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Just settling into his new job on Capitol Hill in the mid-1970s, House aide Joe Foley was summoned by his boss, then-Rep. Bill Chappell (D-Fla.).
While the substance of the now-fabled conversation was hardly expected, in hindsight it was life-altering. Chappell, the Democratic coach for the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, had big plans in store for his unsuspecting green staffer. And it had little to do with policy matters.
“Joe, you play baseball?” Foley recalled Chappell asking. “We need you for an intrasquad practice game tomorrow,” schlepping equipment and warming up the Democrats ahead of the 13th annual installment of the game.
“That was my first taste,” Foley continued of the 1974 game. “I couldn’t believe it, my two passions — politics and baseball — all in one place.”
More than 30 years later, the experience is still fresh for Foley. Along with Gary Caruso, also a former Hill staffer and familiar to many who play Congressional softball, the old pals have more than 50 years of combined experience throwing batting practice, shagging fly balls and keeping the official statistics for the game.
And they truly have seen it all: from Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) and former Rep. Bill Richardson (N.M.) — future Democratic presidential contenders — hustling to beat out ground balls to the transition of the contest from little more than, at times, a sandy lot pickup game to playing under the lights at RFK Stadium.
When he signed on in the 1980s, Caruso said Democrats usually practiced on the baseball fields on South Capitol Street, just beneath Interstate 295 and nearly in the shadow of the Capitol Dome — an ideal location, but hardly flawless conditions. In those days, he said, usually just a handful of Members would show up for practices.
“It was like being at the Kentucky Derby after it rained overnight; there were divots, big rocks,” Caruso said. “In the early days, there were a handful of Members in any given practice and they really relied on us staff members filling in at different positions. ... If they had an intrasquad game, we played just about as much as the Members.”
Now, Caruso said, “there are at least four, five or six outfielders who are Members of Congress and at least two at every infield position.”
All of those extra Members playing outfield would’ve come in handy when Richardson, a Roll Call Baseball Hall of Famer, took batting practice, Caruso said.
“Bill Richardson played third base and was a lefty,” Caruso recalled. “He would hit it almost onto South Capitol Street. I don’t think he ever cleared that adjacent second field, but he would hit it way into that second field.”
Along with Richardson, Caruso said ex-Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), also a Roll Call Hall of Famer, was one of the all-time greatest Congressional baseball players. McCurdy, twice a game MVP, struck out 12 Republicans during the 1993 game.
Foley agrees that Richardson, a former semipro player, was one of the all-time greats. Rounding out Foley’s all-time top five are: Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), recently retired Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), former D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy (D) and Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.), who no longer plays but helps coach the team.
A veteran pitcher who still plays competitively, Foley said he mostly helps out on the mound, throwing batting practice and finely hewing the sometimes rough cuts of Democratic pitching stock by focusing on the basics.
“I help them do what they want to achieve,” Foley said. “Modify their delivery, instruct them on how to keep the ball low, remind them how a curveball is best thrown and when.”
On the mound, Foley’s Congressional coaching days go back to ex-Rep. Ron Mottl, an Ohio Democrat, Roll Call Hall of Famer and also one of the greatest Members to throw from 60 feet, six inches.
“He’d call me the day before spring training would start in Florida and Arizona and say, ‘Joe, meet me in the gym.’”
“I’d take a knee for him two or three days a week so he could pitch,” he said.
Politics aside, Foley and Caruso also agree that the game is one of their favorite memories of Washington, D.C. — a sentiment shared by many lawmakers.
“I’ve heard Members say that next to getting sworn into Congress and casting their first votes on the floor, playing in the Congressional baseball game is the most fun since they came to Congress,” Foley said.