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Champions didn’t always go only to Disneyland. A far less hokey tradition in American sport holds that they come to the White House for a meet-and-greet with the Chief Executive, too. Look for the Green Bay Packers and yucky Desmond Howard to do their nauseating “Earthquake” dance in the Rose Garden in the near future.

The 1996 Yankees, a far more lovable bunch, never came to town. How come?

Did we miss something? In mere weeks, believe it or not, another baseball season starts up. Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training camps all over Florida and Arizona, games of pepper will be played, and before too long geeky diamond pundits will be picking the next pennant and World Series winners.

Last year, the Yankees filled those bills, wonderfully. This wasn’t like any of the storied overdog Yankee teams of old, or an eminently hatable “Bronx Zoo” squad like the one that dominated the American League in the late 1970s. Even with the same, still fairly vile owner, George Steinbrenner, running the show, there was no way to despise this overachieving gang.

Remember the story lines! Joe Torre, the manager who made as many calls to the hospital as he did to the bullpen, keeping tabs on his dying brother, who got a life-saving heart transplant—smack in the middle of the postseason. Then there was the renewal of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, players whose careers started together at great heights on the other side of town before foundering amid drinking, drugs, and wife beatings. And who could forget Jeff Maier, the miraculous munchkin in the bleachers who deftly reached over the rightfield rail to swipe Derek Jeter’s soft fly ball from Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco, giving the home team’s light-hitting shortstop a clutch—not to mention thoroughly undeserved—home run, which let the Yanks steal the game and the pennant? And finally, in the World Series, there was that comeback after two shellackings at home to the very sterile and heavily favored Braves with four straight close-game wins.

For the first time since the disastrous strike of 1994, baseball actually lived up to its billing as America’s favorite pastime, all thanks to the Yanks.

A White House visit by the country’s newest darlings would have provided a swell coda to the already melodramatic tale. Everybody could see that. Even Major League Baseball.

“Having the Yankees visit the White House after the World Series, well, we would have loved to see that,” said James Kim, a spokesman for the American League.

There are any number of conspiracy theories as to why the visit never took place. The juiciest rumor out of New York was that a band of reactionary Yankee players, led by World Series MVP John Wetteland, asserted that they could not in good conscience break bread with President Clinton.

The players, according to this rumor, didn’t want to in any way assist the incumbent in the then-current presidential campaign. If true, it wouldn’t be the first time guests from the sporting world balked at a White House invitation over politics: In his A Good Walk Spoiled, John Feinstein recounts how some particularly right-minded members of the 1993 Ryder Cup team threatened to stand up President Clinton on political grounds. But when Tom Watson, captain of the victorious U.S. team, verbally battered the conscientious objectors, they decided not to stiff the leader of the free world and made the trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Wetteland couldn’t be reached for comment, and although his agent, Adam Katz, admitted that the player throws from the right side in politics as well from the mound, Katz denied that the reliever led a Yankee rebellion against an invitation.

“Yes, John is conservative politically, but he wouldn’t impose his will on the rest of the club like that,” said the L.A.-based Katz. “Didn’t happen.”

Yankee officials similarly pooh-pooh the rebellion rumors.

“We’ve heard those stories, but the truth is the players had nothing to do with this,” said Yankee spokesman Rick Cerrone. “Going to the White House to see the president, well, that sounds like a great honor, and there’s no way a few players would get up and tell the owner, ‘We are not going to the White House!’ That’s ridiculous.”

OK, then, Cerrone was asked, why didn’t the Yankees ever visit with Clinton?

“We didn’t go because we were never invited,” Cerrone said.

Hmmm. No invitation, huh? It’s impossible that Clinton overlooked the Yankees’ win: He called Joe Torre after the Series and offered congratulations. And besides, he’s easily the most sportscentric prez this country has ever elected. (Anybody who disagrees with that appraisal need only get a tape of the CBS halftime show during the most recent Army-Navy game. In 25 wonderful seconds, Clinton offered up an unsolicited but dizzyingly complete summary of the first Florida-Florida State matchup and explained why Gator QB Danny Wuerffel deserved the Heisman Trophy.)

Which leads to another conspiracy theory: Could it be that the White House and President Clinton were the ones playing political baseball? Could it be that they didn’t want to do anything to make Steinbrenner, a die-hard Republican, look good?

After all, the Yankees’ owner was John Huang before John Huang was cool: Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to federal charges that grew out of his illegal contributions to Nixon’s presidential campaigns. (Ronald Reagan, when he took up residence in the White House, pardoned Steinbrenner for his partisan offenses.)

But Steinbrenner’s past, White House officials contend, didn’t keep the president from partying with the World Series champs.

“The Yankees didn’t come here because they won the World Series in the middle of a campaign,” asserted Mary Ellen Glynn, a Clinton spokeswoman. “That’s the only reason. The president is a big baseball fan, and we love the Yankees, and we’d love to have the Yankees visit the White House if we can arrange it.”

When told that the White House might be ready to finally offer up an invite, Cerrone said, in effect, don’t bother.

“Realistically, I don’t see how a trip like that could happen at this point,” he said. “It wouldn’t even make too much sense now. I mean, we’re not even the same team any more as the one that won the World Series.”

Indeed, alleged anti-visit ringleader John Wetteland isn’t even a Yankee now. Even if he didn’t get a White House soiree out of it, Wetteland’s World Series performance garnered him a four-year, $23-million deal with the Texas Rangers. Just think how many nights in the Lincoln Bedroom that could buy him…—Dave McKenna