Congressional baseball’s past and future converge on the turf of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium tonight in the 45th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. This year’s tussle between Republicans and Democrats heralds both the sunset of one era and the dawning of another.
For the Republicans, the goal is to add one more triumph to the already sparkling résumé of their outgoing skipper, Rep. Mike Oxley (Ohio), whose squads have cemented his legacy by capturing the past two coveted Roll Call trophies. On the Democratic side, 18-year veteran manager Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.) has passed the managerial torch to Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.), fueling fresh hopes of a reversal in fortunes for a team mired in a decade-long slump.
Oxley’s swan song and Doyle’s managerial debut will share the stage at RFK Stadium tonight, as another five-game Congressional baseball series gets under way. By trouncing the Democrats last year, the Republicans completed a 3-0 series sweep.
In fact, the Democrats have been beaten and battered, often mercilessly, in six of the past seven duels with Oxley’s Republicans. But the recent drought hasn’t tempered Doyle’s optimism, and neither has the prospect of again trying to quiet the Republican offensive juggernaut, no less potent this year than in years past.
“On paper,” Doyle said, “they’re better than us. If you line their guys up and our guys up position by position, on paper they should win the game every time. But the game isn’t played that way.”
Oxley, for his part, plans on heeding the counsel of an old proverb about not fixing things that aren’t broken. “We’ve been fortunate to have a pretty stable lineup,” said Oxley, only the second manager to retire multiple coveted Roll Call trophies, “and I never tamper with a winning formula.” That winning formula — good for five consecutive victories — resulted in last year’s 19-11 dismantling of the Democrats, who were unable to overcome an early 9-0 disadvantage.
The Democrats get one more crack at Oxley before he retires from Congress at the close of the current session, to be replaced in the dugout by his longtime third-base coach, Rep. Joe Barton (Texas).
The Ohio Republican may have few chinks in his armor, but Doyle believes the gulf separating the two teams has been blown out of proportion.
“We always seem to have one terrible inning,” Doyle said. “Sometimes it’s errors. Sometimes it’s a pitcher struggling. If you take that one inning away, we’re even with them or we’re beating them.”
Congressional baseball has a long and storied history, predating not only Roll Call’s 45 years of sponsorship but also both World Wars.
Republicans and Democrats first squared off on the diamond in 1909 at Washington’s American Park, located at Ninth and S streets Northwest. Organized by Rep. Jon Tener (R-Pa.), an Irish immigrant who logged four years on the mound for the Chicago White Stockings in the late 1880s, game preparations were immediately beset by — what else? — partisan squabbling, as Members debated whether the one-time professional hurler should be permitted to play alongside his amateur colleagues.
But collegiality prevailed, and a compromise was finagled, with Tener agreeing to field ground balls rather than toe the rubber. With their premier pitching weapon exiled to shortstop, the Republicans went down in defeat, 26-16.
Tener was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1910, but the Congressional baseball series would survive its founder’s exit. For the next 37 years, Members managed to keep the summer tradition alive, but they played only sporadically.
When the now-defunct Washington Evening Star newspaper signed on to sponsor Congressional baseball in 1946, the game finally became a more regular fixture on the summer calendar. When Roll Call burst onto the scene in 1955, the newspaper covered a 12-4 GOP victory, the first flirtation in what would blossom into a long and fruitful romance with the annual Republican-Democratic showdown.
But the mixture of partisan passions and, in many cases, the advanced age and declining physical fitness of some Members was a recipe for injuries a-plenty. And as the injuries began to mount in the 1950s — culminating in a violent 1956 home-plate collision between Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tom Curtis (R-Mo.) — some influential lawmakers began to question whether the game was worth the risk. Rankled by the rash of bumps and bruises, Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) said enough was enough in 1958, nixing the game due to safety concerns.
Roll Call, led by founder Sid Yudain, rode to the rescue, resurrecting the dormant tradition in 1962. On “Roll Call Night” at District Stadium, home of the Washington Senators, Yudain arranged a three-inning scrimmage between Members of both parties, awarding the first Roll Call trophy at the conclusion of the 4-0 Republican triumph.
