Congress ready to play ball again, after pandemic canceled 2020 season

Annual baseball game set for Sept. 29

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., walks out on the field before the start of the 58th annual Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park on June 26, 2019.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., walks out on the field before the start of the 58th annual Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park on June 26, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 6:00am

When the NBA and NHL abruptly shut down last March, the severity of the coronavirus began to hit home for many Americans. Losing sports was a turning point. 

In political Washington, the feeling spread to congressional sports — a niche tradition with a long and sweaty history. For the first time in decades, members of Congress weren’t able to show off their amateur skills, panting and trash-talking in the name of charity. 

Now, with vaccines getting into more and more arms, it may be time to play ball again on Capitol Hill. After canceling all the annual charity matches in 2020, organizers of the baseball, softball, basketball and hockey games are working to bring them back in 2021.

Lawmakers worried about getting into shape still have a few months to do it. September promises to be a particularly busy stretch, but everything depends on first defeating coronavirus, the organizers said.

The biggest and most beloved of all these charity competitions, the Congressional Baseball Game, is usually held in June. The game has been around since 1909, and in recent years Democrats have beat out Republicans under the bright lights of Nationals Park. 

This year, organizers are aiming for Sept. 29. That relatively late date should — hopefully — ensure the coronavirus is in check by the time the first pitch is tossed, and maybe help lawmakers pretend they’re competing in playoff baseball. 

The teams typically practice for months in advance, gathering in the early mornings. Democrats will need a new strategy, after pitcher and perennial MVP Cedric Richmond moved his office down Pennsylvania Avenue to be a senior adviser to President Joe Biden.

“I love baseball, I love beating Republicans and I love raising money for charity — not necessarily in that order,” Richmond said before the game in 2019. 

The Congressional Women’s Softball Game is another warm-weather staple. Lawmakers compete against journalists to benefit the Young Survival Coalition, a breast cancer charity. 

Sept. 22 is the new target date, but if all the stars align, it could happen as soon as July, said Atalie Ebersole, the game’s president and treasurer. The game is typically played at Watkins Elementary School in Southeast D.C., “but we may need a larger space due to ongoing COVID restrictions,” she said.

Paul Miller has been having similar thoughts about the venue for the Congressional Basketball Classic. He’s organized the event for 23 years, with lobbyists like him posting up against lawmakers to benefit kids in D.C.

Miller hopes the pandemic will be crushed in time for a Sept. 28 tipoff in Gallaudet University’s gym. 

“If it isn’t, we have a backup plan to move it out [of D.C.], so we are going forward with the game,” he said. That would mean somewhere in Northern Virginia; he declined to say where exactly.

While the level of play may be low (the goaltending rule might as well not exist because no one can jump high enough to commit the foul), the annual basketball game has raised millions for charity over the years. Last year, sponsors contributed even though the game was canceled, Miller said. “It went directly to PPE, food — things like that,” he said. “They stepped up, even though they didn’t have to.”

As for the Congressional Hockey Challenge, usually held in March, the exact date for 2021 is still TBD. 

Organizers of the event said they’re holding off on faceoffs until they’re sure it will be safe. “Until then, the Congressional Hockey Challenge continues to ensure that our supported charities have adequate resources during these challenging times, and we urge our supporters to remain active in advancing efforts to make hockey accessible for everyone,” said Nick Lewis, a CHC co-founder and senior vice president at UPS.

In a typical year, a legion of lobbyists skate against lawmakers, staffers and a few administration ringers. Feats of raw athleticism are few and far between. As with any of these congressional sports, the games are undeniably silly. Grey-haired powerbrokers trade friendly insults and work up a sweat in front of adoring crowds made up largely of their own employees.

But that’s the point. In a town that obsesses over who’s winning every news cycle and often self-segregates by political party, it’s a chance to go out, have a little fun and ignore the score for once.