Roger Williams looks like a manager. Fine, snowy white hair sneaks out from under a baseball cap shading his wrinkled, well-tanned face from the still unrisen sun as he addresses his squad at the end of a predawn practice Tuesday morning.
“Outfield, I want you to play in, I don’t want you to play out,” the House Republican says in a Texan drawl. “Keep the ball in front of you. When you’re hitting, put it in play. These guys are not going to be able to field. Make sure you swing the bat, don’t get up there.”
It’s the kind of simple advice we expect baseball coaches to give — at post-game press conferences, big league managers will talk about professional ballplayers just needing to “see more pitches” — and for most of this pep talk, Williams sounds like the skipper of any other overly serious adult sports team that gives the ex-varsity set a weekendly chance to relive the glory days.
That is, until he gets to the end.
“At the end of the day, I’m deeming this game as socialism versus capitalism,” Williams says to cheers. “It’s a game, but let me tell you: If we win tomorrow night, we’ll send a message for November.”
Started in 1909, the Congressional Baseball game is by far the longest running of Capitol Hill’s semi-celebrity sporting events, which include softball, basketball, hockey and flag football. Unlike those annual games, where a bipartisan squad challenges a team of lobbyists, journalists or staffers, baseball remains a partisan affair, pitting Democrats against Republicans.
Usually a highlight of Washington’s summer social calendar, this year’s game was delayed until the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also forced last year’s to be canceled.
At one point, the game was little different from a softball game at the annual company picnic, an excuse to get outside with some coworkers for a little friendly competition. But as with all things congressional, the baseball game has taken on a self-aggrandizing life of its own. It’s now played under the lights at Nationals Park before a crowd of thousands either overtaken by morbid curiosity or guilt-tripped by their bosses into going. Four years have passed since a gunman opened fire on a Republican practice, and while memories of that day in 2017 are still fresh, spirits are high as the game returns from its pandemic hiatus.
Besides raising money for charity — this year about $1.2 million will go to a mix of local causes, including the Washington Literacy Center and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington — the game exists to deflect members’ overly competitive nature to a less polarizing end. “This is some of the best parts of Congress, I think,” said Kevin Brady of Texas. “Not only getting to know your teammates, but players on the other team, Democrats. You share the love of baseball — it’s a great game. And I’ve made great friends on both sides now because of this game.”
Such singing the praises of bipartisan tradition strikes a discordant note next to the intense political brinkmanship currently unfolding in Congress, where the parties are already trading recriminations over the possibilities of another government shutdown or an unprecedented sovereign debt default. Meanwhile, an ominous anti-democratic theme runs under that cacophony, as some Republicans continue to repeat lies about the validity of last year’s election. But such concerns are a world away for the players at Tuesday’s practice.
In between batting practice reps, Republicans, who invited Heard on the Hill to their penultimate practice (spokesmen for the Democratic managers did not respond to media inquiries), set a confident tone for this year’s squad.
“The team looks terrific, we’ve got a bunch of young talent, new talent,” said Brady, who’ll be playing in his 24th game Wednesday.
Democrats have dominated the diamond the last few years, but Republicans think this is the year their luck changes. The GOP squad acknowledged that their odds have improved not so much because of their larger roster or dogged practice schedule — almost every morning the House has been in session since May — but because the Democrat’s all-star player, former Morehouse College standout pitcher Cedric Richmond, left Congress for a White House position.
“I feel great about [this year’s] game, but look, I felt great about the game every year, and I’ve been right once out of seven,” said Rodney Davis of Illinois. “Cedric’s not on the mound … and he’s carried that team.”
Both sides have welcomed some new freshman talent. Notable roster additions for the Republicans this year include August Pfluger of Texas, who played baseball at the Air Force Academy, and Blake D. Moore of Utah, who won the Wendy’s National High School Heisman Award in 1997 and went on to play football in college. Democrats added Kai Kahele, who was a standout volleyball player at the University of Hawaii, captaining NCAA championship teams in 1995 and 1996. While Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia is another newcomer for the Democrats, the rosters are mostly stacked with House members.
The participants, for the most part, treat the game with the fierce intensity it deserves.
“Skip will tell you, I’m pretty much just eye candy,” said Tim Burchett of Tennessee, dryly. “I’m out here to build up the confidence in all the other players: When they see me, they go, ‘Hell, at least I’m not as bad as Burchett.”
If Republicans do win this year, the MVP will undoubtedly be freshman Rep. Randy Feenstra of Iowa, even if he strikes out at every at bat and commits untold errors Wednesday night. Feenstra made his biggest contribution to the GOP squad back in November, when he won his election against Democrat — and former minor league pitcher — J.D. Scholten.
The Congressional Baseball Game begins at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at Nationals Park. Tickets start at $10.
Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.