October 1, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev visited College Station, where he got a taste of Texas culture

Picture this: One fine spring day, you attend a high school baseball game in College Station and, standing in line at the concession stand, you see a bald man with a funny birthmark on his forehead. Buy a hot dog. Wait, isn’t it. . . ? Nah, that’s not possible. But that night, as you devour a plate of great fajitas at On the Border, there he is again, walking with former President George Bush, the quirky, and RC Slocum, another quirky. It’s him. The last leader of the Soviet Union. Supplier perestroika. The man who, when he died on Tuesday at 91, was hailed among the greatest agents of change for good in world history.

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev.

Gorby.

Slocum, the winningest football coach in Texas A&M history, will not soon forget his dinner party on April 12, 2001.

“Former ruler of the free world,” he said. “Former leader of the Soviet Union.

“Former shoe shiner from Orange, Texas.”

Pretty big day too for Rex Sanders, who in 2001 was about to end a long baseball coaching career at A&M Consolidated. Among his accomplishments in a Hall of Fame career, between coaching presentations for the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association All-Star Team in 1990 and the Houston Area All-Team Team in 2003 , is this note: “welcoming former President George Bush and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during a baseball game at A&M Consolidated’s Tiger Stadium in 2001.”

Sanders was so upset, in fact, that he asked the former president how it went, and here’s what Bush told him:

“You know, I wanted Gorby to see what real America is. I went to some of his cities and visited him, but he never really got to see what America was really like.

“What better way to see what America is than to take it to a high school baseball game?”

Sanders knew something was wrong when his wife, Judy, showed up for practice one day. She went to all of her matches, but never to a practice. Something must have happened to one of their three children. He ran, expecting the worst.

Judy handed him a slip of paper and told him to call the number on it. Someone had tried to reach him. President Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to come to one of his games.

For information, it was April 1st.

“Good joke,” he told her.

“What do you want?”

Next thing he knows, the press box and bleachers are getting a new coat of paint and someone is telling him where the Secret Service agents will be positioned. Sanders only told his players about the special visitors on April 12, the day of a game against Cy-Fair.

Early in the afternoon, a caravan of black Suburbans rolled into the Tiger Stadium parking lot, and from the lead vehicle emerged George HW Bush. He and his wife, Barbara, were a pretty common sight these days around College Station because of the Bush Library on the A&M campus. But Sanders had never had a real conversation with the 41st president. Not that you would have guessed they were strangers.

Bush grabbed Sanders’ hand, thanked him for letting them come, told him their other visitor was still running errands, then asked if they could go check the weed. Sanders asked Bush to throw the first pitch, and his guest returned the favor by inviting Sanders and his wife to a ceremony that evening, where he would present Gorbachev with a public service award. Then Bush got to the point of why he wanted it to be just the two of them in the outfield.

“I have to tell you one more thing,” Bush said. “Gorby will act like he doesn’t understand English. He has an interpreter. Let me tell you, Gorby understands a lot more English than you might think. So be careful what you say.

“I appreciate that,” Sanders replied, “but I don’t think I’m going to say anything.”

Soon another Suburban arrived with its international cargo. Introductions were made and, through the interpreter, Gorbachev told Sanders it was his first baseball game. Sanders presented the two dignitaries with hats from the respective enemies. Naturally, Bush was representing the home team.

Sanders thought they had it all sorted when Bush came with a request.

“Gorby found out I was throwing the first pitch,” he said, “and he wants to do the same.”

“It’s going to be tough,” Sanders said, “if you two do it.”

“Well, I will,” said the great diplomat, “and then he will.”

Sanders was fairly confident Bush, a former Yale first baseman and captain in his senior year, would perform his duties properly. He was less sure of a guy who had grown up on a farm outside Privolnoye.

“The first time I do it,” Sanders said, “you’d think he’d throw it over the backstop or bounce it three times.”

Bush, making America proud, called a strike.

The funny thing is that Gorbachev did it too.

“Somewhere down the line,” said Sanders, who knows baseball talent when he sees it, “he had thrown some kind of ball.”

Before his trip to College Station at Bush’s invitation, Gorbachev had spent a lot of time in the United States, where, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he might have been more popular than he was. was at his house. He visited the State Fair in 1998. He said a Fletcher’s corny dog ​​tasted like fried sausage. It wasn’t clear if he meant it as a compliment.

Gorbachev apparently liked to sample traditional local dishes. After a hot dog at the baseball game and a visit to the former president’s apartment on the A&M campus – where he presented Bush with a replica shotgun filled with vodka, and Slocum gave him a helmet and an Aggie football shirt with his name on the back — Gorbachev suddenly developed a craving for Mexican food.

On the Border was across the street.

“We just walked in and sat down and ate a meal,” Slocum said. “Nobody came.”

The secret service detail, not to mention Gorbachev’s bodyguards, might have had a deterrent effect.

“You know,” Slocum told his dinner partners, “I should have brought a couple of my 300-pound football players with me.”

Slocum found Gorbachev warm and jovial, an opinion he had long held of the other former head of state. Slocum became so close that he and his wife, Nel, spent three consecutive summer vacations on the Bush family yacht sailing around the Mediterranean around Greece. Besides dinners with the Bush family, foreign dignitaries and an occasional former White House official, Slocum’s most visceral memories are of Barbara Bush swimming to the yacht from the beach each day, a Navy Seal on either side.

These contacts would serve Slocum well when he was relieved of his duties at A&M towards the end of 2002.

“The day I got fired,” Slocum said, “he called me, the president did, and asked me to come play golf the next day. That was really the last thing I wanted to do.

“But how to say no to the former president?”

They played a round with the club pro at a course just west of Houston, and then, as he had done when he asked Rex Sanders to take to the field for a private talk, Bush took his guest to a private area at the back of the club. , where he delved into the real reason for the invitation.

He told a story.

“I spent my whole life wanting to be President of the United States,” Bush began, and “I got elected, and I thought I was doing a good job. Then, you know, they kicked me out of there. So I know how you feel. I thought you did a good job. When this happened to me, I decided I was going to take the high road. I had deep feelings. But I didn’t let them into my public actions or comments.

“I’m sure you will.”

Slocum promised him he would, and he kept his word. He has since remained at College Station despite offers to start and train elsewhere. He became a legend in residence, a stature enhanced by his long and difficult recovery from cancer.

He visited Bush just two days before the former president died in 2018 at age 94. He was an honorary bearer.

When he learned of Gorbachev’s death, Slocum remembered Bush and their dinner at On the Border. Two former world leaders chatting about historic times and the people who shaped them. Slocum still finds it hard to believe, and not just because of the location.

“It’s so special and illogical for someone in my background,” he said. “I met this guy. I spent an afternoon with him.

“Him and a friend of mine.”

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