Baseball Squads Report for Spring Training

Posted June 9, 2004 at 4:33pm

With just under a month to go before the 43rd Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, Members from both sides of the aisle rose with the sun Wednesday morning to stretch their legs, take a few cuts, and work out the kinks caused by an 11-month off-season.

Both teams held their first practice Wednesday, but the squads took different approaches as the Republicans brought in a retired star to help with batting practice while Democrats got a lesson from a veteran coach.

For the GOP squad, which is coming off a 5-3 win in last year’s contest and holds a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series that culminates with the winner retiring the coveted Roll Call trophy, the day began with a bit of a surprise.

As the players began to warm up at Four Mile Run Park in Alexandria, Va., the team’s manager, Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), announced that he had brought back a GOP baseball legend, former Rep. Steve Largent (Okla.), to throw batting practice.

Largent, a member of the Roll Call Baseball Hall of Fame, was a three-time MVP pitcher who went 5-1 for the GOP squad during his years in Congress. Outside the realm of Congressional sports, Largent is also a National Football League hall-of-famer who held six major receiving records when he retired from the league in 1989.

Before stepping to the mound to the cheers of his former colleagues, Largent, who returned to Washington in November to take over as president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, said he was looking to take it easy on his ex-teammates.

“They don’t need to see the full heat today,” he said.

Largent said he fashions himself the new version of the late Rep. Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell (R-N.C.). Mizell, another Roll Call hall-of-famer who played professional ball for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets, retired from Congress in 1975 but often pitched at GOP practices before his death in 1999.

Wednesday’s practice also saw the return of Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who left the 2003 contest in the opening inning after breaking and dislocating his left shoulder when he collided with Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) at home plate.

“I told him I’d play him if he felt good and as long as he cut out these head-first slides,” Oxley said.

“It feels really good, especially in the last month or so,” said Brady, patting his shoulder and acknowledging his year of rehab. “I was the lead-off batter last year and I’m anxious to see the whole game this year.”

As his boys batted around the bases and munched on Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the dugout, Oxley, in sweatpants and an FBI hat, kept a watchful eye on his team from his position next to the batter’s box. Now in his fifth year coaching, Oxley has gone 3-1 against the Democrats but doesn’t seem to be taking anything for granted.

Though a team without rookies, the GOP has lost a few players this year, and right now Oxley is looking to fill a hole in center field created by the decision by Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) to quit the game. Finding a backup pitcher for Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who pitched all seven innings last year and hopes to do the same this year, is also a concern for the GOP skipper. Otherwise the starting lineup looks the same.

“My boss’s strategy is to throw strikes and make as few errors as possible. It’s the same formula that wins in little league,” cracked Oxley Press Secretary Tim Johnson, who attended the practice.

“We’re also trying to see if we can sneak Largent into Sweeney’s [New York] Yankees uniform this year,” Johnson added.

“They look good. It’s good having Steve throw some really accurate pitches in there so they can get some good licks in,” said Oxley. But he also saw a bit of first-day excitement in his team. “They’re a bit over-eager. Everyone’s trying to pull it. I want them to move it more toward center field.”

Meanwhile, across the Potomac at Gallaudet University, the Democratic players were working out a few kinks of their own under the watchful eye of their 17-year coaching veteran, Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.).

“It’s been a year since anything has touched these pants,” Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.) joked about his bright white baseball gear. A few other Democratic Members echoed Weiner’s sentiments, and though some of the team had admitted to not touching a ball since last year, the first session showed that their skills were still sharp.

After roughly 30 minutes of solid infield and outfield warm-up, the team gathered around home plate to work on batting strategy. Joe Foley, a lobbyist in the District of Columbia now in his 30th year as an assistant coach for the Democrats, explained the importance of timing one’s swing.

“That’s where the violence in baseball is,” Foley said as his bat stopped just short of the ball, demonstrating the ideal contact point. “Not at the beginning or at the very end [of a swing], but right there in the middle.”

Foley’s remarks on batting were fully absorbed by attentive Democrats as they lined up to take turns at bat. Each hitter went to the plate twice and, with the exception of a few foul balls, the batters gave their teammates in the field a bit of a workout with a consistent stream of hard grounders and pop-ups to left and center field.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), the only woman at either team’s practice, demonstrated exceptional aptitude at bat and was even asked by some if she had been frequenting the batting cage this year.

Sanchez was one of many strong hitters at the practice, but none proved quite as promising as Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who hit the ball out of the park twice during practice.

“It went well. It was a good opening practice,” said Sabo. He said he has a simple strategy for winning this year’s game. “We’ll score a few runs and let them score a little less.”

Though both teams worked hard and seemed competitive, most of the Members and staffers at Wednesday’s practices were excited about the upcoming game not just for the contest itself but also because it brings Republicans, Democrats and their families and fans together for a good cause.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) brought his son Trevor to the practice, and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) stressed that the event has been a family tradition for him over the past eight years (both of McIntyre’s sons have been involved either in practices or as bat boys at the games). It’s become such a significant part of McIntyre’s summer that he will be flying back to D.C. from Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 7 just to make the game.

For Sabo Chief of Staff Mike Erlandson, the game is ultimately about its beneficiaries: Proceeds go to the Washington Literacy Council and the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs, among other charities selected by the Bowie Baysox, the game’s host. “This is a chance for Members from all over the country to give back to the community that they spend four days a week in, but do not live in,” Erlandson said.

This year’s matchup will take place at 7 p.m. July 8 at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md. Tickets are $8.