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When Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) arrived in Washington, D.C., after winning a special election in 1981, he got a very quick lesson on the importance of the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.
Not long after Oxley’s election, in the heady first days of the “Reagan Revolution,” the freshman was summoned to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. The first question asked by Bush — a former House Member and Congressional baseball player — was whether Oxley was going to play in the game.
Oxley did crack the lineup that year, as the GOP coach, then-Rep. Silvio Conte (Mass.), stuck the rookie in at shortstop and suggested he take extra fielding practice the morning of the game, which turned out to be a bad idea.
“I just basically had a sore arm. It was dumb ... and I was a nervous wreck,” Oxley recalled in a recent interview, saying he ended up booting a key grounder that night.
Things have only gotten better since then for Oxley, who played in the game for nearly two decades. Unlike many of his colleagues who participate in the annual event, Oxley never played baseball in high school or college. But he ended up having a solid career in the Congressional game, playing every position on the field except pitcher and catcher.
And to top it off, Oxley will serve as Republican manager for the eighth time this year, his last one in the House before he retires.
As he puts it, Oxley will leave the House — and his post as manager — with “a lot of good memories of a lot of colorful characters.”
Asked about his most memorable games, Oxley came up with a handful:
• In 1983, the game was called at 17-17 after about four hours, the only tie in the history of the contest. Oxley recalled that the two managers met before the eighth inning (they usually play seven) and agreed it would be the last one, mainly because “the game was cutting into the post-game party. The beer was getting warm. The food was getting cold.”
• In 1992, the game ended up being played on a Sunday in September after having been rained out twice. Oxley said he remembered hardly anyone showing up to watch the game, played at Four Mile Run Stadium in Virginia, though it turned out to be a competitive contest. The Republicans won 11-7 as they marked the final game of one of Oxley’s managerial predecessors, Rep. Carl Pursell (Mich.).
• In 2000, Oxley lost his only game as the GOP’s manager, when Democrats staged a dramatic rally in the final inning to win 13-8. Oxley has a picture on his wall from the contest, which he termed a “fiasco.”
With then-Rep. Steve Largent (Okla.) unable to pitch, Oxley sent to the mound a procession of Republicans who couldn’t stop issuing walks. At one point, Rep. Steve Buyer (Ind.) was pitching with an elbow sleeve on and Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.), the Democratic manager whom Oxley called a “wily, grizzled veteran,” complained to the umpire and made Buyer take the sleeve off.
Largent figures prominently in many of Oxley’s memories, as the former Oklahoma lawmaker and NFL Hall of Famer was the best player Oxley ever managed.
“Largent was in a class by himself because he was such a great athlete,” Oxley said. “I could have played Steve ... at any position.”
Oxley also recalled the significance of both of the game’s moves to new venues during his tenure — first from Four Mile Run to Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md., and then from Bowie to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium last year.
Oxley said the switch to RFK was particularly important, since it should guarantee higher attendance for years to come.
“You can’t beat just getting on the Metro and tooling out there in about 10 minutes,” he said.
That should translate into increased revenues for the charities that benefit from the game.
“The charities that we’ve helped over the years, it’s been pretty impressive,” he said. “I think it’s just a wonderful tradition.”
Beyond any individual players or victories, Oxley said he will remember most the entire game and the excitement it generates each year.
“I’ll just miss the event [and] the buildup to the event,” Oxley said. “You practice for three weeks, at the end of the day you have the memories of the practices and the camaraderie and the game.”
Oxley knows he will be leaving the Republican team in the capable hands of Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), who, like Oxley, has had a long career as a player and currently serves as the third-base coach.
Next year, Oxley can watch his successor from the safety of the bleachers.
“I’ll come to the games, just to second-guess Barton,” Oxley said with a laugh. “I’ll drink beer, eat hot dogs and taunt Barton.”
The rules don’t say that Oxley has to stop coaching or helping the team just because he’s retiring from the House, but the Ohioan has no interest in hanging around the dugout after his Congressional service ends.
“I fully believe when you retire, you’re retired,” Oxley said. “I’m not like Roger Clemens in many ways, the least of which is that when you retire, you retire, both from this joint and the baseball team.”