Mayor Gray embraces his alter ego — first baseman

Mayor Vincent C. Gray stood up from his desk at city hall at just before 9 p.m. Wednesday, took off his dress shirt and charcoal suit, and put on his other uniform, a red jersey with “Dragons” in white lettering across the chest, matching pin-striped pants and a red cap.

His two bats and first baseman’s glove were in a duffel bag stowed in the back of the Lincoln Navigator waiting downstairs.

The D.C. mayor’s calendar is jammed as he contends with the sprawling complexities of managing the city, not to mention a scandal that has made the question of his political survival the topic of casual speculation.

But on this night, his attention was on the D.C. Dragons, the slow-pitch softball team for which he has played and coached for more than two decades and that was chasing another championship.

Softball for the mayor, at 69, remains what it has been for decades, a joyous excursion from the pressures of work and a source of not-inconsiderable regret.

As his security team drove him to a field beneath the Southwest Freeway, the mayor transformed from a jargon-laden bureaucrat into a gum-chewing ballplayer. He thought about whom he’d assign to bat fifth in the lineup and fretted over whether the Dragons would advance to the semifinals. He laced up his size 11 cleats.

“This is not a league where people show up and say, ‘We brought the picnic basket,’ ” he said. “Oh no. They come to win.”

None more so, perhaps, than the mayor, who said that umpires twice have ejected him over the years for arguing calls. A few weeks ago, after the Dragons gave up seven runs in the third inning, Gray ordered his players into a huddle and suggested in no uncertain terms that they extricate their heads from their you-know-whats.

“Vince can get a little feisty,” said Tracy Proctor, a Dragon for more than a decade.

The team’s pitcher works as a letter carrier, the left fielder as a Justice Department lawyer, the catcher as an auto mechanic. The shortstop is a police officer on the mayor’s security detail. A handful of Dragons are at least 40 years younger than Gray, who is the oldest player in the Department of Parks and Recreation league. His teammates call him Vince, or mayor or sometimes “sir.”

They cheer him when he’s at bat and smirk when he doesn’t bend low enough to scoop throws at first. They do not bring up what they read in the newspapers — the federal investigation into his campaign, the three associates who have pleaded guilty to ­campaign-related crimes, the D.C. Council members who have demanded his resignation.

“This is his sanctuary,” said Jerome Bracey, 47, a Dragon for 20 years. “This is his little bubble where he can forget everything.”

Except when someone won’t let him.

In the top of the first inning Wednesday, the mayor, a lefty, stepped up to the plate and struck out swinging. As he walked back to the dugout, a spectator shouted, “Sulaimon Brown Three!,” a taunting reference to a former mayoral candidate whose allegations started Gray’s troubles.

A few innings later, the mayor slapped a single to right, driving in two Dragons as the team advanced to the next round. Afterward, as the clock neared midnight, he returned to his office to work for a couple more hours at his desk, still in uniform, cap on, his batting gloves stuffed in his back pocket.

Politicians often have sporting obsessions. President Obama has basketball. Sen. John F. Kerry plays hockey. Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty competed as a triathlete, spending the last Sunday morning before the 2010 Democratic primary in a race while his opponent, Gray, was with voters at church.

Gray’s baseball passion began when he was growing up a few blocks from Gallaudet University in Northeast. He was a Senators fan, idolizing their first baseman, Mickey Vernon, whose No. 3 the mayor has always worn on his uniform.

Phil Portlock, 71, said he saw 9-year-old Gray smack a ball out of the Sherwood Recreation Center at 10th and G streets NE. At Dunbar High School, where they played on the baseball team, Portlock said Gray hit one over the centerfield fence, past the tennis courts.

“This ball must have been hit close to 400 feet; it just looked like it wasn’t going to stop,” Portlock said. “Such an easy swing.”

In his senior year, Gray said, the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers invited him to a tryout camp at the University of Maryland, an invitation that thrilled him but did not impress his parents, who wanted him to pursue a college degree.

After one session, Gray said he was asked to return for a second, after which he gave up the idea of playing professional baseball and chose instead to attend George Washington University. It was a decision, he said, that he regrets “to this day.”

“I like to think of myself as someone who will try, will get out and step to something, and I stepped back from this. I just let it go,” the mayor said.

“I’ll tell you what,” he added, “I never did it again.”

His regret over baseball, he said, has cropped up at crossroads moments, such as when he deliberated whether to run against Fenty. “There are things I could’ve easily walked away from and I didn’t because I didn’t want that feeling again,” he said. “I don’t want to walk away from something again.”

After college and graduate school, Gray played hardball in various semi-professional leagues, then moved into softball, joining the Dragons “25 or 30 years ago” and making their weekly Wednesday games a constant, even as he changed jobs, raised two children, became a widower, went into politics and evolved from a power hitter into a hitter trying to knock one out of the infield.

His commitment to the team prompted him to ask the league to hold Dragon games at 8 p.m. or later so he could fit them into his schedule once he became D.C. Council chairman and then mayor. And because he’s now a well-known public figure, Gray said, he has tried to adapt his behavior on the field, refraining from arguing with umpires and trash-talking with opponents.

But sometimes he cannot help himself.

In the Dragons’ semifinal game Thursday, at the Guy Mason recreation center in Glover Park, the umpire called a player on the opposing Black Diamond team safe at second. Gray offered a mild protest.

A spectator bellowed: “Come over here, Mr. Mayor! This isn’t the D.C. Council! This isn’t Kwame Brown!” referring to the former council chairman who pleaded guilty to fraud.

Gray ignored the heckler for the moment, but after the Dragons won he walked toward the man, his hand cupped behind his ear, grinning broadly, as if inviting him to shout some more.

“You’re not generally at a loss for words,” the mayor taunted.

The championship game started a few minutes later, and the Dragons burst to an early lead that they never relinquished.

“This is great, guys, outstanding play, outstanding,” the mayor told the players before posing for photographs with the championship trophy, packing up his bats and glove and walking back to his car, where his shortstop held open the door for him.

As his teammates celebrated, the mayor returned to city hall, where there were e-mails to read, remarks to prepare for the following day and the next softball season to begin thinking about, a full three weeks away.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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