Some ballplayers rack up win after win from the pitcher’s mound. Others bash hit after hit. Managers capture the coveted Roll Call trophy and put it on display in their offices. Any of these career paths can lead to recognition and honors.
But what about the low-key player who, over the course of 14 years, out-pitches his more celebrated teammates, wins an MVP award for his defensive prowess, changes the way pitchers are handled — and is the only player to ever strike out a Hall of Famer? One man has accomplished all of the above, and for that we have selected former Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., as the 2014 inductee into the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame.
It might not have been the debut the former college outfielder/reliever had been hoping for, but it wasn’t bad for a guy with a bum shoulder that was shattered in a motorcycle accident and has since undergone three operations.
But the following year something changed. No manager had made a call to the bullpen in at least six years when Democrat Martin Olav Sabo of Minnesota took the ball from his starter, Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, and handed it to Stupak, who had impressed his teammates during practice and had already thrown out a runner at third from his spot in right field. Stupak pitched the final frame, striking out one batter and giving up two hits without allowing a run. (The Republicans had already scored 17.)
Stupak would go on to pitch in relief five more times over his final 11 games but never appeared as a starter. “Sabo just had his people and he played them,” said Stupak, who came back year after year despite ongoing Republican dominance and limited opportunities to pitch.
He pitched a total of seven innings, allowing just three earned runs on nine hits and 12 walks, while striking out five batters. Since that 1999 pitching debut, relievers have become commonplace in congressional baseball — even Stupak has been pulled from a game for another reliever.
And yet Stupak’s fondest memory and biggest honor came for his play at first base in 2009, rather than on the mound. It might seem hard to believe that a game with a final score of 15–10 could have featured outstanding defensive play, but those memorable moments in the field ensured the first Democratic victory since 2000. Stupak didn’t get any hits or score any runs, but his tumbling-over-the-rail catch of a foul ball and generally solid play in the field garnered him a share of Most Valuable Player honors that year. “The catch everyone still talks about,” Stupak said, noting that the clip is on YouTube.
Stupak, who retired from baseball and Congress after the 2010 season, has been working with the current players on their defense. “I’m the third base coach and I work with the infield,” Stupak said, proudly pointing to the team’s defensive performance in a 22-0 victory in 2013: “We didn’t have an error last year.”
And despite all those accomplishments, Stupak couldn’t help taking a friendly dig at a former opponent. “Zach Wamp was one of my best friends,” Stupak said of the retired Tennessee Republican, setting up the big reveal. “I was the only one to strike him out. And he still complains about it.”
Wamp, who was inducted into the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame last year, was no slouch: He batted better than .500 over a dazzling 13 years. And he hasn’t forgotten that one game at the end of his career.
“He can actually take it to the grave, that rascal,” Wamp said. “He had just enough Upper Peninsula junk on the ball.”
Wamp had a number of other words he used to describe Stupak: fearless, warrior. “He’s not the most naturally talented, but he’s a scrapper, a fighter,” Wamp explained.
“He had a big smile on his face. I just walked back to the dugout,” Wamp recalled of the K.
Stupak is still smiling, because he’s still playing ball, even if it’s a very different version of the game these days.
Once a year, he heads to Mackinac Island, home of the “oldest continuously played field in Michgan,” according to Stupak. He plays in a “vintage baseball” game there that follows 1860s rules: no gloves, batted balls caught on one bounce are an out and no stealing.
“I usually come back with a broken finger or two,” Stupak said with a laugh. “It’s a slow-pitch, defensive game. And we won 4-1 last year.”
Over his many years of fighting through losing seasons, trying to get more playing time and celebrating the game’s history, he followed a simple sentiment: “What keeps you going is the love of the game.”
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