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It was Lou Holtz who once observed that you can’t turn a losing team around by changing coaches “any more than you are going to fix a flat tire by changing the driver.” Then again, Holtz built a Hall of Fame coaching career as college football’s Mr. Fix-It, inheriting downtrodden programs and quickly whipping them into winners.
No one is comparing Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.) to the diminutive gridiron legend — yet — but as he prepares for his first Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game as the manager of the Democratic team, “Mad Dog” may find that there’s nowhere for his squad to go but up.
The 52-year-old Doyle, a six-term incumbent from the Pittsburgh area, is taking the reins from Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.), whose 18-year run as manager came to an end with his announcement in February that he’s retiring from Congress. No doubt contributing factors beyond his control played a role, but the gentlemanly Sabo racked up a career 5-13 record, giving his handpicked successor a chance to play the role of savior.
“Who knows? Maybe the new tactics I’m using will work out, and they’ll think I’m a genius,” Doyle said. “Or maybe we’ll get beat by 20 runs, and I’ll have a one-year tenure as manager.”
Specifically, the new skipper is trying to make his mark by enticing some of the House’s younger, and presumably more athletic, Democrats to suit up, and by abandoning the “seniority system” by which longtime players had been grandfathered into their fielding positions.
“We’ve recruited some of the younger guys, and one of the first things I told everyone is that nobody has a lock on any of the starting positions,” Doyle said. “Everything has been thrown out the window, and everything is open.”
He added: “My intention is to put the best nine players on the field and to try to win the game. If we get way ahead or way behind, then the rest will get in.”
Doyle scheduled the first practice in mid-May, getting a week’s jump on the GOP, and players have said that he ran the session with noticeably more pep than his predecessor. Even though they could see their playing time reduced, team veterans aren’t griping about Doyle’s approach.
“It’s OK. Everyone’s excited, because we haven’t done that well lately,” said Rep. Tim Holden, a fellow Pennsylvanian who will be playing in his 14th game. “The Republican Revolution of ’94 not only affected policy in Washington — we lost a lot of athletes, too.”
Doyle’s new recruits include Reps. Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Kendrick Meek (Fla.), both members of the Democrats’ “30 Something” Working Group. The GOP traditionally fields athletically superior squads — in the late 1990s, NFL Hall of Famer and then-Rep. Steve Largent (Okla.) tormented Democratic batters year after year from the pitching mound — and even if Democrats can’t match their foes in terms of raw talent, Democrats can narrow the gap, Doyle said.
“On paper, they have a better lineup, so we have to win doing things a little different,” he noted.
The new manager grew up playing baseball, as a Little Leaguer and on an American Legion team in western Pennsylvania, but not at Penn State University, his alma mater. A solid hitter with a knack for swatting the ball to just the right place, he said his downfall was “average to below average skills as an infielder.”
“I went about as far as you can go with my talent,” Doyle said. “I’m more a lover of the game than a great player.”
But when he arrived in the House in 1995 — one of very few Democrats elected in the GOP tidal wave of 1994 — Doyle eagerly joined the Democratic baseball team, playing catcher and quickly establishing a reputation as a clutch hitter. He drove in the winning run in the last Democratic victory, in 2000, and is a two-time team MVP.
When Sabo announced his Congressional retirement in March he decided not to manage this year’s game, even though he won’t actually leave office until January. A few weeks later, he pulled Doyle aside and leaned on him to take the job. Catchers, Sabo argued, tend to make good managers, and Doyle, he added, has a good “sense of the game.”
Doyle’s GOP counterpart this year is Rep. Mike Oxley (Ohio), who, like Sabo, is retiring from the House. Sabo and Oxley enjoyed a friendly rivalry for seven years, with the GOP winning six times.
This year’s game marks the beginning of a new best-of-five series between the teams, a good time for a fresh start, Doyle said.
“I’m intent on shuffling the deck a little to give us a new look,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a good squad this year.”