Since then, the coveted prize has been “retired” by whichever team wins a best-of-five series, played one game per year. Bragging rights have been in short supply for the Democrats, with the GOP having retired nine of the 11 trophies, including the past three. Overall, the Republicans hold a 30-14 edge in games won. With the retiring Sabo at the helm, the Democrats managed only five wins to offset 13 losses, many of them lopsided (though the Minnesotan did notch one series victory, in 1994).
If victories have gone mostly in the Republican column, injuries have managed to hobble game participants in an admirably bipartisan fashion. In a 1996 collision with Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) fractured his nose, cheekbone and jaw. Oxley, back in his playing days, once broke his forearm in a collision with Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
Many of the contests have turned on which squad can best keep its studs on the field and out of the training room. Last year, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the victim of injuries sustained in the first inning of the two previous games, managed to stay on the field and submit an all-around outstanding performance, doubling and tripling on his way to being named the Republican MVP.
This year marks Congressional baseball’s second back at RFK, the distinguishing feature of which has been an outfield whose spaciousness dwarfs that of its predecessor, Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md.
Those monstrous gaps in right and left center proved especially inviting targets for the line drives of numerous batters. But even after last year’s offensive fireworks, neither manager is prepared to consign outfield defense to the ash heap of Congressional baseball history.
With so much extra territory to patrol, Doyle has placed a premium on fleetness of foot in the outfield. “One of the things I’m trying to do with our outfield is to get some wheels out there,” Doyle said. “If you don’t have people out there who can motor, any of these guys can hit a gap.”
Oxley, however, emphasizes technique over raw athletic ability. “Foot speed is less important than positioning, and not letting the ball get past you because it’s likely to roll all the way to Maryland. There’s no need for the Nationals to move in the outfield walls for us.”
Of course, the better the pitching, the less chance batters have to reach those outfield walls. And good pitching always has been a key ingredient in the Republican dynasty.
In the eyes of most observers, Oxley’s lone defeat, an 8-5 setback in 2000, can be chalked up to the diminished role of then-Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), the Hall of Fame NFL wideout, whose injuries relegated him to the outfield that year. But in the six other games he played, Largent pitched complete games, compiling a 5-1 record with a 2.44 earned run average.
This year, Oxley will once again lean on “Old Reliable,” Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.), the grizzled veteran who defied the skeptics last year when he bestrode the mound a mere three months after undergoing open-heart surgery.
“Shimkus has been my meal ticket as a catcher and a pitcher,” Oxley said. “So if he’s healthy, he’s my starter.”
For the Democrats, last year’s starter, the indefatigable 60-year-old Rep. Mel Watt (N.C), is still in the mix, along with Reps. Brian Baird (Wash.), Bart Stupak (Mich.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio). With a surplus of arms, Doyle is contemplating using a pitcher-by-committee approach, both to minimize fatigue and to keep the Republican sluggers from getting too comfortable.
“I may employ a strategy where we use them all. It’s tough to go out and play one game a year and have somebody throw six or seven innings. Our arms aren’t designed to do that anymore. I think a little change of pace, giving the Republicans a couple of different looks,” will keep the Republicans off balance.
Decisions, decisions. But after catching Democratic pitching since arriving in Congress in 1995, Doyle has a significant head start in the scouting process. “I have caught every one of these guys, so I’ve got my own opinions on who can do what.”
Of course, the action on the field ultimately takes a backseat to the fundraising efforts off the diamond. Once again, the proceeds from the game will benefit the Washington Literary Council and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.
But bipartisan goodwill, as always, tends to dissolve within the two foul lines. Expect the usual trash-talking, aggressiveness and possibly a little chin music, as Doyle playfully has been threatening to intentionally plunk fellow Pennsylvanian and Republican slugger Rep. Bill Shuster.
Before Oxley triumphantly rides off into the sunset, and before Doyle can claim a Democratic resurgence, there’s still a small order of business for each manager to attend to at RFK: scoring more runs than the other team.
After all, where better for Congressional baseball’s past and future to meet than the present?
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.