Trump Goes to the Bullpen in Awarding His Latest Presidential Medal of Freedom

WASHINGTON — President Trump brought a New York sports icon to the White House on Monday for the latest installment of his favorite new presidential pastime: honoring a sports legend who also happens to be a political supporter.

Mr. Trump bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Mariano Rivera, a member of five Yankees championship teams who is widely considered the best relief pitcher in baseball history. Mr. Rivera is also well known for his spirituality as well as his philanthropy in Westchester County, N.Y., where he lives, and in Panama, where he grew up, the son of a fisherman.

In honoring Mr. Rivera, the president emphasized his faith while extolling his “lethal” pitch. “It’s from God, it’s from God,” Mr. Trump said, drawing a nod from Vice President Mike Pence, a fellow evangelical Christian who was seated in the front row.

Aides say Mr. Trump has come to personally relish the camera-friendly awarding of the nation’s highest civilian honor, which the president grants at his own discretion. Monday’s event was the fifth of its kind that Mr. Trump has held this year and the fourth at which he has presented the award to a sports star.

Even as the prospect of a military confrontation with Iran loomed over his day, Mr. Trump appeared unusually jolly and at ease, marveling at how many bats Mr. Rivera’s blistering pitches had splintered and laughing at the irascible reputation of another Yankee great, Babe Ruth.

Mr. Rivera also provided a disruptive president with an excuse to blast Metallica in the White House’s storied East Room. As a Yankee, Mr. Mariano was known as The Sandman — “because he put the batter to sleep,” as Mr. Trump put it — and his entrance was celebrated by the song “Enter Sandman,” whose growling guitars and pounding drums seemed to energize a head-nodding president.

Mr. Trump has a personal relationship with Mr. Rivera that predates his time in the White House, and Mr. Rivera has publicly defended him.

“He was a friend of mine before he became president,” Mr. Rivera said on “Fox & Friends” in July. “So, I mean, because as he’s president, I will turn my back on him? No. I respect him. I respect what he does, and I believe he’s doing the best for the United States of America.”

At the White House on Monday, Mr. Rivera seemed to support Mr. Trump’s brand of nationalism when he described the life-changing experience of learning English after coming to the United States to play baseball. Mr. Rivera, who became a naturalized American citizen in 2015, said that “learning English is the first thing that we should do.”

Mr. Trump has been denounced as a bigot by numerous current and former star athletes, though Mr. Rivera is not the only marquee former Yankee to have openly supported Mr. Trump. During the 2016 presidential primary race, the former outfielder Paul O’Neill appeared at a Trump campaign event in what was widely interpreted as a de facto endorsement.

Mr. Trump is a longtime Yankees fan who watched many games with George Steinbrenner, the team’s larger-than-life former owner, and reveled in the presence of one of the franchise’s greatest players. After explaining Mr. Rivera’s nickname to the assembled audience, which in addition to Mr. Pence included Attorney General William P. Barr, he made sure to underscore his own fandom.

“A lot of people don’t know that, but the Yankee fans know that,” Mr. Trump said. “We’ve watched it for a long time.”

He also recalled with fondness another Yankee immortal, Mr. Ruth, to whom he awarded his first Presidential Medal of Freedom in November. “The Babe — oh, we love the Babe,” Mr. Trump said. “What a swing the Babe had. That old corkscrew swing, right? Nobody could figure him out either.”

The Yankees signed Mr. Rivera in 1990 for about $2,000, but he wound up earning about $170 million over 19 major league seasons, before retiring in 2013. With a signature cut fastball and unflappable demeanor under pressure, Mr. Rivera, 49, earned a record 652 saves, with another 42 in the postseason, and this year became the first unanimous inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mr. Trump held no Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies during his first year as president, and just one last year, in which he bestowed them upon seven recipients en masse. Group ceremonies are the modern presidential norm — President Barack Obama once granted 21 in a single day — but Mr. Trump has said he prefers individual celebrations of achievement.

Over the summer, he awarded the medal to two retired basketball heroes, to Bob Cousy on Sept. 6 and to Jerry West on Aug. 22. Mr. Cousy is an open supporter of the president, and the pro golfer Tiger Woods, to whom Mr. Trump granted the medal in May, is a friend and business associate.

Source: NYT

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