Minutes before the start of the 26th annual Congressional Baseball Game last night, Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma wiped his brow in the Democrats' dugout and sounded a peculiar battle cry.

"It's not whether you win or lose," he said, smiling. "But whether you can avoid being embarrassed. That's the key."

Indeed it was: In front of an overflow crowd of about 3,000 at Four Mile Run Park in Alexandria, the Democrats avoided embarrassment more often than the Republicans and gained a 15-14 victory in stifling heat and humidity and despite a four-run Republican rally with two outs in the last inning.

"We thought for sure we had it, but they came back so fast," said D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy. "I think we were all getting real worried out there."

"We were dead meat in the middle innings," said Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), "but what a great comeback it was. The tough part about this game is that we have to wait 365 days to get another shot at them. But I guess it will take that long for us to heal."

During the past three weeks, members of both teams practiced regularly at 7 a.m. for the game, which was sponsored by Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newsletter. It was a moment for which they had waited: a chance to steal and slide, to hit 'em where they ain't, and trounce the opposition for charity. All proceeds were donated to Washington Children's Hospital. House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) sang the national anthem, and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) threw out the first pitch.

"I hope everyone has fun, nobody gets hurt, and we beat the daylights out of them," said Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.). Bunning's baseball past -- he pitched for the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies and recorded more than 200 victories in his 17-year career -- worried Democratic batters before the game, but his pitches were hit early and often, and the guys who control the House and Senate quickly took control of the game.

Relying on the arm of Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), who pitched the entire seven-inning game, and the speedy feet of Fauntroy, the Democrats jumped to a 15-7 lead after four innings. It wasn't pretty. But both sides played hard.

Wearing uniforms of college or major league teams from their home states, players mulled anxiously before the game, joking constantly about the need to secure bragging rights. Despite the Democrats' victory, the Republicans hold a 17-8-1 edge in the series. The Democrats won last year's game, 8-6.

As game time neared, both teams huddled for last-minute strategy. "Okay, we have two main signs we're going to use," whispered Carl Pursell (R-Mich.), the Republicans' manager. "A little covert operation of our own, you might say."

"Where's Ollie?" someone shouted.

"The bunt sign is when I just take my hat off like this," Pursell continued, holding his cap at his side.

"Don't get too hot and take your hat off at the wrong time," joked Jack Buechner (R-Mo).

The brief strategy session ended, and the Republicans jogged back to the dugout, cheering. "Shouldn't we have had a prayer?" someone asked.

Buechner replied: "The only prayer is that we live through this."

The most prominent pregame items of curiosity were two dozen white satin warm-up jackets trimmed in red and white that hung across the top of the Republicans' dugout.

"What are they doing with those jackets?" asked Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.). "I guess it shows you how bright they are. It's 95 degrees and they have jackets."

"It's strictly a psych-out device," said Rep. John Rowland (R-Conn.). "We look good, dress well, we want them to see that. I figure it's 90 percent of the game."

The game, filled with countless stolen bases, wild pitches and misjudged grounders, had two dramatic moments. In the fourth inning, Levine struck out Rep. Dean Gallo (R-N.J.) with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Democrats leading 10-7. But two innings later, Gallo slammed a two-run homer -- the first hit out of the park in this game since 1979 -- to narrow the Democrats' lead then to 15-10.

The Republicans continued to fight back in the seventh, but the four-run rally was not enough. And the Democrats earned the right to gloat.

"This is great night," said Rep. David Nagle (D-Iowa), his uniform covered with infield dust and mud. "We get to play in the dirt, and we have an excuse. This gives us a chance to be little boys again. I didn't get too much chance to play, so I wanted to get as dirty as possible as quickly as possible, so I could impress the home folks. I couldn't possibly mail a clean uniform back to them."