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After two-plus decades of competition, former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) has more stories about the Congressional baseball game than just about anyone. But it’s Roll Call’s memory of Bonior’s longevity, excellence and dedication that earned him a space in the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame.
Yes, Bonior won multiple MVP awards while playing nearly a half-dozen positions. And yes, Bonior batted better than .300 since Roll Call starting keeping track of such statistics. But those numbers pale in comparison to Bonior’s passion for the game.
“I love baseball, I love the camaraderie of the game, and the charities we play for,” said Bonior, who overcame a back injury that kept him out of a few games in the latter half of his career. “The whole idea of it is so American.”
After sitting out the 1992 and 1993 contests to recuperate, Bonior, who has undergone back surgery three times, bounced back to hit .380 over the rest of his Congressional career.
“I love the competition, it’s fun, it’s a good cause,” he said. “It’s a throwback to our youths, our perceived glory days.”
But for the Michigan Democrat, who placed second in last year’s gubernatorial primary, they were real glory days. A three-sport star in high school, Bonior won a football scholarship to the University of Iowa. In Congress, he excelled in interparty basketball competition in addition to baseball.
“He was probably one of the better all-around athletes in Congress,” said the Democrats’ longtime manager, Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.), who described Bonior as a great shortstop and heady ballplayer. “He clearly was one of the outstanding players who have played in the game over the years.”
Bonior spent about half of his 23 years in the game manning shortstop for the Democratic squad. And it was from that spot that he repeatedly turned his favorite play: the pickoff. The team had developed a play in which Bonior slides in behind the runner, catching him off-base, and tags him out.
One year, with Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) on second, the Democrats tried the move again. They were successful, but there were consequences. Burton “came back on the bag, and he stepped on my foot with his steel spikes,” said Bonior, who had to leave the game to have a large gash stitched up. On the bright side, it got Bonior’s foot on the “Today” show — and gave him ammunition for a future legislative fight.
“A couple years later, Burton offered an amendment to get rid of a bike trail in my district, calling it pork. Clearly it was going to pass,” said Bonior. So the Michigan Democrat took to the floor to defend the project:
“About 10 years ago ... I was playing shortstop and the gentleman from Indiana, who is my friend, was on second base. And he was leading off a little bit, and I was trying to pick him off,” Bonior said, according to the Congressional Record. “Finally he got a little too far off the bag. I snuck in behind him, the pitcher threw me the ball. I tagged him, and he was out. But in the process, with his steel spikes, he put about a 5-inch scar into my right foot. I ended up going to the hospital, getting it stitched. And for the last 10 years, every morning when I put on my socks, I am reminded of Dan Burton because I look at that scar.
“Well, he is stepping on my toes again, Mr. Chairman. He wants to go after my project.”
Once again, Bonior came out ahead, as Burton’s amendment failed by voice vote.
Bonior’s most recent MVP award came in 1998, when he went 2-for-3 while playing second base and designated hitter in a losing effort, a recurring outcome throughout the history of the game, especially in recent years.
“[Republicans] have had better recruiting years, recently anyways,” said Bonior, blaming his team’s lack of wins on election results. “The first 15 years I played we were pretty even. Since ’94 they’ve had an influx of younger [Members] ... more options for ballplayers.”
Of course, many of his memories involve the rest of the team. The former House Minority Whip recalled two occasions in which the Democrats came back from last-inning deficits to win the game. He even has a bipartisan anecdote.
“I remember [Rep.] Ron Paul [R-Texas] hit a home run when we played over in Alexandria. I thought that was really cool,” said Bonior. It might not have been so cool, however, had the Democrats not won that 1979 game, 7-3, despite that rare round-tripper.
These days, Bonior spends half his time as a professor in the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State University. He divides the remainder among various pursuits: his role with an investment company; as chairman of the board of a new, as-yet-unnamed organization for worker rights; on the board of a bank; advising on civil liberties and environmental issues; and on the board of Public Citizen.
But even in retirement, Bonior knows what the Democrats need to do to win this year. “Defense is really key. If we can tighten up our defense we can probably do better.”
Maybe the Democrats’ current infield should study the way Bonior used to play.
“One time I was playing short, [then-Rep. Marty] Russo [D-Ill.] was at first, and the hit came to me,” he said, describing another of his favorite plays. “The ball took a crazy bounce over my head. Instinctively I reached up barehanded [and caught the ball]. I threw off-balance and Marty caught the ball with his off-hand” for the out.
And Bonior believes his former colleagues may be able to turn a couple of great plays themselves. “This is our year.”