Thursday, June 21, 2001

Congressional Baseball - an American Pastime

Congressional Baseball – an American Pastime
Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
June 21, 2001

Having more fun than a human being should be allowed, two of my passions – baseball and politics were combined as I attended the 40th annual Congressional Baseball Game, played tonight, Thursday, June 21, at Prince Georges’s Stadium in Bowie, Md. – the home of the Orioles Double-A Bowie Bay Sox.

In a game that mattered as much to the over 60 participating Congressman as a campaign fundraiser, spirits were high while the elected officials could not have been more congenial and affable.

But this was serious business as the game featured four umpires, hustle – as witnessed by a professional-looking headfirst slide into third base, players/legislators running out batted balls, steals and attempts to turn the double play.

So serious that Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), wearing a Potomac Cannons uniform, who I cover in my duties as a journalist, said “make sure that looks like a line drive in print,” with a grin on his face after dunking a bleeder into the outfield and was subsequently replaced by designated pinch-runner Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL).

Putnam, by the way, at 27, is the youngest member in the House – barely looks old enough to order a beer legally. Joking with another reporter from North Carolina, we knew Putnam had to be at least 25 to wear the uniform, but hey, let’s see some ID fella!

The game was slated for a first pitch, but the combination of a House vote and traffic – big surprise, delayed the arrival of most of the members. Oddly enough there were about 10 members on the field when I arrived at about Hmm – who wasn’t on the House floor to vote? Just a thought.

The players were decked out in uniforms from Major League teams, minor league teams, college teams and even a high school team, as evidenced by Putnam (probably his original uniform). Sadly, as a Republican and a lifelong Mets fan, it pained me to see two Republicans in Yankee pinstripes – something my mother would have liked and the lone Met uniform was worn by a Democrat – Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY), who was brutalized by fans. (Should have changed his last name.)

On the other hand California Republican Rep. Richard Pombo seemed to have the biggest cheering section in the stands, complete with signs looking like a throw back to Banner Day at Shea Stadium.

And like a kid in a candy store, I couldn’t get enough of the conversations with some of the most powerful men and women in America. Conversations about baseball – whether or not they would start, come off the bench or the ability of the DC-metro area to sustain and support a Major League team. The bi-partisan consensus was, yes, not only can the DC-metro area support a Major League team it is long overdue to get a team.

“It’s a great baseball town. They’re starving for it,” said Illinois Democrat Rep. Marty Russo, who wore a Chicago White Sox uniform.

“DC is a major city. Any place that can have the hunger for so many years will thrive. The selfish response is I’m a big fan and would attend,” said New York Republican Rep. John Sweeney in a Yankees uniform.

Without a doubt, this was a night of baseball, not politics as Rep. Russo and Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN) in his Indiana Hoosiers uniform, were discussing baseball across the foul lines and not policy across party lines.

This was not a night of position papers, but who would play what position. Not a night about strategic defense initiatives, but just defense. Not a night of pitching policy, but pitch counts.

Standing at home plate and facing the outfield, the Republicans naturally occupied the first base dugout – the one to the right, while the Democrats used the third base dugout – to the left. The public address announcer introduced the Republicans first, as the visiting team, determined by the fact that the Democrats won last year’s game. Then the Democrats were introduced – just like an all-star game.

I think the game should be played in alternating stadiums – one year in Bowie, Md. and the next year at G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va. the home of the Potomac Cannons. The Democrats should be home team in Maryland while the GOP should be the home team in Virginia.

Adding to the excitement, if that were at all possible, was Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig throwing out the first pitch, having donned a Bay Sox jersey for the moment. Selig gave a number of interviews to network television stations, cable TV as well as radio. Not only did I meet the Commish, but I had a quick two-minute interview with him with regards to bringing baseball back to the DC-metro area and possible constriction or relocation of teams.

