Democrats Get in the Swing

Posted April 22, 2009 at 6:47pm

Correction Appended

Three years ago, Democrats won control of Congress. Last year, they took the White House. This summer, they’re hoping to take something else away from the Republicans: victory on the baseball diamond.

For the past eight games (and most of the past five decades), Democrats have fallen to Republicans in the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. They came within moments of breaking that streak in 2008, until a late-game throwing error by Connecticut Rep. Christopher Murphy ended that opportunity.

They are good-natured about it now, but at their first practice of the season Wednesday, it was clear that the loss weighs on returning players.

“We should have won,— Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.) said when he overheard Rep. Jim Marshall (Ga.) talking about their most recent showing.

The Democrats will take their first step toward capturing the coveted Roll Call trophy on June 17, when they take the field at Nationals Park for the 48th edition of the annual contest. The game will kick off a new best-of-five series, because last year’s victory gave the GOP a 3-0 sweep and ownership of their 10th Roll Call trophy; Democrats have retired just two.

The handful of players who gathered on the baseball field at the Hamilton Center Special Education School in Northeast D.C. appeared motivated, ignoring large puddles and an early drizzle to practice hitting and pitching.

Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.), the manager, looked on optimistically as his players warmed up.

“On paper, we’re going to field a better team than we did last year,— he said. He, and other Democrats, are quick to point to a new team asset: rookie John Boccieri.

Doyle, watching the freshman House Member from Ohio take batting practice, said he is going to test the college ballplayer’s pitching skills first but is confident that he will be able to play wherever he is needed.

“This guy has a chance to be a legitimate all-star on the team,— Doyle said.

Boccieri certainly has the right attitude for a team that needs a pick-me-up.

“There is no other option but to win,— Boccieri said with a laugh.

Doyle also praised the 62-year-old Baca, whom he called “the ageless wonder.—

The California lawmaker pitched most of the 2008 game and was named the Democrats’ Most Valuable Player.

The weather was not ideal for practice, and not all of the players were there, but Doyle seemed to think it was a good first day.

“We wanted to get loose and see what some of these guys can do,— he said.

[IMGCAP(1)]The Members are scheduled to practice nearly every weekday morning until the Memorial Day recess and every day between then and the game. Doyle will let them off on their first day back in town each week.

Doyle sends a letter to Democratic Members to gauge interest before practices begin, but he also keeps an eye out for potential recruits. The ones who want to play are usually the same ones who are gym regulars or whom he sees during pick-up basketball games.

Occasionally, the early practices will include Members who didn’t realize how seriously the game is taken or the physical condition needed. Those who aren’t willing to make the commitment usually weed themselves out, Doyle said. In other cases, players who aren’t ready to hang up their cleats but can’t play like they used to will take on coaching duties in order to stay involved.

Doyle is such a person. He played for 12 years and became manager three years ago.

In his mid-50s, Doyle said, “Your mind tells you that you can do things your body says you can’t.—

With three losses behind him, Doyle is feeling the urgency for a win. Even facing that pressure, Doyle seemed to think this would be the Democrats’ year.

“This is sort of our ’94,— Doyle said, referring to the year Republicans regained control of Congress. Not only did the GOP gain influence politically, but he said an influx of younger, athletic types helped them during the ensuing ballgames.

Now his team will enjoy that advantage.

“We’ve got a bunch of new guys,— he said. “We’re sort of the younger team and they’re sort of the established ones.—

Of course, the Democrats have been expressing that optimism for a few years, without much success.

Baca emphasized that everyone needs to have a strong hold on the fundamentals, which he said would have made a difference in the crucial final plays of last year’s game.

“This is a good beginning,— he said of their first practice. “It’s a way to get the kinks out and look at some of the new guys.—

Marshall is a seven-year veteran of the game. He shared in the disappointment of last year’s loss, but remembers the defeat of 2007 even more painfully.

“I will not forget [New York Rep. Anthony] Weiner and me colliding in the outfield,— he said. “It was spectacular, to say the least.—

Marshall is convinced that he and his teammates can break the GOP’s winning streak. But as he has witnessed, anything can happen on game day.

“It’s not like death and taxes,— he said. “Nothing is guaranteed.—

Correction: May 29, 2009

The article incorrectly reported Rep. Mike Doyle’s (Pa.) record since taking over as coach of the Democratic team in the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. He is 0-3.