Things have a way of changing quickly in Washington, D.C. After disastrous elections in 2006 and 2008, Republicans appeared to be on the wane, struggling with their identity and a formula for electoral success. But a groundswell of populist anger at government overreach has shaken up the political landscape and given the GOP hope of reclaiming some seats in Congress sooner rather than later.
Texas Rep. Joe Barton (R) is hoping a similar narrative will unfold at this year's Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game on June 29. The Democrats are flush with confidence after an influx of young talent propelled them to a long-awaited victory last year following an eight-game losing streak, but Barton, the Republican skipper, is confident the GOP can turn things around.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Barton said. "I think it's obvious that the Democrats won last year, so we're going to have to work hard."
That work began Tuesday with the Republicans' first official team practice at Four Mile Run Park in Alexandria, Va. (Reps. John Shimkus of Illinois, Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, Kevin Brady of Texas and Steve Scalise of Louisiana — who are housemates in D.C. — have already been putting in some time.) The team looked steady on defense during a 45-minute session, although after a third consecutive ground ball skittered between an infielder's legs, Barton, standing at home plate, laughed and reminded his troops that "it's just Day One."
The practice focused entirely on defense, although some players spent their time in a batting cage adjacent to the field. Barton said fielding takes precedence over hitting, noting that the team that commits fewer errors in the Roll Call game typically wins.
"At our age, it's just basic fundamentals — catching the ball, throwing the ball," he said. "I'm not worried about us hitting the ball. We always get key hits."
Sound defense is dependent on good pitching, and Barton was optimistic about his rotation. Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who sat out last year's game, will join Shimkus as one of two "front-line starters," Barton said. Left-hander Adam Putnam, a Florida Congressman who last year was unable to escape the inning after coming in to relieve Shimkus, was not at practice Tuesday.
Players seemed to be in high spirits, adding the occasional non sequitur political jokes to the steady stream of baseball talk; one play prompted Barton to inexplicably quip, "We probably just violated some McCain-Feingold rule right there."
Beneath the banter was the knowledge that the team is in a rebuilding phase. Lineup anchors such as former Reps. Chip Pickering (Miss.) and Kenny Hulshof (Mo.) retired in 2008. Reps. Zach Wamp (Tenn.) and Gresham Barrett (S.C.) are both locked in gubernatorial races and are unlikely to play, leaving open shortstop and catcher, two vital positions. Barton deflected questions about the losses.
"It's not the lineup I want," he said. "I wish Derek Jeter and A-Rod and Pudge Rodriguez would retire and run for Congress as Republicans, but until then we'll have to go with the guys who have been elected."
Barton may have a reason to be upbeat. Pennsylvania Rep. Todd Platts, replacing Barrett behind the plate, appeared to be totally in control. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Florida freshman whose family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, looked like a natural at first base, cleanly picking throws out of the dirt and displaying a cannon with his throws home.
Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, who was sharing first-base duty with Rooney, acknowledged that the team looked "a little rusty," but he said they should be able to overcome the exodus of veteran players and keep this year's game close.
"All teams evolve," Conaway said. "No one gets to play forever. We've got the makings of a good team."
The 49th annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game takes place June 29 at Nationals Park. Game time is 7 p.m. For ticket information, go to congressionalbaseball.org.