Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) softball team, Denny’s Grand Slam, is taking its bat, ball and bases and going home, hoping many teams will follow.
Seeking a new tournament structure and a way out of growing insurance costs, Hastert’s legislative director, Anthony Reed, and his team have abandoned the popular Congressional Softball League to start up one more to their liking.
With only two months before softball season is slated to begin, Reed announced that the House Softball League will begin play this spring, with his team among approximately 20 that made early commitments to leave the CSL.
“This is something that people have bantered about,” Reed said. “People were asking, ‘If you were going to do it all over again, what would you do?’ This is what we came up with as a blueprint.”
For Reed, the crux of the changes in the House Softball League is the tournament format. Whereas in the CSL teams are ranked from 1 to 64 but play a more competitively balanced first-round game — each pair of competing teams is separated by 16 seeds — the House Softball League would seed like a traditional tournament, with the top seed playing the lowest in the first round.
Another major sticking point in the break was the new insurance plan the CSL is requiring teams to purchase, necessitated by several on-field incidents last season, according to CSL Commissioner Gary Caruso.
Twice, non-participants were struck with batted balls — one was a spectator, and the other a foreign tourist who was “knocked out cold,” Caruso said. Another incident involved a parked car, which Caruso said had every right to be there and left the CSL with little wiggle room without proper liability protection. Though no lawsuits were filed, Caruso said the experience was a “reality check” for him. “I was dangling at the edge of the abyss there,” he said. Thus, a mandatory, $24-per-player insurance program was put into place.
“If I could turn back the clock to the reality of 15 to 25 bucks for just printing and mailing stuff out, I would,” Caruso said of the old process of coordinating the league’s teams. “But in today’s world, and with last year’s incidents, I can’t do that. It’s just one of those things — the insurance gods seemed like they were just waiting for us to have this happen.
“Softball’s not worth losing the roof over my head.”
Unfortunately for the CSL, softball’s not worth losing the roof over the heads of some of the league’s participants, either.
Ron Anderson, captain of Suspension of the Rules, said one of the main reasons his team (which represents the Congressional Legislative Staff Association and is a three-time CSL champion) chose to move to the new House Softball League was the insurance costs: $340 for a team of 15 players, tournament fees not included.
“Going overboard on the insurance issues was the straw that broke the camel’s back for us,” Anderson said.
But once registration is complete and teams take the field, not much will change. Until the tournament.
Seeding for the House tournament will be determined by a ratings power index, which takes into account opponents’ winning percentage, among other factors. In the CSL, teams that play (and win) more games get an edge in the rankings, regardless of the quality of their opponents.
The House tournament will also be completed in one day at Braddock Park in Clifton, Va., as opposed to the CSL’s tournament, which is spread out over several weekends at Eakin Park in Annandale, Va.
“We have some flexibility with the way the tournament is going to be,” said Reed, whose tournament is scheduled to include 32 teams, although that number could change depending on registrations. “But the focus on the tournament was to keep it on one weekend. When it’s over five or six weekends, it’s hard to get everyone together and keep people in town.”
The reason for the CSL’s more balanced setup, according to Caruso, is to create a fair system that gives every team a legitimate shot at making a run through the tournament. Case in point: Last season, the Wild Hawks, representing Rep. Jim Ryun’s (R-Kan.) office, finished the regular season at 5-5, but proceeded to pull off several upsets en route to the final four.
“The enjoyment of it and enthusiasm would not have been as great if in fact the lesser teams had gotten blown out in the first round by better teams,” Caruso said. “We’ve always been consistent about that.”
The CSL also has a 55-minute limit after which no new innings can start, unless the game is already in extra innings. It’s something that Anderson believes leveled the playing field a little too much for his team’s taste.
“It impacted the ability of good teams — to get in there and not be able to have an entire seven-inning game. That definitely affected some of the good teams,” Anderson said.
But there are no hard feelings on either side.
“It was a tough call, I’m good friends with [Caruso],” Anderson said.
“If that’s way they want to play, that’s the way more serious teams have played in the past,” Caruso said, citing the balls and strikes division that folded in the early 1980s. “And I wish them well.”
Reed said about 20 teams already have come on board, and although he expects an influx of plenty of high-caliber ballclubs to make the move from the CSL, there is a healthy mix of teams in the newborn league.
“We’re hoping it’s very competitive. That’s the goal here,” Reed said. “We have a very good cross-section, though, so it’s not like we’re getting all the people who only care about the tournament. People who haven’t played in the tournament [in the CSL] in a couple of years are joining, too, which is good. We wanted to come across as a system that wasn’t an elitist league.”
Elitist, no. But seeking healthy competition, yes. Which is why perhaps the crown jewel of the new league is the “King of the Hill” championship between the House Softball League and the Senate Softball League — something that, according to Senate Softball League commissioner Sonja Hoover, has been several years in the making.
“I think it’ll attract more people because it ... gives people a goal to make our tournament,” said Hoover, the office manager for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “There’s a lot of interest in the undercurrent — who’s better, the House or the Senate, and this is one way someone can actually claim the title.
“Not that I’m saying we’re better than the House, by any means. But I think it’s going to make everyone really excited.”
Reed envisions the championship game as becoming something bigger than the tournaments that spawned the two champions.
“We want it to be a fun competition, an annual rivalry,” Reed said. “That’s the plan. The long-term vision is something like the Congressional baseball game, for it to become an event in the dog days of summer.”
Registration for the House Softball League opened Friday and is open to teams outside of Congress, as is Caruso’s league. Registration for the CSL starts today, and while Caruso said he has no idea which teams will be returning, he promises what has become the benchmark of his league: a casual atmosphere.
“If people want to go out there and do what they want to do, that’s fine,” Caruso said, wishing the new league best of luck. “Whoever comes and plays [for us], we’re still casual.
“We’ll play against the new league, too. But if we play against you and you knock someone out, guess what — we’re not going to cover you,” Caruso added with a friendly laugh.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.