."

The president then explained why he thinks the Red Sox remains the team to beat.

"This is a club that was wise enough to maintain a core of players that knew how to win," Bush said. "Varitek, Mirabelli, Ortiz, Ramirez, Schilling, Youkilis, Timlin and Wakefield were all members of the 2004 championship team, and they provided the nucleus to bring some new players and some young players along."

On a serious note, Bush also said the victory of teammate Jon Lester over cancer last season was an "inspiration" and moved "all of America, whether you're a Red Sox fan or not."

The president also thanked the team for visiting privately with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center nearby.

"These champs have got a chance to bring some joy in somebody's heart, and I want to thank you for really honoring the true heroes of the United States of America, and those who wear the uniform of our country," he said.

At the close of the White House event, after shaking hands with each player, Bush was presented a Red Sox jersey that read "Bush" on the back with the number "07" by team captain Jason Varitek.

"This was a lot more fun" than last time," Varitek told reporters afterward.

Throughout the day White House officials avoided questions about the news that the Justice Department has been asked to investigate whether New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens committed perjury earlier this month when he testified before a House committee that he never used steroids or other performance enhancing drugs.

"This is an event for the President to celebrate the win with the Boston Red Sox," Press secretary Dana Perino told reporters.

But before it was all over Varitek weighed in.

Appearing briefly in the White House driveway with World Series MVP Mike Lowell and Hideki Okajima, Varitek called on Major League Baseball to "do the things it needs to do to make it as pure as possible."

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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