Bless those shiny new scoreboards at RFK Stadium for enduring such a pounding Thursday night.

First inning: Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina stands on the mound for the Democrats. Walking to the plate is Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessean who founded the Congressional Fitness Caucus. He's hauling a 34-inch Copperhead -- an aluminum slugger patterned out of snakeskin.

So Wamp and Watt meet again. Remember the late-night Terri Schiavo debate on the House floor? Watt had asked where all the compassion was when he tried to rally Congress over the issue of unequal medical care for African Americans. Wamp said the Schiavo issue wasn't about politics, but "life and death."

No words are needed now. The Republican raises his bat, sways it a little.

The ump crouches behind the plate.

Watt eyes his catcher. Now the windup.

Here comes the inside pitch.

WHIFF! Wamp takes the biggest cut of his life and misses! Democrats delight!

But then the real hitting spree begins. Soon it's all over, once again, for the moderate left.

If there has been some sort of announcement over the loudspeakers during the 44th annual congressional baseball game that the whole thing is for a good cause -- that a literacy council and the Boys and Girls Club would benefit -- then nobody can hear it in partisanland. Blue-hearted Dems in the stands are too busy booing Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) as he steps to the plate. Or Republicans -- man, woman and child -- are jeering the ump when the Dems get a close call at first base, even though the GOP was up by six runs.

In hardball, the sweetest victory is one of utter demolition. Anyone who emphasizes the all-in-fun "charity" in this event is either from PR or last year's losing squad (GOP 14, Dems 7). This game is no company softball folly: MVP plaques hang in the House gymnasium. The losers (historically members of the House minority) do not get a trophy. Instead they must shuffle about the Hill, absorbing the knowledge that not only has America dissed them, but worse, they can't even field a grounder.

Players try to mitigate potential embarrassment by gathering for their last practice Wednesday morning at RFK.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the Republican team's deputy manager, leans against the backstop and takes in the view of the diamond and his players, some slightly stooped and sweating profusely in old T-shirts from past congressional baseball games. (Or the guy wearing a T-shirt announcing the Rolling Stones North American Tour -- 1989, that is.)

Barton brags that Republicans have dominated the past decade, with eight wins. They have younger players and are "for some reason" more athletic. Still, he notes, there's "not anyone out here who can start on a good high school team."

Seems like everyone has tendinitis and/or surgical scarring. One Republican staffer who is not even on the roster has a leaking, seven-pound bag of ice on his left elbow after an hour of shagging foul balls. And don't get manager Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) started: On the opening play of the 1994 congressional game, he hit a shot to the pitcher, hustled to first and got beaned on the wrist. Oxley writhed on the field in agony; Democrats in the stands chanted: "Health care now! Health care now!"

Oxley's battle scar -- on his left wrist, where docs inserted the steel pin -- is something of congressional lore.

Tim Johnson, an Oxley staffer who is the congressman's key man on baseball matters, keeps his 1994 Honda Civic (red, of course) loaded with baseball equipment all spring. Johnson's vision of the matchup is less partisan and more purist. Once C-SPAN carried the game live and it wound up being a four-hour stinker, as bad as watching a marathon special-orders session on the House floor.

But the guys still felt like they were playing in the World Series, says Johnson, and it's that sentiment that excuses his obsessive tracking of five different weather forecasts and averaging out Thursday's temperature to conclude, with a sigh of relief, sunny and clear skies. "This is one of the last great vestiges of the past," he said. "If Congress could only work as well as the congressional baseball game, the country would be a lot happier with us."

Past 9:30 Thursday night, in the top of the seventh, the beleaguered Democrats retire the last Republican batter, managing to keep the GOP's run total under 20. It's a tiny consolation amid 21/2 hours of throttling.

Over right-centerfield, just below the sprawling, bloodshot Budweiser banner, is the "Washington Hall of Stars." Imagine the sports greats who have triumphed at RFK: Theismann, Lombardi, LeBaron. Remember the crack of Frank Howard's bat when he'd clobber the cowhide into cheap seats? Feel the whiff of lumber that had no chance against Walter Johnson's sidearm fastball?

For the 5,632 in attendance -- many of them young interns and staffers -- probably not. At this moment, all that matters is Oxley, Santorum, Watt.

And one final, bloody score: GOP 19, Dems 10.

Rep. Melvin Watt, the Democrats' starting pitcher, gave up five runs in the first inning. Rep. Connie Mack, whose namesake great-grandfather was the legendary manager of Philadelphia Athletics, wears the team's old uniform.