Cubs Fanatic Dan Shapiro Shares Love of Sports with His Boss, Barack Obama

Hillel KuttlerFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2016

Barack Obama awarding Cubs legend Ernie Banks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Barack Obama awarding Cubs legend Ernie Banks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

HERZLIYA PITUACH, Israel — On Monday night, Dan Shapiro stood outside the American embassy in Tel Aviv and pressed a button that bathed the edifice in pink to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

If Shapiro, who has served as the United States ambassador to Israel since 2011, had a say, the embassy might next be illuminated in blue and red to honor his beloved Chicago Cubs.

"It probably would have to come out of my pocket," Shapiro joked at his home here during the wee hours of Thursday morning while watching a live broadcast of the Cubs' 5–1 win over the Cleveland Indians that squared the 2016 World Series at a game apiece.

Or maybe he could seek a special budgetary allocation from his ultimate boss and fellow Chicago sports fan, President Barack Obama.

Obama, of course, touts his love of the White Sox, the Cubs' intracity rivals, who broke their own World Series drought in 2005, just over a year before Shapiro began consulting on foreign policy for the then-Illinois senator's presidential run.

Shapiro said that he and Obama both love their teams while harboring no animosity toward the other Windy City club.

When Obama tweeted congratulations to the Cubs for reaching the World Series, Shapiro retweeted it.

Still, while Shapiro said he appreciates that Obama "comes by his being a White Sox fan honestly," he wonders if the First Fan sometimes goes too far. 

"When he threw out the first pitch at a [Washington] Nationals game with a White Sox hat, I thought: Really?"

Barack Obama throwing out the first pitch in 2014.
Barack Obama throwing out the first pitch in 2014.SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

The two men don't often banter about sports, in person or long distance, and there's been no Cubs-related smack talk this October.

Not that Shapiro, a Champaign, Illinois, native, is loath to dish some bull—or bear or cub—to everyone else when it comes to his favorite professional franchises.

Last spring, he posted congratulations on Facebook to the Golden State Warriors for breaking the NBA record for wins in a regular season. But it was accompanied by a picture of a T-shirt with the Chicago Bulls logo—the previous record holder—and the caution: "Don't mean a thing without the ring."

He's posted remarks and photos on the Cubs all season long, including while attending two games in July at Wrigley Field. This spot-on comment following Chicago's World Series Game 1 loss was among them: "One thing I know about [manager] Joe Maddon and these Cubs: They don't get down over a loss, and they come right back fighting the next day. Jake [Arrieta] is on the mound in Game 2. I like our chances."

For that game, Shapiro greeted me at 1:30 a.m., about a half-hour before Arrieta's first pitch. He sported a Cubs cap and wore the official jersey of Addison Russell, his daughter Merav's favorite player, over a team T-shirt. Next to the big-screen television in his office, Cubs nesting dolls sat on a shelf, just above Obama's book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters.

Atop a lounge chair were arrayed two Cubs caps, a Cubs yarmulke and a Wrigley Field giveaway "W" towel for waving purposes. Shapiro's wife, Julie Fisher, a Minnesotan, slept upstairs throughout the game but had thoughtfully placed yellow Post-it notes across the coffee table, one letter handwritten on each. The message?: GO CUBS. THIS IS THE YEAR.

Shapiro celebrating the Game 2 victory with two of his daughters and the Cubs' "W" flag
Shapiro celebrating the Game 2 victory with two of his daughters and the Cubs' "W" flagHillel Kuttler

By game's end, just after 6 a.m. local time, Shapiro, too, was bushed—but giddily so. Indians catcher Roberto Perez grounded to Addison Russell to seal the Cubs' first victory in 71 years in a World Series game.

Shapiro screamed, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Meg Ryan-in-the deli-like, rushed over to high-five each of his three daughters and led them in an ear-splitting chant of "This. Is. The. Year." that must have shaken Julie's bed.

The dude is a regular fan working as an envoy in an important posting. He just happens to be living in a U.S. government-owned mansion in this upscale neighborhood as a result of that posting.

He shares some of those same qualities to the man signing his checks. Obama is "a normal person who happened to become president. Part of that was a guy who liked going to ballgames," Shapiro said.