We also discussed big market vs. little market noting the success of the Seattle Mariners without the likes of Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez). Selig said that Seattle should not be considered a small market and that their current pace would be difficult to maintain over a 162-game season. I suggested that the Minnesota Twins, a legitimate small market franchise, were playing sold ball, having been in first place most of the season, but Selig said “the season’s barely half over. Don’t rule out the Indians.”

The Indians are my dear friend Troy’s favorite team, who I would be remiss if I didn’t mention. Troy would have had as much fun as I did schmoozing with the Congressmen as I did all evening on the field and in the dugout throughout the game.

Although not in uniform, I did meet Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) and future team member Rep. Melissa Hart (R-PA). Hart, a freshman representative having just won her House seat last November, said she hopes to play in next year’s game.

Interestingly enough, and I will take a partisan swipe here, the Republicans had three women on their roster, while the Democrats, the alleged party of the people, had none. In fact, the three lady Republican House members, Rep. Shelley Moore Caputo (R-WV), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) each got into the game. Ros-Lehtinen, resembling Eddie Gaedel, and Wilson received huge ovations as they strode to home plate to take their turns at bat. Each of the three was delightful to talk to and interview.

The game itself was dominated by the GOP, led by the professional arm of Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK). Largent, an NFL Hall of Famer and one of the great receivers of all time, tossed a gem, yielding only one run, striking out seven and walking no one in a seven inning complete game shellacking of the Democrats 9-1. Wearing a Tulsa Drillers uniform, Double-A for the Texas Rangers, and in Texas Ranger colors, Largent wore number 34 and looked every bit like Nolan Ryan.

During the post-game party, which was invite only, Largent was presented with the MVP plaque. Minnesota Rep. Martin Sabo, coach of the losing Democrats, wished Largent well in his quest to become governor of Oklahoma in order to get him out of the House and off the GOP team.

Later during the party, Tim Johnson, PR aide to Rep. Mike Oxley (R-OH) said there would now be an 11-month recruitment period to replace Largent on the hill – that’s pitcher’s mound, not The Hill. And kudos to Johnson and Peggy Peterson, another Oxley aide for their stellar organizational skills as the game went off without a hitch, save for the tardiness of the players.

The party featured a spread of chicken, beef barbecue, pork barbecue, Cole slaw, Caesar Salad, traditional garden salad, beans, rolls, apple pie, three flavors of ice cream with toppings, beer, wine, soda and water.

Naturally, ESPN’s Baseball Tonight was on and the elected officials could track the play of their favorite teams. Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) talked excitedly about his Mariners and said nothing good about the departed Griffey, Jr. A real fan, and he spoke candidly. A nice guy too. Also in the good guy column is Rep. John Baldacci (D-ME) who, in a University of Maine uniform, bragged about the Black Bears, as Maine has no Major League team.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), sporting an Arizona Diamondbacks uniform, and I shared stories about one of my political heroes, Sen. Barry Goldwater. Having met and interviewed the late Arizona conservative six years ago at his home in Arizona, I was able to discuss Goldwater on a personal level with Flake, who headed up the Goldwater institute for seven years before getting elected to the House. Flake couldn’t have been nicer.

Nor could have Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who ironically was clad in a Trenton Thunder uniform. Ironic because the Thunder is the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox and Smith is a Yankee fan. Smith, as it turns out, when not in his home district in New Jersey, lives in Herndon of all places – my central coverage area with the paper.

Overall, this was quite an experience including meeting a team of Korean documentary filmmakers (I’ve coined a new word – documentariests) who were creating a documentary about the American Congress and how they work hard, as I was told by their translator an American-educated Korean. In fact I provided some background for his team about some of the representatives and baseball as well. Some of the rules were altered for the game – such as a liberal substitution policy.

Meeting the Commissioner and Congressmen was exciting, now I just hope the pictures I took and had taken come out to go along with the balls I got signed – one by Bud Selig and one by most of the Republicans. I’m looking forward to next year’s game.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer living in Sterling, VA.