WASHINGTON -- The members of the South Carolina baseball team got a champion's welcome Monday from the nation's No. 1 fan, President Barack Obama.
On a sun-splashed evening, the national champion Gamecocks took part in a ceremony honoring collegiate champions from more than two dozen sports.
"This is the most athletic talent we've ever had on the South Lawn," Obama told 650 athletes and 150 coaches on the green expanse outside the White House.
"You didn't have multimillion-dollar contracts or huge endorsement deals," Obama said. "You woke up early. You put in countless hours of practice for the love of the game and for the pride of your school."
After Obama's remarks, clusters of Gamecocks joined groups from other schools as they dashed toward the rope line for a chance to chat with the president and shake his hand.
Associate coach Chad Holbrook, assistant coach Sammy Esposito, third baseman Adrian Morales and pitcher Steven Neff were among the first to reach Obama.
"I watched the championship game against UCLA," Obama told them.
"Congratulations on winning the national championship."
After exchanging greetings with pitchers John Taylor and Jose Mata, Obama started to walk away when Taylor shouted out: "Mr. President, what do you think about Manny (Ramirez) going to the White Sox?"
Obama, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, is a huge fan of sports teams from his hometown of Chicago. The president stopped, shook his head and delivered his verdict on last month's trade of the slugger from the Los Angeles Dodgers to his beloved Chicago White Sox.
"It's too late to help us," the president said. "Maybe we should pick up one of you guys."
Five Gamecocks from the championship team have signed professional contracts and could someday help a pennant contender: Pitchers Jordan Propst, Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson, outfielder Whit Merrifield and shortstop Bobby Haney.
Each athlete received a ceremony program on thick textured paper with the embossed White House seal and gold embroidery listing all of the champion teams.
The Gamecocks gave Obama some keepsakes -- a No. 10 Gamecocks jersey, signifying the 2010 championship, and 12 autographed baseballs. "This will be a day our players will never forget," Holbrook said.
As the ceremony got under way, hundreds of student athletes held camera phones above their heads as Obama walked across the lawn and approached the stage.
"No matter what you do, no matter where you end up, you will always know in your heart what it means to be the best there is at what you do," Obama told them. "You'll always know what it's like to set a goal and then reach it; what it feels like to hit your limit and then go beyond it; to get to the top and turn around and give others a hand."
Centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who was the College World Series MVP, took to heart the president's appreciation of their accomplishments and his call to service.
"It was great, Bradley said. "The president understands what we have to go through not only as athletes, but as students as well. It is sort of like we have double the load."
The White House ceremony capped a day of taking in the nation's capital and getting the red-carpet treatment from members of Congress representing South Carolina.
The Gamecocks spent some time with U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham on Capitol Hill. "Just being on sacred ground and getting a behind-the-scenes view that most people don't get to see is pretty cool," said first baseman and designated hitter Jeffrey Jones. "It's my first time going to the White House."
The official U.S. House photographer took a shot of the baseball team on the steps of the Capitol with Graham and DeMint. Only once did politics come up.
When the photographer asked the ballplayers to line up to the left of Republicans Graham and DeMint, the Republican Graham quipped: "There's tons of room to our left."
Inside the Capitol, the team got a tour of the Senate and House chambers where the nation has declared war and where presidents have given State of the Union addresses for the past century.
"This is pretty special," said Austin Ashmore, an outfielder and redshirt sophomore. "After all the hoopla of the national championship, it continues here. This is some of the perks. It's a great thing to see."
The baseball players were not the only ones in awe.
When USC pitcher Michael Roth, whose complete game College World Series win was among the strongest performances of the championship tournament, shook hands with Graham, it was the state's senior senator who was gushing.
"You're a stud!" Graham exclaimed.
After the White House ceremony concluded, the team got back on its Champion Tours bus and headed home to Columbia. They planned to arrive by 4 a.m.
"We'll try to get the guys to class in the morning and to practice in the afternoon," Holbrook said.
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