King Of The Hill

When Democrats meet Republicans in Congress' annual baseball game, both sides come out swinging.

July 05, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

It is just before 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning on a deserted field in Northwest Washington. Nearby homes have iron bars on their windows, trash swirls around an empty, overgrown parking lot - an unlikely venue for a congressional power powwow.

But, one by one, clad in T-shirts and sweat pants, sleepy Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives gather. The goal: Figure out how to beat the Republicans.

Not in a coming floor vote or election, but in the annual congressional baseball game.

You'd think, though, that the stakes were just as high - and maybe they are. On Thursday night, Democrats play Republicans in a game that is often, if jokingly, considered a bellwether of how each party will fare in the coming election. With the White House on the line this fall, neither party is taking any chances this summer.

So for the past month, both teams have been practicing at 7 a.m., three days a week. The Republicans staked out a field in a leafy Virginia suburb, the Democrats one in the District.

"The only thing we want more than to win this game is to win back the House - and sometimes that gets blurred," says Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat.

At the Democrats' practice, Anthony Weiner of New York, so young and scrappy that he gets called "Congressboy" behind his back, stood on the field with his baseball glove on his head and listened to his coach's strategy.

"We're going to beat them like a rented mule," he declares.

But, in recent years the opposite has been true, on the field and in elections: After losing the majority in the House of Representatives to the Republicans in 1994, Democrats went on to lose seven of the nine subsequent baseball games. And much of their legislative agenda has been either stalled or co-opted by the other side, too.

So bragging rights - about something - would be a nice change. But the Republicans don't want to yield an inch.

"The day of the game, people are pretty intense," says Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Each side wants to win."

Take a group of naturally competitive people (men and women), some of whom have spent too much time lately behind desks or attending receptions and fund-raisers, and stick them on a baseball field, things can get rough during seven innings of fast-pitch.

Famously, in the 1950s, House Speaker Sam Rayburn halted the games by edict after two representatives collided at home plate and one member dislocated his shoulder, says Kenneth Kato, a historian at the House of Representatives.

Injuries are still a concern. In the past few games, congressmen have lost teeth, broken bones and otherwise bashed themselves up. But they keep playing.

"We can't accept that we're over the hill," says Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat.

Maryland's Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, does accept reality: After tearing a muscle playing softball years ago, he limits his participation in the congressional game to occasionally throwing out the first ball.

Still, Hoyer, who was responsible for moving the game to Maryland in 1995, understands the passion behind the match.

"There is a little Walter Mitty in every one of our ballplayers," he says.

Thursday's game - at Prince George's Stadium, normally home to the Baltimore Orioles' AA affiliate, the Bowie Baysox - indulges that. The contest has all the trappings of professional ball. Members autograph, trade and collect baseball cards of themselves. They wear uniforms from teams in their home districts, and an announcer calls the plays.

These players are still politicians, though, and wherever they go, lobbyists follow - some of them spending $5,000 for a stadium skybox on game day. This year's skybox denizens include members of businesses and organizations that similarly spend a lot of money lobbying on the Hill - Microsoft, ESPN/Disney, the Business Software Alliance, the National Cable Telecommunications Association and the New York Stock Exchange.

The game draws a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 - mostly Capitol Hill geeks, more lobbyists and a few curious locals. Seats cost $8 and proceeds from the game go to charity.

The game - like just about everything else on the Hill - has a long tradition. The first documented game was in 1909, but a New York Times article from that year suggests there could have been an earlier match that escaped the record keepers.

After the gameless years after the Rayburn ban, Roll Call, a newspaper that covers the Capitol, revived the match in 1962. At first, the paper sponsored it as a three-inning warm-up act before a Washington Senators game.

Since then, the Democrats and Republicans have played out their differences on the baseball field - some years more heatedly than others. "The level of partisanship in the House has changed," Kato says. "In times when there is partisanship, the game is one thing, and in other times, the game means something else. Clearly, this is a more partisan period on the Hill."

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