Congressional Baseball Game a show of sportsmanship between Dems, GOP

July 15, 2011

If President Obama wants to gain the upper hand in the current debt crisis talks, he might consider hosting his next meeting with Republicans at Nationals Park. There, it seems, the Democrats can do no wrong. At least that was so Thursday evening at the 50th annual Congressional Baseball Game for charity, where House Democrats stomped their GOP counterparts 8-2 in a game that featured 15 hits for the minority party and just one hit for a Republican squad dominated by freshman lawmakers.

The Dems’ ringer was a freshman, Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, whose brilliant pitching silenced GOP bats all night. (With the second half of their season about to launch, the Nats might want to take a look at this talented left-leaning righty, a former Morehouse College baseball player.)

But perhaps more remarkable than any of the stats in this admittedly not beautifully played game was what good sports the players were and how they seemed to have nothing but admiration for their counterparts across the aisle — or, in this case, across the diamond. In this age of seemingly nonstop partisan bickering and bashing, we’ve come to expect nothing but, well, bickering and bashing, no matter the venue.

Finding it on this night, though, was like finding a lawyer who admits to being on the Roger Clemens prosecution team.

“There’s really an awful lot of camaraderie out here,” said Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) sporting a Phillies uniform and, at 55, looking like he could still probably rip a line drive or two.

During pregame warm-ups, Rep. Joe Barton (Tex.), the manager of the GOP squad, said that although he hoped for a victory, he also worried about how to get playing time for each of his 40 players. (Apparently the Republicans are more focused on reducing the size of government than in reducing the size of their baseball team.) Mostly though, Barton said that he, too, wanted everyone — including the opposing players — to enjoy the evening.

Well, let’s see how the Democrats feel about all this nice chitchat.

“We want to beat these guys bad,” said the Dems’ skipper, Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, who led a considerably smaller squad of 18.

Ah, finally, a dose of animosity. Now we’re getting somewhere. But, in the next sentence, Doyle launched into why the game and events like this might actually make a difference.

“It’s human nature that once you get to know people, you relate to them better,” he said. “When we see these guys outside of the halls of Congress where we’re all doing battle, you realize we’re pretty much the same. The way Congress operates now, everyone leaves for home five minutes after the last vote, there’s no time to get to know each other. You need to build relationships to tackle these big issues.”

So much for cheap, partisan jabs.

Even in the stands, the feeling was upbeat, the jibes gentle. Of course, some habits die hard. Republican fans mostly sat in the stands right of home plate; Dem fans chose the left.

As the game got underway, bigwigs from both parties arrived. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) got a rousing ovation as he strode to his seat. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) got the same as she arrived. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) made his way into the GOP dugout — perhaps to deliver a pep talk. House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), surrounded by a phalanx of Secret Service agents, was the star attraction in the seats behind home plate and being greeted by Democrats and Republicans alike. It was all so . . . collegial.

Sitting with his co-workers, Fabrice Coles, Richmond’s legislative director, cheered on his boss’s commanding performance on the mound for the Dems, but he also dismissed the much-hyped partisan divide.

“I think the rancor is overplayed, I really do,” Coles said. “People in Congress — members and staffers alike — get along a lot better than people think.”

Though this was the 50th anniversary of the game, the showdown on the diamond between parties, which now benefits the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and the Washington Literacy Council, does have a longer history. The game was first played in 1909 and has been intermittently discontinued for reasons as varied as war, rough play and the general grumpiness of congressional leaders who suspended it, saying it took important time away from the business of running the country.

Home-plate umpire Al Straub, who at 69 has been umpiring for 30 years, said before the game that he wasn’t worried about catching any lip from the lawmakers.

“I’m old enough that none of these guys will intimidate me,” the Springfield resident said. “I’m just worried about whether or not they’ll be able to throw strikes.”

And neither side needed to worry about the other team getting favorable calls.

“I’m an independent,” Straub said, smiling.

When the seven-inning game ended on a short pop out, the Democrats on the field whooped and hugged and then quickly turned to shake the hands of their defeated colleagues. Ugh, more sportsmanship all around.

Congresswoman Pelosi, surely you’d like to rub a little salt in the wounds after such a dominant victory?

“This is really all in the spirit of fun, and we’re all participating in it for the fun of the game,” Pelosi said before turning back to congratulate her team.

And how about you, Congressman Cantor? How do you plan to avenge this humiliating loss and make the Democrats pay?

“This has been great for everyone here, and I think we’ve all enjoyed it,” Cantor said. “It’s nice to take a break like this. This was a good time for all.”

Maybe a baseball park is indeed a place where big disputes can be settled, where differences can be ironed out, where the grass really is greener.

Ahh, maybe it’s just a field of dreams.

Joe Heim joined The Post in 1999. He is currently a staff writer for the Metro section's Local Enterprise team. He also writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column in the Sunday magazine and is the paper's resident Downton Abbey expert.
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