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Going to the Baseball Game? Sit in the Middle

Staffer fans cheer for their preferred party at the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s not too late to make plans to be part of one of the great set pieces of a Washington summer.  

The 54th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game is Thursday night. Attending can be a fine antidote for much of the toxic polarization suffusing the Capitol Hill work day, a tonic for cleansing the political mind of ideologically combative thoughts.  

The medicine will work best at controlling partisanship, albeit for only a few hours, if taken in this unusual way.  

After purchasing a $10 ticket , confident much of the money is going to charities benefiting local children, commit to spending at least a few of the seven innings on “the wrong side” of the field.  

Attendance has increased steadily since the game moved to Nationals Park in 2008, topping a record 8,500 despite threatening skies last June . But the more people who come through the turnstiles, the more it seems they’ve congregated in an almost comically predictable way: Fans of the Republican team head for the right side (get it?) of the field. Boosters of the Democrats gravitate toward the seats down the left field line. Only the lobbyists tend to roam the whole lower level, although their preferred spot for schmoozing is on the terrace and in the boxes right behind home plate — clearly, the best place for working both sides of the evening.  

To be fair, the fans are doing what fans normally do by clustering as close as possible to their favorite players. But it’s easy to imagine an even more convivial game if some Republicans set aside their reflexive rooting interest and cheered on every good play from behind the visitors’ (or Democratic) dugout on the third base side, while as many Democrats tried out the view from the first base seats close by the Nats’ (GOP) bench.  

Answering the question “Why is Congress broken?” typically involves a discussion of the Three M’s most responsible for discouraging collaboration and compromise. These are the maps (almost all districts drawn to be deeply red or blue, not purple ), the money (unregulated oceans of cash mainly poured into conservative or liberal crusades) and the media (cable TV and online venues that thrive on reinforcing passions on the left and right).  

But there’s a fourth M worthy of inclusion in the mnemonic: mingling, or more accurately the lack thereof. And here’s where the baseball game already serves such an important purpose — and could help the cause of a functioning Congress even more.  

Members spend precious little time socializing in bipartisan company. They are in town as few nights as possible, and when not fundraising in the evenings or over breakfast, the culture makes clear it’s only politically appropriate to hang out with people from their own side of the aisle. Those expectations shape how many staffers spend their free time as well.  

Sports offers a rare exception to the unwritten rules. House members from different parties play on the same side in pickup basketball games in their Rayburn Building Gym. Senators from opposing parties work out on neighboring treadmills in their Russell Building Gym . But those encounters are safely behind unmarked doors.  

The baseball game is different. It’s why the annual tradition dates back more than a century and why Roll Call has had no trouble keeping it alive since the early 1960s, reviving it after a several-year hiatus demanded by the House leadership because of a string of pretty serious injuries.

(Watch the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game 2015 preview video below)

To be sure, most of the bonding happens at their politically segregated practices in the early mornings, the Republicans (34 on the formal roster this year) sharing sweat equity amongst themselves at a park just south of Reagan National Airport and the 20 Democrats struggling to appear physically fit in front of one another at Gallaudet University.  

But for one night, 10 percent of the membership of the 114th Congress will play together and try hard to get along with one another in public for a couple of hours. The teams will form by party, and there are plenty of partisan bragging rights at stake. The series is currently knotted, 38-38-1, with the GOP desperate to triumph for the first time in this decade and the Democrats just as intent in extending their six-game winning streak.  

There also are a couple of particularly good political story lines this year. The first serious presidential candidate may be taking the field in decades , in the form of Republican center fielder and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Expectations also are high for an encounter between two of the most talented players in Congress. Democrat Patrick Murphy and Republican Ron DeSantis are more than 30-something right-handed pitchers from Florida with hitting power and fielding skill. Each is also giving up a House seat after two terms to go after the same open Senate seat.  

By and large, however, the players will behave as apolitically as they ever do, at least when thousands of people and a phalanx of cameras are eyeing them. As much as those in each dugout want to help their team win, they are unified by the same set of priorities for their short stint on the field. They want to look as good as possible in the sometimes ill-fitting uniforms of their favored collegiate or professional teams. They want to harness the competitive instincts that helped get them to Congress — at least enough so they project good sportsmanship, no matter how frustrated they get with themselves or how furious they become with the shortcomings of their teammates. They want to come across as grownups capable of having fun in a game that makes them young again.  

The majority Republicans want to show they can win on the field as well as on the floor. The minority Democrats want to demonstrate that athletic power is not always analogous to political power. But all the players have a unifying goal, to get through the evening without embarrassment.  

The fans can help by cheering all of them on, without partisan favor or preordained seating assignments.  

   

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