That time I won the Presidents Race at RFK Stadium

It’s been a particularly tough week, with far too much negative news in both the baseball and larger world. So let’s try to end it on a lighter note, with a personal anecdote. About the time I ran in the Presidents Race.

It’s Aug. 17, 2006, and the fourth-inning Presidents Race is still a new event during Nationals games. First conceived as an animated race on the scoreboard, it became live action in July of that summer, after the Lerner family officially gained control of the organization and liked former director of ballpark entertainment Josh Golden’s idea of holding a nightly version of the popular Sausage Race in Milwaukee and Pierogi Race in Pittsburgh.

The Presidents Race was an instant hit. Those four giant-headed Mt. Rushmores just looked so goofy racing down the warning track, none more than Teddy, who by sheer accident kept losing the race in those early days.

Nowadays, the Nationals have full-time employees performing as the Presidents throughout games. But back then, they just grabbed whoever they could get to run the race. Interns. Low-level team employees. Anybody willing to do it.

And for one day - and one day only - those anybodies were sportswriters.

We all thought the race was hysterical as we watched from the press box. And at some point, someone asked if there was any way we could run a race. To our surprise, the answer was yes. We chose a Thursday matinee against the Braves, thinking it would be better to do it during a day game so we wouldn’t be under the normal deadline pressure that comes with a 7:05 p.m. start. But we never envisioned how much time, effort and sweat would be involved.

The foursome was supposed to include me, Howard Fendrich of the Associated Press, Todd Jacobson of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star and one other beat writer whose name I won’t reveal because he bailed at the last minute, insisting he hadn’t asked permission from his editor to run. Suffice it to say, Screech wasn’t the only chicken at RFK that afternoon.

Even though the race was run in the middle of the fourth inning, we were told we needed to start getting ready in the top of the second. So we made our way down into the bowls of the stadium, to the mascot dressing room, where we were helped into our costumes.

I was George. Jacobson was Abe. Fendrich was Teddy. And filling in for our overly nervous colleague as Tom was Ryan Thomas, at that time a Nats PR intern, now director of minor league operations for the organization.

It’s a real process getting into the costumes, especially the original ones, which featured head-to-toe replicas of the real life presidents’ clothes. But the real trouble comes when you put on the heads. They sit atop a contraption that you wear like a backpack, then they hover about four feet over your own head, wobbling in every direction. They weigh 30 pounds, and they pull you forward, which means to run in them you have to lean back to maintain your balance and not topple over. Your only glimpse of the outside world comes through a mesh window strategically hidden inside the mascot’s neck. Peripheral vision? Forget about it.

As the top of the fourth arrived and we made our way toward the tunnel where we’d access the field in the right field corner, we decided to have a little bit of fun with our race. Teddy would run out of the gate first and hold a big lead through the first half of the race, teasing the crowd into thinking he might actually win for the first time.

Zuckerman in Presidents Race Sidebar.jpgThe rest of us would follow several steps behind, then once Teddy paused to soak in the cheering crowd, we’d all take off and it would be every man for himself. Once the race ended behind home plate, we’d try to pull off a choreographed celebration, the four of us gathering in a circle and giving each other a leaping high-five, a la the Redskins’ “Fun Bunch” from the 1980s. (Look it up, kids.)

And then all of a sudden the top of the fourth was over, and Golden was telling us to get ready to run. He left us with one final warning moments before we took off: “Make sure you don’t fall over! We don’t know if we can get you back up again!”

These days, the Racing Presidents fall over, smash into each other and get taken down by all manner of surprise intruders and emerge with nary a scratch. Back then, though, they had no idea if the costumes could handle that kind of punishment. Or if the weight of the heads would be too great to get us back on our feet.

So no pressure or anything, right?

Not that we had time to think about it, because Teddy was already on his way. Abe was next, followed by George (me) and Tom. Teddy did his thing, pausing halfway down the first base line and playing up the crowd. And that’s when I decided to make my move.

With Abe directly in front of me and Teddy blocking the inside path, I went to the outside. I somehow contorted my body inside the giant costume to get around Abe, possibly stepping off the warning track and onto the grass (a big no-no), and took the lead.

Victory was assured. Or so I thought. I assumed I was only a few steps from the finish line. Then I looked up through that tiny mesh window and saw the actual finish line another 150 feet away. I was already gassed, but I couldn’t let up now.

So with arms flailing, feet kicking and a crowd of 29,007 roaring, I dug deep and found that extra ounce of adrenaline all the great athletes have stored up for the biggest moments of their careers. I kept chugging, knowing only I was still in the lead but not knowing how closely behind my competitors were.

And then I crossed the finish line. Ahead of the others. I turned around and saw them reach me. Abe first. Then Tom. Then poor Teddy. We gathered in our circle and tried to do our planned, leaping high-five. We didn’t think about the fact our heads were way bigger than our hands, turning the routine into an epic fail.

Golden yelled at us to get off the field and make our way up the stands so the game could, you know, continue. We got high fives and applause from all the fans we passed, then finally made our way back down to the dressing room, where we removed our costumes and got ready to return to the press box drenched in sweat.

We had missed more than three innings of the game and now had to actually write about it. (The Nats lost 5-0. It was pretty nondescript.)

More importantly, I had to take the rest of the afternoon to accept everyone’s congratulations for winning the race, the finest achievement of my (obviously unimpressive) athletic career.

By the next season, the Nationals started using full-time employees as the presidents. There have been a few rare instances in which a ringer was allowed to race, including a certain MASN pregame and postgame host who didn’t come anywhere close to enjoying the kind of success I had in my race. But for the most part, the Presidents Race is now off-limits to outsiders.

Which is perfectly fine with me. I’ve been asked if I wish I could’ve run it again, and my answer is a resounding no.

I retired from competitive mascot racing a perfect 1-0. Why would I ever want to jeopardize that record?

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