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Pair of Political Recruits Stir Teams’ Hopes for the Future

Sure, it’s still 2008, but in a town where some interested parties are already looking ahead to the next cycle, it only makes sense to speculate on what changes this fall’s House elections could have on next year’s Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.

And while it might be a pointless exercise in some election cycles, the athletes we’re talking about this year are not to be confused with former high school bench-warmers.

Two top-tier recruits — Ohio state Sen. John Boccieri (D) and Bernalillo County, N.M., Sheriff Darren White (R) — would bring to Washington some of the more impressive baseball experience Congress has seen in recent years.

Both excelled in college baseball and tried out for Major League clubs, and Boccieri even played a year of professional ball. And both of their baseball careers pointed their futures in some measure toward politics.

What’s more, both have good shots at joining the 111th Congress: Roll Call currently rates both Boccieri’s and White’s open-seat races as tossups.

Saint (Bonaventure) of the Steal

A discussion of the prospects has to begin with Boccieri (pronounced Bo-cherry), who led Division I with 1.07 stolen bases per game in 1990. As a sophomore outfielder with an athletic scholarship at St. Bonaventure University in New York, Boccieri stole 44 bases in 41 games, getting caught only three times. (Others to have led the steals-per-game category include retired big leaguer Vince Coleman and Brian Roberts, currently with the Baltimore Orioles.)

“I essentially had the green light to go — at any time I could run,” recalled Boccieri, who batted leadoff for the Bonnies. He was a .275 career hitter who holds St. Bonaventure’s all-time record for stolen bases with 93. Boccieri said his prowess on the base paths led to some attention from scouts and national baseball publications, and he was invited to try out for the Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds.

“For the Rangers I tried out for catcher and outfield, and I always ran pretty fast and made those [initial] cuts,” he said, but he never made the teams despite running the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds.

After the tryouts yielded nothing and he graduated from school, Boccieri landed in his native Ohio with the Portsmouth Explorers, a team in the independent Frontier League.

Boccieri’s interest in politics grew there as the team housed him with the family of then-state Speaker Vern Riffe (D), who would go on to be the longest-serving Speaker in Ohio history.

Another baseball connection helped steer him toward politics, as well. The No. 2 hitter in the St. Bonaventure lineup, Paul Kudlak (“He took a lot of pitches to allow me to steal,” Boccieri said), landed a job with an Ohio legislator after college and encouraged Boccieri to do the same.

Boccieri followed that advice, and after an active-duty stint in the Air Force, he was elected to the state House in 2000.

Now he is running for Congress to succeed retiring Rep. Ralph Regula (R) in a swing district where 54 percent of voters backed President Bush in 2004.

In what might wind up being a tuneup for next summer’s Congressional game, Boccieri recently returned to the diamond for an alumni game at St. Bonaventure as the school’s new baseball field was dedicated.

“I hit the first home run on our new field and made a diving catch,” Boccieri said.

Boccieri was well aware of the Congressional game long before Roll Call phoned to inquire if he would consider playing. His informant: freshman Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), a member of the team.

“Perlmutter is really hyped up over all this, saying, ‘We want this guy on our team,’” Boccieri said. Hearing about the Congressional game is “getting me pretty excited and giving me more incentive to campaign hard.”

A Speedster for the Republicans, Too

If Boccieri wins election, he might have a speedy freshman outfielder as a counterpart on the Republican side. That would be White, who has a good springboard for federal office as the sheriff of New Mexico’s largest county.

A star center fielder at a suburban New York City high school, White got an invite to try out with the Philadelphia Phillies after graduation. In such tryouts, a team typically evaluates every player’s throwing arm and speed, and only the best in those areas are given a chance to hit.

“Probably 200 or 300 ballplayers went,” White said, “and they picked two infielders and two outfielders, and I was one of them.”

Picked, that is, to take some swings.

After he batted, White said, “The scout told me: ‘You’ve got a great arm — God-given talent, a huge arm — but your weakness is your bat. Your bat has to get stronger if you’re going to play.’

“And he was right.”

So White left New York for a baseball scholarship at Ranger Junior College (now Ranger College) in Texas. He wanted to go to a warm-weather state after years in the Northeast because he knew he would flourish playing baseball year-round. “I wanted to go west and I wanted to play pro ball,” White said.

But despite a good showing in fall practice, after one semester of being “a knucklehead” he lost his scholarship. “Unfortunately, my batting average was better than my grade-point average,” he said.

“I had a chance to spend some time there and grow as a baseball player,” he added. “I wasn’t good enough where I would have made it professionally, but I could have had a good college career.”

Unable to afford school without the scholarship, White joined the Army’s Airborne Division to earn money so he could go back to college. Why Airborne instead of the Army’s other units?

While meeting with a recruiter, White said, he asked if the Army had any baseball teams and was told that North Carolina’s Fort Bragg had a squad that played in a league against county and city teams from all across the state.

“I said, ‘How can I get there?’ And he said, ‘If you sign up to go to Airborne, you will go to Fort Bragg and get guaranteed enlistment.’”

After about three years in the 82nd Airborne Division, White returned to Texas to give his baseball dreams one more shot. He enrolled at North Texas State, but he said he was never the same after having reconstructive knee surgery resulting from an injury in the military, and he hung up his spikes.

“Baseball was a big part of my life,” White said. “It brought me to the Southwest, which I love, and I feel it gave me rewards in a way I didn’t think possible when I was 18 and 19 years old.”

Not to mention that a baseball-propelled career in the Airborne Division is an asset for someone who wants to be a sheriff and Member of Congress.

White said he is active in a police softball league and, if elected, “would love to play” in the Congressional game.

“I’d even break out the Beech-Nut [chewing gum] for that,” he said with a laugh.

No Guarantees

Of course, previous athletic excellence by no means guarantees success in the Congressional game. When now-Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) arrived in the House in 1987 after a 17-year, 224-victory Major League pitching career that would land him in the Hall of Fame, Republicans must have been licking their chops.

But Bunning was lit up in his only Congressional performance, taking the loss as he fell behind 5-0 in the GOP’s 15-14 defeat in 1987.

That was after Bunning told the Washington Post before the game, “I hope everyone has fun, nobody gets hurt and we beat the daylights out of them.”

Bunning was 55 then, however, while Boccieri, 38, and White, 45, are significantly younger.

The uncertainty of how a player might fare doesn’t stop Members from speculating on talent — and using a spot on the team as a bargaining chip in their recruiting efforts.

Hazleton, Pa., Mayor Lou Barletta (R), who played in college and tried out for the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1970s, said he received a call about baseball from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.).

“Tom Cole used that as bait in one of our conversations before I made my decision” to run, said Barletta, who is challenging veteran Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D) in Pennsylvania’s 11th district this year. Cole wasn’t the only one making such calls.

“I got a call from a Congressman from somewhere — Ohio, I think — who said they needed me on the team.”

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