Forget the debt ceiling for a minute. There’s another showdown looming in Washington.
On July 14, Members of Congress will put down their BlackBerrys and pick up Louisville Sluggers for the 50th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.
The coveted Roll Call trophy is on the line this year. Democrats have won the past two games of the five-game series, and Democratic manager Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.) is hoping his team will clinch the trophy with a win this year. But with 23 new players and a long list of returning Members, Republican manager Rep. Joe Barton (Texas) won’t give up easily.
Money raised will benefit two local charities: the Washington Literacy Council and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.
The rivals will once again take the field at Nationals Park.
“It’s an awesome feeling when you’re out there. I think that’s why I come back here again,” Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif) said. “How often do I get to play at a major league ball park? That’s the fantasy of every child, every individual. Doesn’t matter what age, we’re still children.”
Down six starters and with a shorter roster, Democrats still anticipate a third consecutive win at this year’s game.
The keys to their confidence: new recruits and team chemistry.
The team has holes to fill after losing a catcher, a first baseman, a second baseman, a shortstop, a center fielder and two designated hitters after last fall’s elections.
“I was upset we lost anyone, for more than baseball reasons,” Doyle said.
But he thinks he has the best athlete on the field in rookie freshman Rep. Cedric Richmond (La.), who played college baseball and might take over from Baca as starting pitcher.
“If you’ve got a dominant pitcher, you can win, because this is one game a year — this isn’t what we do,” Doyle said. “A dominant pitcher can really change the game, and Cedric has the ability to do that.”
Still, longtime team members know how different it is to pitch on a Major League Baseball field when you’re used to a small dirt field.
“He’s untested, this will be his first game and we’ll be playing in a National League park,” Doyle said, estimating 5,000 to 6,000 people would attend. “It’s not easy to stand up on that mound and throw strikes.”
If Richmond falters, the Democrats have a backup in Baca. A seven-time MVP for the team, the 64-year-old has been the Democrats pitcher for the past two years. They’ve never lost with him — and his custom, name-embroidered red, white and blue glove — on the mound.
They’ve also got something they hope the Republican’s don’t: chemistry. After weeks of practicing together nearly every morning Congress is in session, the Members are comfortable enough to poke fun at one another or yell encouragement from the outfield. Former Members and players, including ex-Reps. Jim Marshall (Ga.) and Bart Stupak (Mich.), have returned to help coach, too.
“Chemistry’s important,” Baca said. “You can have the best players out there and still not win, but if you have chemistry out there and guys that are willing to play together, a lot of the players will produce.”
Still, the Democrats are worried about the sheer size of the Republican team, which is twice the size of their 21-player roster. They’re also keeping an eye on Rep. Lou Barletta (Pa.), who played AAA ball in his youth.
“They’ve got some good guys,” Baca said. “But it’s like anything else ... you have to look at it from the perspective that everybody’s got to put on the uniform the same way. As long as you know that, it’s how you perform in the game.”
Still, Doyle recognizes the difficulty of managing such a large team.
“There’s so many players, you wonder how you get a good look at the new guys, and you wonder how you adequately practice the people you’re going to play,” he said.
Barton has a different coaching philosophy, Doyle says.
“Joe makes a real attempt to get everybody on his team into the game, and I just don’t play that way,” Doyle said. “It’s not Little League.”
At practice, however, he makes sure everyone gets a chance to bat and field at different positions. He’s still searching out a first baseman (Washington Rep. Jay Inslee has high hopes that he’ll finally start this year, after 15 years of playing).
“You see people at practice who are great, you see them put the ball out of the park,” he said. “But you see them in the game — they can’t even hit. There’s a difference to performing in between those lines.”
Still, practice has been going well for the team. Their practice field at Brentwood Park near Gallaudet University has fences nearly as far out as Nationals Park. Between Richmond and Reps. Russ Carnahan (Mo.) and Jared Polis (Colo.), the Democrats hit five out of the park at a recent practice.
After a strong hit Thursday morning, Baca came off the field smiling.
“That’s what you want. Those are hits,” Doyle yelled to him.
“The old man’s still got it,” Baca replied.
Republicans Ready to Fight
They won eight games in a row before letting the Democrats capture the past two, so the Republicans are in it to win it this year.
“We had a hard time taking the Democrats on the field, so we took them out in the draft,” Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) said. With 42 players — 23 of whom are new — to the Democrats’ 21, the Republicans like to joke that their pickups in the House last election cycle will help them also win this year’s Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.
“We spent $55 million in recruitment this year, so we’ve probably picked up some ball players,” Rep. Bill Shuster (Pa.) said.
The Republicans boast a strong mix of seasoned athletes and younger talent. Reps. Jack Kingston (Ga.), Sam Graves (Mo.) and Flake have all played for at least 10 years, and Barton has been in the game for 24 years.
But the GOP lost some core players during the past few years, including former Reps. Kenny Hulshof (Mo.), Zach Wamp (Tenn.) and Chip Pickering (Miss.), and have had to shuffle their lineup.
Flake, who last played baseball in Little League before joining Congress, used to play outfield and has now moved to third base. Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.) will have a few relief pitchers this year from the freshman class.
“Our primary strength this year is going to be a lot of new people and the fact that we have some new players that can help relieve Shimkus in pitching,” Barton said. The manager hopes to play Barletta and Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.), both of whom are left-handed, as relief pitchers on game day.
But for all the changes to the lineup during the years, there are a few aspects of the game that stay constant.
“Some things never change — errors, pulled muscles, hospital visits. Those things happen every game, just about,” Flake said.
As Barletta put it, “It’s hard to take it easy on the field because, unfortunately, my mind is 21 but my body is 51.”
Barletta, who once tried out for the Cincinnati Reds, was one of many players during a recent morning practice who had injured himself: He limped up to the plate for his time at bat with a pulled hamstring. But despite the potential for injury and the hourlong 7 a.m. practices, Barton said at least half of the team shows up three days each week for training.
After three weeks of practicing, Barton said the team is working into a rhythm and now has to focus on their fielding work.
“The key to the game, when we actually play it, is fielding. You catch the ball and throw it to first base, you’re going to be in the game, and so we spend a lot of time just on fielding and practicing in the outfield, throwing into the infield — just some of the basic stuff,” he said.
Shuster, who plays right field, said he sees communication as one of the most important aspects of game play, and the communication the Congressmen foster on the field translates to their experience on the House floor.
“[The other players] are on different committee assignments that I don’t interact with often, but because we play ball, we ride out together. If something’s going on in a committee that they’re on and I’m not on, I’ll go to them and ask them about it, or I’ll go to them to try to go work some legislation through,” he said.
It’s clear that on the ball field, any differences these men might have disappear — they’re all just players. Everyone is an equal-opportunity heckler, and every guy at bat gets razzed just as much as the next.
But when game day comes around, you can be sure they’ll get serious.
“We won eight straight and then we lost the last two,” bemoaned Flake, just before heading to bat. “Having done both, winning is a lot more fun.”