A few hours before Donald Trump delivered the first State of the Union speech of his presidency, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) walked into the Capitol Hill Club, a private Republican social spot, accompanied by a tall man with a man-bun who stood out in the sizable crowd. People clamored for pictures, told stories about their Chia pets and handed over bobbleheads for him to sign. This, they say, is not typical pre-State of the Union behavior. But Jayson Werth doesn’t just show up at places like this — in a suit, no less — before most State of the Union addresses.
Werth was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday night because Davis invited him to attend the event, something Werth said he never really thought about doing in his seven years with the Washington Nationals — though he was always curious.
“I always watched it from afar. I always wondered, ‘How do you get into one of those?’ ” Werth said. “ ‘How do you even get a ticket?’ ”
The answer, apparently, is to go gluten-free, start eating only organic food, open your own organic farm in Southern Illinois, play a few MLB games in Washington, address the Organic Trade Association in a speech that included multiple references to “quails,” make a lobbying trip to the Hill in early December, meet the congressman for your farm’s district, hit it off and snag an invite.
“It just kind of worked out,” Werth said. “So here we are.”
After the speech, Werth spoke briefly to C-SPAN, saying he was “really inspired” by the experience.
“I didn’t really know what to expect coming in. You know, this was the first time I’ve ever done anything like this,” he said. “I felt like it was a great time to be an American, and I thought President Trump did a great job. He hit all the points, and he spoke really well, and I was inspired.”
Werth, 38, grew up in Illinois. In 2009, just before he joined the Nationals, he decided to alter his lifestyle. He dropped gluten and dairy from his diet. He decided to stay away from nonorganic foods and GMOs whenever possible. He bought land in Southern Illinois and started his own organic farm.
Over the years, his operation has grown. He won’t say how many acres he now owns, though his for-public-consumption answer is “somewhere around 500.” He found the barriers to entry to that industry high, and while he could afford the costs that limit other farmers, Werth did have trouble finding the right people to help him start an organic operation. Once he did, and as he watched his operation grow, Werth took more interest in helping others transition to organic farming. He started a consulting wing of his organic farm, which he hopes will continue to grow. He also started lobbying for organic farming, bursting on to the scene with that speech to the Organic Trade Association in mid-May.
Werth lives in the D.C. area full time. His kids are in school here. He trains here. So it was easy for Werth to make a lobbying trip to the Hill in early December as part of a group advocating for policy changes that will help organic farmers — changes like different insurance for organic farmers, who Werth said spend more on their products but currently get insured at the same rate as normal farmers. He also sees trouble in import laws that drive prices down for domestic farmers.
“I care about these things. And I can’t play baseball forever,” said Werth, who is a free agent waiting out the historically sluggish market. “You hear about these guys, and after they’re done playing, they really don’t have much going on. Some do. But you have to have a plan, right? And I’m already doing this. So it makes sense. It’s challenging, but it’s an industry that I’m already in.”
On that lobbying trip, Werth made a stop at the office of Davis, who represents Illinois’s 13th district. Davis is from Taylorville, Ill; Werth was from Chatham. The town’s high schools are rivals. Davis was the catcher for the congressional baseball team, so he and Werth could relate on that front, too. When Davis visited Matt Mika, the lobbyist injured in a shooting during a congressional baseball practice in June 2017, at the hospital after the incident, he found Werth had already been there to give Mika a jersey. Mika was at the Capitol Hill Club on Tuesday, too. He and Werth are still in contact and have maintained a relationship.
“I’ve learned how to build relationships with people who are involved in different issues,” Davis said. “I never thought I’d be talking to Jayson Werth about organic farming. I also never thought I’d see the compassion and humanity that he showed after that shooting. It tells you a lot about a person.”
Davis serves on the House Committee on Agriculture, as well as the subcommittees on biotechnology and nutrition — both of which felt relevant to Werth’s work. Add in the baseball connection, and Davis felt Werth was a natural fit for his guest to the State of the Union. He invited him. Werth accepted and was the star of the Longworth House Office Building for a few hours Tuesday afternoon before conducting interviews and heading to a steak dinner.
Werth wasn’t fielding questions about his political beliefs, in accordance with the wishes of his hosts. He was, however, comfortably fielding questions about the issues facing organic farmers, articulate as always, if always a little surprised to be there at all. He said he is training harder than ever, and he plans to play this season and beyond. But he did acknowledge the end is near. After seven years in Washington and as a natural in on the Hill, could Werth become an unexpected member of that club of prominent athletes who turn to a career in politics?
“I’m still learning what that means,” said Werth, who smiled after the diplomatic dodge, his future in politics consisting, at the very least, of an unlikely seat at the State of the Union.