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Gov. Newsom says baseball saved him. But the legend of his career doesn’t always match the reality

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BY ALEXEI KOSEFF | CalMatters

For their 2004 home opener, the San Francisco Giants invited a special guest to throw the ceremonial first pitch: Gavin Newsom, then just a few months into his first term as mayor of San Francisco.

As Newsom took the pitcher’s mound, wearing dress shoes and a button-down shirt underneath his custom Giants jersey, the announcer informed the crowd that “he played first base for the University of Santa Clara and was drafted by the Texas Rangers.”

The introduction was quickly overshadowed by Newsom nearly hitting a photographer with the ball. But it left a lasting impact on a few attendees that day — a group of former Santa Clara University baseball players who were struck by the glowing treatment of Newsom’s resume.

“It’s kind of the standing joke that Newsom played on the team,” said Vince Machi, who arrived at Santa Clara in 1985, the same year as Newsom, and played baseball for three years. “There’s always been kind of a joke between the guys who stay in touch.”

Twenty years later, as the Giants kick off their latest home season Friday, Newsom is now a national political figure — not just an outspoken champion of the Democratic Party but a potential future presidential contender. He regularly appears on cable news to discuss California policies and attack Republicans. Lately he has traveled the country as a leading surrogate for President Biden’s re-election campaign.

Through his rise over the intervening two decades, his baseball career has provided Newsom a triumphant narrative to push back on the perception that his upbringing was privileged and easy: The high school standout scouted by the major leagues, who overcame his dyslexia and academic shortcomings to earn a partial scholarship to Santa Clara University before an injury forced him to find a new purpose.

It has become so closely associated with Newsom that “Saturday Night Live” opened a show in March with a sketch where the Democratic governor, portrayed by Michael Longfellow, defends President Biden’s mental fitness by recounting: “The other day he was taking a nap and I whipped a baseball at him and he caught it like De Niro in ‘Awakenings.’”

Newsom told the story himself again in January on the podcast Pod Save America: Because of poor test scores, he was headed to community college until he got a call from the Santa Clara University baseball coaches. “It was literally the ticket to a four-year university. It changed my life, my trajectory,” he said.

But former coaches and teammates said that biography, repeated again and again through interviews and glossy magazine profiles and coverage of his 2021 baseball-themed children’s book on overcoming dyslexia, has inflated Newsom’s baseball credentials, giving the impression that he was a more accomplished player than he was.

Most notably, Newsom never played an official game for Santa Clara University; he was a junior varsity recruit who played only during the fall tryouts his freshman and sophomore years, then left the baseball program before the regular season began. He does not appear on the Broncos’ all-time roster or in media guides published by the athletic department to preview the upcoming season.

Gov. Gavin Newsom tosses a snowball after the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit conducted the fourth media snow survey of the 2024 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada, on April 2, 2024. Photo by Fred Greaves, California Department of Water Resources
Gov. Gavin Newsom tosses a snowball after the California Department of Water Resources conducted a media snow survey at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada on April 2, 2024. Photo by Fred Greaves, California Department of Water Resources



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