"What I have seen of him up close and as a more distant observer is that he is someone who, with all his responsibilities and all on his plate, follows sports. So when teams come to the White House [after winning championships], he's probably followed the team."

Shapiro said he has yet to be invited to the White House's residential quarters to watch any games.

He'd also like to golf with him someday soon. Someone who has is Alan Solow, a longtime Obama donor and a fellow Chicagoan.

When they played in a foursome at Olympia Fields Country Club south of Chicago on Oct. 8, the Cubs-Giants National League Division Series was just getting underway, and sports, not politics, dominated the chatter.

"He was looking forward to watching," Solow, a lawyer, said of Obama. "There was a lot of banter about what a good team the Cubs were this year and about the Dodgers' pitching. Part of the discussion was that baseball is probably more unpredictable in the playoffs than other sports are, because of the impact of pitching."

Obama welcomes the 2015 World Series champions (Kansas City Royals) to the White House.
Obama welcomes the 2015 World Series champions (Kansas City Royals) to the White House.Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Solow, who's spent time with Obama both in the White House and on the golf course, said the president enjoys being in a sports environment, whether that means attending a playoff game, honoring championship teams at the White House or golfing.

"It was a much more relaxed setting for him, and it's important to respect his decision to get away from the job and stay away from the hard subjects," he added, speaking of the Oct. 8 outing.

Shapiro, too, has witnessed Obama's passion for sports bubble up. Sometimes, that's occurred in unexpected circumstances. He's been in the Oval Office when Obama tossed around a football.

Then there was Obama's visit to Israel in March 2013. Shapiro and other key personnel, including then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Secretary of State John Kerry, were with the president in his hotel suite.

"ESPN was on, and he was tracking the games with his bracket," Shapiro said of Obama's March Madness fandom. "We were talking about his next meeting with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu...and he said, 'Dan, I want to hear your view of this.' I forget what the issue was, and I said, ‘Well, Mr. President, I think,' and he said, ‘Oh, my God, what a dunk!' And I lost my train of thought."

If basketball wasn't uppermost in Shapiro's mind that March Madness day, it was front and center when he first heard he was on Obama's radar in early 2007. Shapiro was on the staff of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) when Mark Lippert, who worked for then-Sen. Obama (and now serves as U.S. ambassador to South Korea), recruited him to join the presidential campaign team.

WASHINGTON - MAY 27:  U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is presented with a plaque of a bracket by coach Mike Krzyzewski (L) of the Duke Blue Devils during a Rose Garden event May 27, 2010 at the White House in Washington, DC. Obama hosted the NCAA men bask
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Once the particulars of his advisory role on foreign policy were made clear, Shapiro, aware even then of Obama's love of hoops, put in an early non-political request.

"I told Mark, 'All I want is the chance to play basketball with him,'" Shapiro said, adding that the affirmative response "was easier said than done." It wasn't until 2010 that his opportunity arose. By then, Shapiro was the National Security Council's senior director for the Middle East and North Africa. Obama had added a basketball court on the White House's South Lawn, just a few steps from the NSC's complex in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and Shapiro learned of Friday afternoon games David Axelrod, Obama's senior advisor, arranged.   

"We were shooting around on a half court: me, Axelrod, Gene Sperling and [Michael] McFaul [then-Treasury Department official and then-NSC adviser on Russia, respectively], and on the other end, the president was shooting around with [aide] Reggie Love. Axelrod said to him, 'Why don't you run with us one game?'

"I ended up on [Obama's] team. There's an interesting dynamic that occurs: a deference to get him the ball. I didn't embarrass myself. I hit a shot or two and acquitted myself acceptably. I think we won." "I can say that I played with the president of the United States."

All Shapiro wants now is for his beloved Cubbies to pull off a historic rebound from 3-1 down and earn an invitation to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. World Series champions traditionally drop by to be feted by the president when on a road trip to play the nearby Baltimore Orioles or Washington Nationals

But by next season, Obama will be an ex-president.

Don't be surprised, then, if Air Force One is dispatched to swoop up the members of a curse-breaking, 'comeback kid' Chicago club and deliver them to the White House for a pre-January 20 visit.

Hillel Kuttler covers baseball for Bleacher Report. His work has previously appeared at the New York Times and the Washington Post. Follow Hillel on Twitter @HilleltheScribe.

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