"When you leave the red-hot excitement of the White House it's kind of nice to replace it with something that's also red-hot and exciting and that's the world of sports," says former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Jupiter, Fla., is a long way from the White House, but for Fleischer, think of it as his new office. The St. Louis Cardinals call Jupiter their home for spring training and this year the spotlight of baseball's annual preseason will be shining squarely on Jupiter: Fleischer's biggest client has a brand new gig. And it's hardly an easy one.
Few players in Major League Baseball history have ever fallen from grace faster than Mark McGwire, the former Cardinals slugger who 12 years ago shattered the sport's home-run record, but earlier this year admitted using steroids.
One month after his admission, McGwire today will take the field in Jupiter as the Cardinals'new hitting coach. And as the disgraced superstar returns to the national spotlight, Fleischer will be guiding his every move.
Let's just say the PR man comes prepared. From 2001 to 2003, Fleischer was White House press secretary for President George W. Bush – and it'd be an understatement to say he had his hands full.
First, Fleischer had to contend with the backlash from the controversial Florida recount. Then the September 11 attacks. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The anthrax attacks. And the uproar over the leaked identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
In May of 2003, with Bush's re-election campaign looming, Fleischer announced he was stepping down from his post to spend time with his family and work in the private sector.
"You just reach a point where you have to look into your heart and know that it's time to go," he told reporters at the time.
The long-time Yankees fan quickly segued to the sports world, starting Ari Fleischer Sports Communications. As the company's Web site points out, "No one faces tougher coverage than sports figures – except for presidents and top government officials."
"When I left the White House I said I was going to do something more relaxing like dismantling live nuclear weapons," jokes Fleischer. "This is definitely more relaxing. The fact is I love them both – I loved the intensity and pressure of the White House, I loved being there, but I love this too."
And, as Fleischer notes, the two jobs are more similar than some people might think.
"There are only two institutions in our society that have their events covered live and have sections in the newspapers dedicated to them – the White House and sports," he says. "That makes them so similar when it comes to how you communicate."
"Because they're athletes or they're teams or they're leagues, their forte isn't necessarily how to communicate, especially when it comes outside the sports page," Fleischer states. "The way they handle the press is tremendously important to how they and their team do. They can enhance their careers or they can shoot themselves in the foot."
High-profile clients soon came onboard for Fleischer's help, including the Sony Ericsson Women's Tennis Association Tour and Major League Baseball.
When baseball commissioner Bud Selig in January of 2008 testified on Capitol Hill as part of the Congressional investigation into steroid use in sports, Fleischer was right by his side.
"Ari's advice on how to handle the press and deal with difficult communications problems has been of great value to me," Selig said of Fleischer, according to the PR firm's Web site. "Ari has helped me get ready for many major media events. He understands how reporters operate, and he uses that knowledge well."
This spring that knowledge will be put to the test once again as Fleischer attempts to help McGwire restart his career – and repair his tarnished image.
The first step in that effort came last month when McGwire tearfully admitted using steroids during his career, including during his record-setting 1998 season. Big Mac was officially a cheat.
"His goal was to become a batting coach and he wanted to get back into uniform and he knew he had to address the elephant in the room and he took it head on and he did it," Fleischer says.
"Mark deserves huge credit for coming forward, not having been outed but voluntarily – because he wanted to become a coach – coming forward and acknowledging what people suspected. He didn't need to do it, but he took it upon himself and told the truth, acknowledged he took steroids, and he apologized."
The day of McGwire's admission in January, recalls Fleischer, was a draining time for the slugger.
"It really wore him down. It was very difficult for him," Fleischer says. "His shoulders were slumped, he was really beaten-down, tired – and I wondered how this was all going to end."
But an outpouring of support soon boosted McGwire's morale.
"That night and the next morning he got so many text messages and e-mails and messages of support," Fleischer says, "when I saw him the next morning he was upbeat and chipper and he's been that way ever since."
"Because of all the great messages he got, he's held up so much better."
That support will be vital as McGwire returns to the national spotlight as soon as he steps on the diamond in Jupiter today.
"He couldn't wait to get to camp," notes Fleischer. "It'll be the first time he puts on the uniform with #25 on it again."
But returning to the batting cages will be easier for McGwire than restoring his reputation. The latter will not be an easy battle, but for Fleischer, it is just the latest challenge.
"When you look at the history of other players, everybody who's acknowledged [using steroids] went through a very hard time afterwards," he notes. "Immediately what follows is a genuine sense of disappointment among fans, a feeling of letdown. But there's also in this country a real feeling that people deserve second chances and I think that's what you'll see."
In between defending the Bush administration and founding his sports PR firm, Fleischer somehow found time to write a best-selling book about his time in the White House called "Taking Heat."
That is exactly what Mark McGwire will be doing this spring, but this time the fastballs won't be coming from the pitcher's mound – they'll be coming from a national audience full of critics. And it's up to Fleischer to help the slugger hit them out of the park.
"My sense of it is anybody who did steroids deserves a black mark because they did steroids – everybody, including Mark, and he knows that," Fleischer says. "But I also think when you see how genuine and sincere and apologetic he feels he doesn't deserve to be banished from this business for his whole life. He deserves a second chance. He's asked for one. My belief is that the fans are going to be happy to give him one."