When Rep. Erik Paulsen finally found a place to live in Washington, his housemates made him agree to one extra stipulation: He had to play baseball.
“I had no choice,” the Minnesota Republican said jokingly.
Three years ago, Paulsen moved into a town house shared with Reps. John Shimkus (Ill.), Kevin Brady (Texas) and Steve Scalise (La.), all of whom play on the Republican Congressional baseball team.
“When I learned my three housemates are very engaged and very competitive and very good as a part of the team, I had to play,” Paulsen said. “I thought Shimkus was going to be pounding on my door every morning at 6 a.m., [yelling,] ‘Let’s go!’”
Shimkus bought the four-bedroom town house near L’Enfant Plaza nine years ago, and Brady has lived with him almost as long. They’ve shared the space with other Members, including former GOP Reps. Gresham Barrett (S.C.) and Mark Kennedy (Minn.) and Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.).
Shimkus and Brady — veteran starters, many-time MVPs and team co-captains for the Republicans — will play in their 15th game this year. And although Barrett also had several star moments on the diamond, not all of their roommates have played baseball. Paulsen’s decision to join the team three years ago marked the first time all four housemates were ballplayers.
It’s not easy to wake every roommate for 7 a.m. practice, according to Shimkus, who rises early and drives the shared car. He tries to get all four in the car by
6:30 a.m. to make sure they get to practice and then to the Hill on time.
“I’m in the bottom room, so I’ll hear them walking down the steps, and then they do the exaggerated Minnesota accents, ‘Come on, Gopher, let’s go,’” Paulsen said.
“You betcha,” Brady said.
Gopher is Paulsen’s nickname.
“It’s amazing. We’re always wondering, ‘Will the Gopher stick his head out the door when we’re coming down?’” Shimkus said.
Brady explained that Shimkus, who lives in the loft, is the impatient one.
“I’m on the floor below, and when I hear him whistling, I know I had better head downstairs because that means the garage door’s opening, the car’s cranking up and you better get downstairs,” Brady said.
Scalise, on the other hand, can go from dead asleep to fully dressed in about 45 seconds, Brady explained.
“I’ve never seen anyone get dressed — suit, tie and everything — and move from a dead stop like Steve can,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re doing down there in Louisiana.”
Their easy camaraderie shows on the baseball field, where Republican coach Rep. Joe Barton (Texas) says it’s obvious they get along well.
“Anything that fosters team spirit and unity is a plus,” he said. “Four of my players living in the same housing situation in a positive way, that helps on the field. If they’re friends off the field, they’re friends and very supportive of each other on the field.”
The housemates practice until about 8 a.m., when they either rush back to the town house to shower and shave or head straight to the Hill — sometimes still in their baseball uniforms. Shimkus has even worn his practice clothing to greet constituents at the White House on their way into a tour.
“In the car when we’re driving back from practice, we’re kind of reliving some of the plays, going over some of the activities of the practice,” Paulsen said.
“And, essentially, Shimkus tells us how horrible we’re playing, how we need to get better, how old and slow we’ve become,” Brady said. “He’s the motivator in this whole thing.”
Shimkus, who played some baseball at West Point, is the pitcher for the Republicans and also helps coach.
“I always ask them, ‘Now, was I too hard at practice?’” Shimkus said. “I’m just an old baseball guy, and I’m old school. I don’t swear, but I do scream and holler a lot.”
“He’s tough, Shimkus is tough. But we like it,” Brady said. “He pushes us to be better ballplayers, to be better men. ... John is the heart and soul of our baseball team, and there’s a reason he’s been MVP so many years. He’s a great catcher, a great pitcher and a great coach. He’s just key to the whole thing.”
The game has certainly brought the four housemates closer together, they said, but it also helps everyone build relationships with fellow Members of Congress.
“In many cases, it’s the only interaction we’ll have with some of the Democrats we don’t serve on committees with, so you really get to build relationships with people you’d otherwise not run into,” Scalise said.
“I’m not into this kissy, Kumbaya bipartisanship that will make the whole world better, but we are friends,” Shimkus said. “When we had our date night at the State of the Union, I sat with [New York Democratic Rep.] Tim Bishop, who’s my friend from baseball.”
At the town house, the four housemates share memories of home with one another. Shimkus now drinks chicory coffee, a New Orleans specialty, and Paulsen has brought in Dilly Bars from Dairy Queen.
“Well, he brought them once,” Brady said. “Introduced us to Dairy Queen, lured us one year with his Dilly Bars and has refused to provide any more to us, despite constant pleas. It’s a terrible flaw of his — a character flaw.”
Although Paulsen bears the brunt of his fellow teammates’ teasing because he’s the newest housemate, he said he loves living with them because of the family atmosphere. “It’s nice for me just to be living with other Members who have young families, so you can come home at night, have a glass of wine or talk about what’s going on with your family and share some of those stories,” he said. “It’s real, it’s meaningful, and it’s nice to have that. Washington can be really lonely when we’re out here.”
Though the town house normally serves only as a place to sleep for the four Republicans, it’s also filled with children’s toys, games and videos. Scalise’s young children now play with the toys Shimkus’ kids played with nine years ago. Sometimes the house is filled with as many as 15 people when all of the Members’ families join them in Washington.
During the inauguration, the children all got together for an impromptu snowball fight on the front lawn.
“Someone took aim at someone’s bald head with snowballs,” Brady said, looking pointedly at Shimkus.
“Which was an easy target,” Shimkus said.
“And he delivered, which my boys thought was hilarious,” Brady said.
Baseball week is particularly crowded because many of the families travel to Washington to watch the game. Paulsen’s youngest girls are particularly excited, as are Brady’s boys and Shimkus’ parents.
“The boys have been in the dugout in the past and just chatter on and on about it,” Brady said. “My wife will tell people, when they learn I play baseball, she’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah! It’s just like real baseball — but slower.’ Which is exactly what it is.”
Though they love having their families in town, the four admitted they spend the weekend before any visit cleaning bathrooms and going on grocery runs with their one car.
“We all have to go shopping and get things in the refrigerator and make sure there’s enough detergent and all that,” Brady said. “There’s a college atmosphere. It’s not as glamorous as people imagine, for the most part.”
It’s certainly not glamorous for Paulsen, who has to fit the other five members of his family — all women — into his basement room, which is 8 feet by 9 feet. He sleeps on a bunk bed in the “Gopher hole,” as his housemates refer to it. The room is too small even to hold their luggage.
Brady didn’t expect such a familial atmosphere when he first came to Washington, but he couldn’t be happier with how it’s turned out.
“I feel lucky,” he said. “Baseball’s been a part of that, and roommates have been a part of it. I feel like I just fell into a really, really good thing.”