The Democratic baseball team that takes the field tonight for the 46th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game will boast nine members of the freshman class of 2006, including several new lawmakers with impressive athletic credentials.Their manager, Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.), said he hopes the fresh faces (and fresh legs) will bring the Democrats victory for the first time since 2000. Rep. Jay Inslee (Wash.),
whom teammates called the Democrats’ “designated trash-talker,” provided this analysis: “Last November America spoke, and the message was clear — they want Democrats to win the baseball game. That’s why they gave us some new young arms.”
The biggest name of the bunch belongs to Rep. Heath Shuler, who last appeared in RFK Stadium as a quarterback for the Washington Redskins.
The 35-year-old North Carolina Democrat, drafted in the first round by the Redskins in 1994, was a bust in the burgundy and gold. By 1996 he was a backup, and his only snap that season, in a late-November loss to the 49ers, was emblematic of his year — a handoff that went for a 14-yard loss. He was traded at the end of the season and never again played in Washington.
But he returns to the field as a bright hope for the Democratic team. When Shuler was sworn in, Democrats had visions of enlisting him to become the next Steve Largent, another former NFL player who graduated to the halls of Congress, serving five terms as a Republican House Member from Oklahoma. More important, as a starting pitcher in the Congressional baseball game, he went 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA for the GOP, winning most valuable player honors three times.
Shuler practiced throwing off the mound this spring, but the foot injury that ended his football career still plagues him, and Doyle said Shuler likely will be relegated to designated hitter.
A Shuler staffer suggested instead of Largent, perhaps the proper model is Kirk Gibson, who hobbled to home plate on wounded knees as a pinch hitter and slugged the game-winning home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers in game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
But Shuler is not the only Democratic rookie with an athletic résumé. Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.), 39, was a member of the Florida State University football team, and he will be wearing a Seminole jersey with his old number. But he said he has never played baseball and has had six knee surgeries that significantly limit his physical activity. Altmire said it is a shame both he and Shuler are limited by old injuries.
The Democrats “had real high expectations for both if us,” he said. Nevertheless, “I do think we have a lot of good young guys.”
For example, Rep. Michael Arcuri (N.Y.), 48, was an All-American football player for the Division III State University of New York at Albany. Reps. Christopher Murphy (Conn.), 33, and Joe Donnelly (Ind.), 51, both played baseball in high school, and Rep. Patrick Murphy (Pa.), 33, was a paratrooper in Iraq and still has the athletic build of a soldier.
Rep. Bruce Braley (Iowa), 49, who will join the Democratic pitching rotation, says he has long been a recreational athlete, and he has the battle scars to prove it. Braley said he has had seven orthopedic surgeries, including on both knees, due to various sports-related injuries.
For Rep. Ed Perlmutter (Colo.), 54, a sports background appears to come from the management end. During his campaign, his daughter Abby posted a message on a local Web site touting her father’s devotion to her softball team. “Many of you might remember a couple of years back when many of my dad’s friends and supporters tried hard to convince him to run for U.S. Congress,” she wrote. “Though my dad has always had a love for public service, he decided to delay his dream and focus his efforts on another duty, being my softball coach. For three years, he helped coach my competitive softball team, the Angels.”
Donnelly said he has always loved baseball and is excited by the chance to play with his new colleagues. While he hasn’t played organized ball since high school, Donnelly said he is taking every opportunity to sharpen his game, including working out in the batting cages back home over the Memorial Day recess.
Rep. Christopher Carney (Pa.) is no stranger to baseball excellence — the Little League World Series is played each year in Williamsport, which is in his district. Carney, 48, was a multisport athlete in high school and lettered in track and field in college, taking part in the javelin and shot put events. “Certainly when the DNC recruited candidates this year, they took into a account not just political skills but baseball skills as well,” Carney said.
On the Republican side, only two of the dozen freshmen went out for the ball club: Reps. Bill Sali of Idaho, the class president, and Kevin McCarthy of California. Sali, 53, once a drummer in a popular regional country band, has no pretensions about his athletic abilities or his role on the squad: “If they have a spot on the bench, that might be my position,” he said.
McCarthy, 42, is obviously a fan of the game. In a recent profile for the magazine of the Ripon Society, a moderate Republican group, McCarthy cited two people who “inspired me as a child”: his mother and Satchel Paige, the Hall of Fame Negro League pitcher whom McCarthy called “a pioneer for ending segregation in Major League Baseball.”
The other newcomer to the GOP dugout is not a freshmen, but four-term Rep. Sam Graves, 43, of Missouri. Graves told Roll Call he has enjoyed watching the game from the stands in previous years and finally decided to rearrange his schedule to make time to play this year.
Graves said he played baseball in high school and has played a lot of slow-pitch softball in the intervening years, meaning his biggest challenge in preparing for the Congressional game is getting back his timing for fast pitch ... or as fast as the pitches get in this game.