Teams Struggle to Stake Their Claims to Fields

Posted April 30, 2010 at 3:30pm

In professional baseball, the ballparks can play as much of a factor as a lineup or who is pitching on a given day. From idiosyncrasies like Fenway’s Green Monster to Wrigley’s famous ivy-covered outfield walls, where a team plays affects how a team plays.

Things are a little different in Congressional softball. Locating a place to play usually involves sending someone at the bottom of the office hierarchy — unpaid interns, take note — to claim an open space on the Mall and there await the first pitch. The fields, usually squeezed between the gravelly walkways that stretch between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, are less than glamorous.

Rather than rely on the day-of scramble for a makeshift diamond, some more-seasoned coaches apply early in January for coveted permits, allocated by the National Park Service or the Department of Parks and Recreation, that make for more stability. Susan Aldersley, who has coached the team Showboats for six years, has had a permit for the past five.

“Playing on the Mall sucks,” Aldersley said. “You have to send an intern out there to squat on a piece of grass at two in the afternoon, and quite frankly after they have all those festivals there and everything, the Mall is just in terrible shape.”

Aldersley noted that when a team’s players don’t all come from a centralized office — her company’s workers are scattered from Gaithersburg and Rockville to Washington — it makes coordinating a game in an unknown location that much more difficult. In addition to the fact that the pockmarked, uneven and hard-packed dirt of the Mall can inhibit playing a smooth game, she also noted that the public nature of the Mall might pose an obstacle to one of the most sacrosanct parts of the Congressional softball experience.

“It’s really difficult to drink beer on the Mall nowadays,” she said.

Gary Caruso, the commissioner of the Congressional Softball League, said he advises rookie coaches to defer to experience and let the opposition locate the field for the first month of games until they’ve gotten a sense of the process. He said increased competition for space has led coaches to take measures such as moving games off the popular Thursday spots, but he said a scarcity of fields has not deterred participation. He estimated that less than 15 percent of teams apply for a permit.

“If you have an intern or somebody who can go out and get something early in the afternoon, once they have an area that’s not under any sort of restrictions, with digital communications it’s easy to pin down where to go by late afternoon and let both teams know where you are,” Caruso said.

Similarly, House League Commissioner Anthony Reed said he has seen more coaches moving games to Maryland and Virginia or even scheduling games on the weekend to grab spaces more easily. Still, he said that for many teams, the effort to find a space and inform the teammates is a cherished rite of passage.

“There’s a lot of folks who enjoy the going out and grabbing a spot on the Mall and playing there — it’s convenient and close and there’s nothing really like playing in the shadow of the Capitol,” Reed said.